Authority in Mutual Ministry

by Letty M. Russell. Original appearance in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Spring, 1986.


How can church leaders break out of familiar patterns of paternalism and autonomous patterns of authority?

Recently I taught in a continuing education program for church professionals on the west coast. In one of the sessions we tried out a model of contextual Bible study that was based on a mutual sharing of life stories and situations that seemed to illuminate the text and its context. One pastor raised his hand and said, "I try to get others to speak in Bible study, but the women, and sometimes even the men, defer to me as having authority. What should I do?"

Every day we find such examples of the problems of authority in the life of the church. Every day we solve them in different ways, using different models for ministry and for Christian community. The problems and solutions are not new. They lead to reinterpretation of the traditions within the Bible as well as in the subsequent life of the church. But the challenges to patterns of authority take on new forms in contemporary society.

In the short space of this article I would like to explore the question of ministerial authority. After establishing a working description of authority and power, I will try to describe the difference between the exercise of authority in ministry through paternalism and partnership. Then I will return to the pastorís question and any clues we might find to help in this search for mutual ministry.



There is no one definition of authority, although there seems to be some consensus that the Latin word auctoritas derives from the verb augere, meaning "to augment." Hannah Arendt tells us that the concept of authority in Western civilization derives from the Roman idea that those in authority constantly augment the foundation of the ancestors or founders of Rome.1 The English word author retains this sense that the one in authority imaginatively builds upon the prior work of others. God, the author and builder of life, is the authority in our lives as Christians. Those who share in God's work are stewards of God's continuing creative and redemptive activity (Eph. 1:9-10; 2:10, 19-20).

Working descriptions. For the purposes of this article I will follow Richard Sennett in describing authority as a relational bond that leads persons to give assent without coercion or persuasion because they find security in the real or imagined strength of others.2 Emphasis here is on the relational bond that leads persons to respond with assent or obedience to the authority of, for instance, a person, business firm, government, church, or set of writings. Authority inspires obedience because persons consider those in authority to have legitimate power based on their ability to act for the common good. When, in the process of social interaction, force is used, this is an indication that the authority is no longer fully in control and must be supported by other means of evoking assent or legitimacy.

For the purposes of this article I will describe power as the ability to accomplish desired ends through various means such as authority, coercion, persuasion, and the like. Authority and power overlap in their meaning because to have authority is also to have power. Electric power carries the same type of meaning. It is "power" because it makes things happen when it is "turned on." In our society power is usually understood as domination or the use of force to control others. But it can just as easily be understood as the capacity for self-actualization.

When the latter aspect is stressed by feminist writers, they usually speak of empowerment: self-actualization through sharing power with others.3 When these writers describe power, emphasis is placed on the desired end or the action necessary to attain it, in contrast to an emphasis on the bond of assent in authority.


Source of authority.

The self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit is the source of authority in our lives as Christians. Thus the foundation of our lives is the faith claim that there is a God who is the source of life and love and that this God has chosen to be with us as Emmanuel. As Karl Barth has reminded us in The Humanity of God, God wants in fact to be our partner and savior and has shown this in choosing to share our humanity. In the New Testament we hear of a God whose authority works through the power of love. In hearing the story of that love in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we "fall in faith." (Subsequent theological development has stressed the image of a God who rules through the power of domination-"an omnipotent, impassible, immutable, Caesar-god," in John Skinner's words-rather than a God of suffering love and servant ministry. )4

Christians often speak of the Word of God as the source of authority in their lives and actions. Here they are referring to the biblical story as a witness to God's actions, and especially to the gospel story of the One whom we call "the Living Word." God's Word has authority because it has been made known by God and experienced by the people of faith as life-giving, as a source of strength, a foundation for their lives. As a Christian community we near the biblical message as the Word of God when it is inspired by God's Spirit so that faith shapes life. Because we trust God as the source of life, we also trust God's Word and are willing to wrestle with it in order to respond faithfully in our own context of obedience. As Phyllis Bird puts it, the Scriptures are "the place where the church hears God speaking and discerns God's presence when their words are studied and pondered and questioned-and opened for us by the Stranger who accompanies us on our journey and breaks bread with us. "5


Authority of Jesus' ministry.

Each Christian community has a pattern of criteria for what constitutes an authoritative witness to God in Jesus Christ. Usually that configuration includes the resources of scientific knowledge and human experience as well as those of Scripture and church tradition. David Kelsey has pointed out that there are limits on theological interpretation as it seeks to discern this pattern of meaning. These limits are rooted in the need to continue to witness to the gospel message, and thus the criteria must reflect the biblical and church tradition, while at the same time being intelligible and seriously imaginable in a particular cultural setting.6

Whatever the pattern of criteria may be for a particular church, it is not that pattern that has authority. It is the relationship between that pattern and the divine self-revelation of God that gives it authority and limits its claims. For Christians, an important criterion is consistency with the use of authority in Jesus' ministry. When we look at the Gospels, we discover that Jesus has authority as the agent inaugurating the kingdom of God (God's new creation). Although the kingship metaphors were drawn from the contemporary social patterns, the content of this kingship is quite different-so different, in fact, that the disciples never seemed to have understood it and were always waiting for Jesus to expel the Romans and claim his throne. In an article on authority in community, Madeleine Boucher wrote that Jesus "rejected every authority role of his patriarchal tradition which the Messiah had been expected to assume."7 His authority (exousia) and power (dynamis) were gifts of God for the work of ushering in the new age. Jesus had authority to forgive sins, cast out unclean spirits, and preach the good news. He taught with authority' because he spoke of God's will directly and not only on the basis of scriptural interpretation (Mark 1:22).

The mutual ministry of the church shares Jesus' authority only when its witness in word is lived out in actions of love.

The Gospels describe power in Jesus' ministry as the power to heal. There is no indication that he used his power to dominate. Rather, he was one who proclaimed release to the captives and brought sight to the blind (Luke 4:18-19). He proclaimed God's radical reversal of the status quo: the very ones who were the least in society were to be empowered for new life and partnership in God's kingdom. The authority of Jesus' ministry became the authority of his disciples and followers. They were to forgive, to cast out evil, to heal, and to preach good news. The authority to perform this ministry of service and care is the life-style of Jesus Christ.

The mutual ministry of the church shares this authority only when its witness in word is lived out in actions of love so that the Word of God continues to be incarnated in our world. In this sense the authority of faith, which builds on this dual foundation, is every bit as much dependent on its orthopraxy as upon its orthodoxy.8 A teaching evokes our consent when we see it leading toward the actualization of Christ's ministry in both word and deed.



When we ask how this understanding of authority in community is expressed in Christian churches today, we discover instead that in many ways we are strongly influenced by the idea of authority over community. It seems that we have become the inheritors of a patriarchal paradigm or understanding of authority, which was shaped in the social world of the ancient Near East, rather than the partnering paradigm exhibited in Jesus' own critique of hierarchy and in his solidarity with the outcasts of society.

Paternalism is an authority of false love that uses people's need for strength and assurance to dominate them through a relationship of dependence.

In a patriarchy, a person's place in the social hierarchy is determined by blood ties to the elder males, who claim obedience through these ties. Although this tradition was called into question by Jesus' teaching about God's kingdom and by some of the models of early church life, it was reinforced by the culture of the Roman Empire as well as its theological traditions, whose image of God was that of a ruling patriarch.

In Western medieval society that paradigm of authority was patrimonial. That is, control, which still rested in the hands of the eldest males, took the form of property handed down from one generation to the next through this male line. According to Richard Sennett, the advent of modern industrial society has resulted in the gradual erosion of patrimony, so that we now live in a Western world where two patterns of authority predominate: paternalism and autonomy.9

Sennett describes paternalism as an authority of false love because it offers nurture and care but results in dependence. He describes autonomy as an authority without love because it rebels against paternalism and seeks the freedom of the individual from dependence on anyone other than him or her own self. In my analysis of the ways professional church ministry can function I will be making use of these descriptions. I will also contrast them to partnership as an authority of freedom that responds to people's need for solidarity and care by empowering them through a relationship of mutuality.

Paternalism. Paternalism is an authority of false love that uses people's need for strength and assurance to dominate them through a relationship of dependence. Paternalism is an authority of false love that uses people's need for strength and assurance to dominate them through a relationship of dependence. It seems to me that paternalism is a predominant pattern of authority in ministry. It allows the clergy and other church leaders to continue to use the vocabulary and images of the patriarchal traditions even though that basis of authority has disappeared.

Even when these leaders exercise power as domination over others, they are able to use the language of fatherly caring to evoke feelings and responses of dependence and thus can perform the caring, nurturing, serving tasks of ministry without any threat to their leadership positions. They can control which groups meet and when, what curriculum they will use, etc., even when there is no need for such care.

Persons do not need the kind of support and care that keeps them dependent, uncertain, and needy, but that which seeks the elimination of dependence so that persons can care for themselves and others. For instance, it would be paternalistic to use the authority of one's knowledge and expertise to keep people dependent by refusing to preach or teach in such a way that a congregation has the opportunity of understanding and acting out the biblical story. When the hearers are only handed a message, rather than being encouraged to seek it out themselves through group story and action, they remain dependent on the messenger and do not learn to carry out the ministry of the Word together with others.

Autonomy. An extreme form of authority would be the paternalistic offer to care for people as a father, while carrying out many actions and policies that hurt them and keep them dependent. The opposite extreme is autonomous authority, in which a person projects an image of strength, appearing to be totally self-sufficient and invulnerable; needed by others but never needing others. This form of individualism is a valued and envied trait in our society. It is small wonder, therefore, that we seem to forget that all persons are interdependent. Carol Gilligan reminds us that growth in independence is part of a maturing process whose goal should be full interdependence; it should not be an end in itself, for those in ministry or for any other group of persons.10

In preaching or teaching, an autonomous relationship of authority to the listeners would most likely involve a display of the preacher's skills and knowledge in such a way that the preacher appears self-possessed and all-knowing. The bond of authority formed through this image of superiority is likely to be one in which everyone assumes that the speaker is so powerful and full of wisdom that he or she cannot be challenged openly. Unfortunately, this in turn discourages those who know that they are dependent on others from any attempt to develop a healthy independence of thought and action in the life of the church.

All persons need to develop independence in their lives, but being subject to the autonomous authority of pastors, employers, or government officials is more likely to reinforce feelings of inferiority and dependence. It follows that the exercise of autonomous authority is not a creative alternative for ministry because it leads persons to deny their co-responsibility with God for their neighbors and for the world. Nor, as we have seen, is paternalism helpful to the life and growth of the Christian community. Paternalistic authority continues to use patriarchal imagery to justify the dependent status of laypersons, and especially of women. In my view partnership represents an alternative paradigm of authority that would foster mutual ministry and interdependence.

Partnership. Partnership is an authority of freedom that uses people's need for solidarity and care to empower them through a relationship of mutuality. This would not necessarily be the only alternative to paternalistic and autonomous forms of authority. Yet it seems to me that in bonds of assent based on partnership we can be more responsive to God's actions in freely becoming partners with humanity, as well as to the actions of Jesus in reaching out to restore human wholeness and community. In my books on partnership I describe it as a new focus of relationship in Jesus Christ that sets us free for others. Like faith, partnership or koinonia is a relationship of trust with God and others that comes to us as a gift of Christ's love. Like faith it is "caught, not taught." Koinonia is a word used frequently in the New Testament for sharing with someone in something, and it usually stresses a common bond in Jesus Christ, which establishes mutual community. The emphasis is on a two-sided relationship of giving or receiving, participation or community (I Cor. 10:16-17).

In this new focus of relationship there is continuing commitment and common struggle in the context of a wider community. Such relationships happen as a gift; nevertheless we know that commitment is more likely to grow where there is responsibility, vulnerability, equality, and trust among those who share a diversity of gifts and resources. Because partnerships are living relationships that share the "already/not yet" character of new creation, they are always in process and never finished, as they draw us together in common struggle and work, involving risk, continuing growth, and hopefulness in moving toward a goal or purpose transcending the group. By definition, partnership involves growing interdependence in relation to God, persons, and creation so that we are constantly in interaction with a wider community of persons, social structures, values, and beliefs that may provide support, correctives, or negative feedback. There is never complete equality in such a dynamic relationship, but a pattern of equal regard and mutual acceptance of different gifts among partners is essential.

Authority in partnership grows in a community where people take time to be partners with one another. Using preaching as an example: This might mean that mutuality would be developed by group Bible study in preparation for the sermon. The sermon in turn would be a sharing of community action, insight, and questioning. Rather than providing answers to what the congregation should believe and do, the sermon would make use of the preacher's theological training and gifts to lift up the ongoing life of that congregation as part of God's continuing action. The stories of the participants could become the vehicles for biblical interpretation as the community discovers its mutual ministry of preaching.



Paternalism is a pale imitation of the old patriarchal paradigm of authority over community. In our society it has become a means of covering up alienation through empty rhetoric and family cliche's. In the church it is an invitation to the sin of dependence and immaturity in faith and action. Autonomy, as rebellion against dependence through claims to egoistic authority outside of community, has led to equally disastrous results for the health of our technological society. In the church it is also an invitation to the sin of pride and selfishness, masked in the rhetoric of objectivity and excellence. Even though glimpses of partnership as authority in community are as yet few and far between, they offer a genuine invitation to the freedom of Jesus Christ, whose love and acceptance sets us free to bear our own burdens and those of our neighbors in mutual ministry (Gal. 6:2).

Perhaps it was this style of mutual ministry that the pastor from the west coast was looking for when he spoke about his difficult role as an authority figure in a Bible study group. As we look at his predicament in the light of our analysis of the problems of authority in ministry, it would seem that there are some principles for action that might help him develop a ministry of shared authority in Bible study and in the life of the congregation. Each of us would have a different set of principles for partnership in ministry, but here I would like to suggest four that might help that pastor and all of us as we seek to empower others by changing accustomed styles of paternalistic and autonomous authority.


Begin from the underside. If the gospel for the poor and marginal of society is the good news that they are not marginal in God's sight and are welcome in the kingdom of God, then it is likely that the poor and marginal are those who can help us hear it anew as good news. "Listening to the losers" not only helps us to understand the Bible more clearly, it also places us in a position to know the effects of domination and paternalism. It makes us aware of the wasted talents and lack of self esteem among those who their lives being treated as children because of race, sex, class, or physical disability. In exchanging places with the "least of these" by role and job exchange we can become suspicious of our own rhetoric and sensitive to the feelings of women, for example, who do not speak in Bible study because their ideas are not considered important.

When I worked as a pastor in the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York City, I had to contend with my role in built-in structures of paternalism. Not only was I theologically educated, I had been sent to the church by the New York Presbytery and not called by the people. In addition I was white and middle-class in a community that was almost entirely black, Hispanic, and poor.

Besides working to move the congregation out of "mission dependency," I sought to develop a team ministry as a model of partnership in the life of the church. In order to share the gifts of each person on the team it was necessary to share tasks so that each person not only exercised his or her own skills and responsibilities, but also learned those of the others. A black woman on welfare became the secretary and Christian educator. A Puerto Rican man who had been doing factory work became not only the janitor of the church but also a Spanish evangelist and worship leader. I did some of each of their jobs, and they learned my' job of education, preaching, and evangelism. By risking the possibility of gaining new skills we were all able to develop a partnership in ministry that welcomed the many gifts of the people by its example.


Follow the questions. In a group study context we can start by staying quiet and beginning with the questions and observations of others rather than with answers to questions that were not asked. Keeping quiet can help the leader listen for the questions and let them be the guide for a discussion in which the group searches for answers. In following the questions of others we signal a genuine regard for their struggles of faith, with the result that more people begin to risk speaking out. At the same time, such attentive listening helps the group find its own collective authority because we come to have "ears to ear" when a consensus is reached on an issue or question of importance. Such moments of group consensus can become starting points for action and ministry in the life of the congregation and foundational material for congregational sermons and continuing theological reflection.

Once in East Harlem I met with a group of women around a kitchen table to discuss a question that had come to us from a study group in the World Council of Churches in Geneva. They had sent us a letter asking what salvation means in East Harlem and we made this question our own. For many people in this multiracial ghetto of poverty it would mean the possibility of "coming out ahead" in their struggle for survival, perhaps hitting the numbers or getting a job. For others it would mean religious revival or the heavenly music of a storefront Pentecostal church.

For those of us seated at the table it was a big question. How could we name the discovery of new life and hope? What did it mean in our experience? A few "conversion stories" later, one woman suddenly blurted out, "It means that I'm more free!" And that was that. We all agreed: in New York City, and in the year 1967, salvation had to mean freedom - freedom to hope in God, freedom to be somebody. Of course, we needed to do a lot more reflecting on the meaning of such words as these from Paul's letter to the Galatians, "For freedom Christ has set us free" (5:1, RSV). Yet following this question and listening for clues together helped us to speak the gospel in our own context.

Act together. None of us knows the answers to certain deep and difficult questions. It is only the need to be paternalistic that pushes us to assume that we can answer everyone's questions and to feel threatened when we cannot. In admitting that we do not know an answer, we open up the possibility of acting together in little and small ways. That is, we can all go home and try to find out a particular thing, or one or two persons can volunteer to do some research. Or, more importantly, we can devise ways of working together on a project that helps us to "act our way into thinking."

For instance, if the group is puzzled about the increase of violence in the community and in the world, it can study this and share its findings, but, further, it can also undertake to work with victims of violence in a rape crisis center or a home for battered women and children. Being involved in this latter project may help us to get beyond the easy answers so that we can hear the voices of pain and suffering.

This sharing happens with other groups as well. In one church in West Haven a woman pastor was visited recently by a laywoman who wanted to reach out to the physically challenged persons in the church and community. The pastor welcomed this idea and worked with the parishioner to develop the Committee on Ministry with the Aging and Disabled (COMAD). More than half of the committee members were themselves physically challenged and welcomed the opportunity to plan for a ramp fund campaign, education programs, and services of worship. In only a year, one half of the needed money had been raised for renovations and modifications to the church buildings, worship had been led by physically challenged persons, and the youth group had written and presented a play to raise the consciousness of the congregation about this issue.

Demystify the structures. Every important issue in our lives is embedded in social, economic, political and religious structures. If we are going to work toward partnership in community, it is crucial to analyze the way these forces shape our understanding of reality and of the proper use of authority. For instance, the pastor I mentioned at the beginning of this article needed to understand the structures of church and community life that lead to a hierarchical understanding of teaching and decision-making. For if he had understood, he would not have expected women to speak out simply because he requested it.

In order to work as partners people need to be political. That is, they need to look at the way power and authority are functioning in their group and in the larger institutions in order to be able to understand how decision-making works and who should be held accountable. Without such knowledge of structures, people will continue to be dependent on those who rule "for them."

In working to demystify the structures of racism, sexism, and classism that functioned in East Harlem-those that promised a "Great Society" and delivered more unemployment, burned-out buildings, and miseducation - it was necessary for us to begin with the small things in our own lives: rent strikes against particular landlords; Head Start programs in local schools; installation of traffic lights where our children crossed the street. From this beginning people discovered the way city agencies work and began to gain self-confidence in organizing for change. The same demystification process needs to be at work in relation to denominational structures if the church is to be a full partner in the decisions that affect its ministry and mission.

Partnership as an authority of freedom is both difficult and risky. Difficult because it means learning to live out the signs of new creation in a world where we and everyone else have internalized the relationships of domination and subordination. It is risky because church leaders who share power may find that they no longer fit in the church as we know it. The purpose of exercising authority through partnership is not easy success but faithfulness to a God whose authority is exercised in solidarity with the losers of this present world.



1. "What is Authority?" Berneen Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (NewYork: Viking, 1968).

2. Authority. New York: Vintage, 1981, pp. 16-27.

3. For example, see Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon, 1976), p.116; also Letty Russell, "Women and Ministry: Problem or Possibility?" in Christian Feminism: Visions of a New Humanity, ed. Judith L. Weidman (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 75-92.

4. The Meaning of Authority (Washington, D.C.: University Pr. of America, 1983), PP. 1-IC, 68.

5. Phyllis A. Bird, The Bible as the Church's Book (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), pp. 107-108.

6. David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), p.165. See also Letty Russell, "Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretation," in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985).

7. "Authority-in-Community," Mid-Stream 31:3 (July 1982): 415-16

8. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed New York: Seabury, 1975), pp.36-37.

9. Authority, pp.50-62, 84-85.

10. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1982, p.74).

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