Sources of Authority
St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-8) is one of the earliest examples of the impact of the resurrected Jesus on an individual. As Christians believe in God as a personal being, so many believe that God acts within their lives through the mediation of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the congregations of churches of many millions of Christians throughout history and throughout the world, have sought inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and have believed that such inspiration comes from God to help them.
Leaders in the church are those who have been chosen either by their congregation or selection committee according to certain criteria which demonstrates the persons ‘calling’. In the Bible there are many examples of God searching and ‘calling’ various people for specific jobs, (for example, 1 Samuel 3). These religious roles have served the needs of the religious community and provided a pattern for the Christian Church sine New Testament times. All churches select according to the manner in which a person identifies their calling. Priests, Ministers, Bishops, Archbishops and Popes are all selected through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is often known as ‘identifying a vocation’.
The Bible is pivotal to the Christian faith. It therefore takes a central position in the church which recognizes this authority. Normally it is placed on a lectern at the east end or front of the church. In all church services readings are taken from it, and sermons are prepared from these readings. Many Christians will have a Bible in their home and will read a daily lesson from it.
Priests in the Church of England and Catholic traditions wear distinctive clothing which shows they are in the service of God. The clerical collar, or ‘dog collar’ is a visible symbol of their authority given by God and demonstrates the special place they have within their community. Their clothing in worship also signifies this authority, and they are often referred to by special titles such as ‘Father’, vicar or the Reverend.
Various traditions have practices in worship that denote authority – some Christians genuflect to show obeisance, most kneel for prayer and some kiss icons, as in the Orthodox tradition.
In the UK, the authority of the Church of England is recognized through the legislative power it has. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and thus hold a key to enormous influence. Prayers are said each day in Parliament in the House of Commons and there is a Parliamentary Chaplain. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence is opposite the Houses of Parliament and demonstrates the traditional balance of power and authority between church and state. By recognizing the authority of the Church, the state also has church dignitaries present on all state occasions. Even within the media, which is becoming increasingly secularized in the UK, popular television programmes such as Songs of Praise on Sunday, and the daily act of worship or Thought for the Day on national radio, are still popular with both those involved in church worship and those less committed.
The influence of the words of the Pope, and to a lesser extent the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders of Christian denominations, is still considerable, and many world leaders look to their church leaders for guidance on ethical, moral and spiritual and sometimes political matters. Many priests and ministers in are often the focus for change within their community. Their high education, experience of public speaking and willingness to express opinions on subjects with authority means many church leaders become the centre of their communities. A number of church leaders are school governors, town councillors, and spokespersons for various local and national charities.
On a political level, politicians know the power, influence and authority Christian pressure groups can exert. In the USA the ‘Bible belt’ of the southern states of America can and often does, influence the election of the President of the USA. In the UK, politicians are always extremely sensitive to religious issues with political leaders encouraging balanced media coverage of their religious affiliations.