There is a striking sentence in the segment of the Acts of the Apostles that we read this Sunday. ‘We hear that some of our members have disturbed you … they acted without any authority from us’.
It is the first time, as far as I know, such a sentiment occurs in the early Church and it suggests a growing awareness of leadership responsibility. The ‘elders’ in Jerusalem realised that they had to decide: there was no one else to turn to. And, after discussion and discernment, they come out with a startling letter which begins; ‘It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by us …’ Wow! What confidence!
But their use of their new found authority is not one-sided. It had to be received by the people for whom it was meant, in this case, the pagans in Antioch. The letter was read to them and we are told they received it ‘with delight’. In other words, it said exactly what they hoped it would say. It resonated with their experience.
John Henry Newman, illustrious man of the Church in the nineteenth century, developed his teaching on the consent of the laity in matters of religion from what happened in the fourth century, when most of the bishops taught something the laity did not accept, namely, the doctrines of Arius. The bishops had allowed themselves to be swayed by the emperor but the laity had an inner sense that they were wrong. And, as the century wore on, it became clear that the laity were right!
The lesson we draw from both instances is that any exercise of authority – be it on the part of the church or the state – has to be received and welcomed if it is to have lasting effect. The exercise of authority that is based on force simply produces compliance out of fear. It is a passive compliance and non-productive. The word ‘authority’ is derived from the Latin word ‘augere’ which means to increase, to grow. Authority is there to enable something that is beginning to blossom and flourish. That is what parental authority is supposed to do. If the exercise of authority does not help people to grow it is a waste of time and resources. Worse than that, it is a distortion of justice and holds people back from developing.
Nations, painfully and over years and decades, hammer out systems of democracy as a way of making sure leaders act in a way that resonates with people’s sense of what is needed for them to grow. But, alas, we know, all too well, there are still leaders who block this painful endeavour and set their heart on denying people the ‘delight’ that is rightfully theirs.
19 May 2019 Easter Sunday 5 C
Acts 14:21-7 Revelation 21:1-5 John 13: 31-35