How Christian relationships create authority

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 23, 2015

Consider the problems. Contemporary Western men are taught not to exercise authority lest they diminish the status of their wives or other women. Feminists see authority exclusively in terms of political power, regarding themselves as powerless if they are not given prestigious positions. The abuse of power leads to a hatred of authority. And Christians sense that they have no public authority in the contemporary world, which often leads to condemnation.

Even our political leaders constantly pretend to be facilitating what “the people” want, because they know that claiming their own authority to act is an unpopular stance. Then there is the way modern secularists react to the idea of Divine authority—at best an imposition, at worst a hoax. Everywhere, in fact, the concept of authority is in shambles. Can any of us figure this out?

Divine Authority

Actually, we can. But to do so we must realize that Divine authority derives only indirectly from Divine power. It is because God is the author (the beginning, the source) of all things that He has authority over all. It is because God uses His power to bring creatures to life and perfection that He has a claim on creatures to be obeyed. In the deepest Christian sense, God’s authority derives from His sacrificial love. He establishes His claim through self-giving. He suffers in order to redeem.

Once we grasp this fundamental concept we begin to see that authority can be either conventional or inherent. In human societies, of course, we establish structures of governance, and the persons who are placed in positions of power are typically obeyed either out of convention or out of fear of punitive consequences. But on reflection, those who exercise a kind of inherent authority over us are those who give themselves to us in ways that make us better, earning our respect, our allegiance and even our obedience.

In Christianity, authority is modelled in this second and deeper way. God has authority over His people because He leads them out of bondage and saves them from sin. Indeed, he saves them from their very selves and gives them new life. Christ exercises authority over the Church because He sacrificed everything to unite her to Himself as His spotless bride.

This ultimate basis of authority was expressed very clearly by Peter when Our Lord taught that we must eat His Body and Blood to have life:

After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” [Jn 6:67-9; emphasis added]

Male and Female Authority

It is no accident that the central act of Christian worship is the celebration of the Eucharist, in which Christ gives Himself again and again so that we may be united in love with Him. This actuates a process of Divine assimilation which gradually leaves every impurity behind. The Eucharist and the entire sacramental economy transform both the individual soul and the Church into the bride without spot or wrinkle. While Christ is the head or the origin of this union, it is inherently fruitful as the Church herself becomes Christ’s sacramental presence to the world down through history.

This union between Christ and the Church is also the model for the mystery of Christian marriage. St. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Ephesians (see chapter 5). It is precisely through their mutual self-giving in marriage that the man and the woman express both their authority and their subordination to each other. The husband serves as the initiator, the head, the origin of the union and of the fruits that will spring from it. He sacrifices himself to create the overall conditions, the “space” if you will, within which something new and wonderful will grow under his protection. He bodily triggers the procreation of children. In this he images Christ, and this Christic sacrifice is the source and emblem of his authority.

The woman serves as the authentic recipient of and respondent to this love (authentic as in suitable and equal, not like the other creatures: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23)). Her reciprocating love, most perfectly in and through Christ, enables the couple to mirror the life of love in the Holy Trinity, which generates nothing but good. The woman thereby becomes a marvelously fecund source of new life, first to her children (should she be so blessed) and then to those outside the family who grow to depend, as her husband also does, on her own sacrificial willingness to nurture, to form, to cherish, to bless. In this she images the fecundity of the Church. Her sacrificial love likewise becomes the source and emblem of her authority.

Good Books for Men and Women

Let me pause here to call attention to two outstanding new books which richly explore these themes, one for men and one for women. Emmaus Road Publishing gives us Monica Migliorino Miller’s theological reflection on The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church. Miller, a theology professor at Madonna College, examines the covenant relationship between God and man, Christ and the Church, and male and female to uncover the nature and reality of the authority of women. Her book is a serious answer to the feminist attack which pictures Catholic women as enslaved by a Church with a hierarchical structure rooted in the male priesthood.

Meanwhile, Ignatius Press has published Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ Behold the Man: A Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality. Burke-Sivers, known as the Dynamic Deacon, hosts a number of programs on Mater Dei Radio and EWTN. His book concentrates on how male spirituality (and hence male authority) derives from the same covenantal relationship between God and man, Christ and the Church, and male and female; he applies these insights to sin and forgiveness, truth and freedom, the theology of the body, fatherhood, work, and witness to Christ.

I highly recommend both books. But let us continue, for there is still more to be said about how Christian relationships create authority.

Christian Authority

It turns out that the root of authority—in a self-giving that engenders new life in others—is also the secret to the crisis of Christian influence in the world. Insofar as we are content to enjoy our spiritual superiority and leave others to wallow in their sins, we will naturally have little or no influence. Insofar as we exercise Christian authority primarily to separate what we consider the wheat from the chaff, no one will experience new life through our efforts. Thus no one will see in us the inherent authority which is so often eagerly embraced when perceived in wise mentors or experienced guides.

But insofar as we subordinate ourselves to others through sacrificial service, opening them to God’s mercy by extending the Church’s initiative of love, then some at least will begin to respond to us just as the Church responds to her Lord and Savior. This service is to the whole person (body, mind and spirit). Touched by it, many will enter the Church in order to join their response with hers, at length attaining to the full stature of Christ (see Ephesians again, 4:10-16).

This, surely, is what lies behind the emphasis of the last three popes (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) on Divine mercy. All three have sought to shake the Church out of her complacency, to inspire all of her members to reach out to the “peripheries”, to actively offer a vivifying love. This initiative of mercy, this creation of the “space” needed to respond to Christ, this nurturing of the fullness of life in others—this is at once the essential work of Christ in the Church, and of marriage in the family, and of the Church in the world.

This alone is what creates true authority for men and women who are lost. When they experience a sacrificial love marked by joy, they see mirrored in the Christian both something of the Master and something of what they too wish to become. They begin to yearn for another way of being. They recognize the authority of the One who makes all things new (Rev 21:5).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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