By Whose Authority?

Emma Ineson reflects on the basis for leadership, and what that means for us as people who lead in the name of Christ.



In the days following the Brexit vote, BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson tweeted the following: ‘WANTED: For small country heading in unknown direction at dangerous time LEADERSHIP. Applicants need to be available to start immediately’.

Never before have I heard the word ‘leadership’ in the media as much as in the past few months. These have been tumultuous days in politics and the cry everywhere has been ‘We need leadership!’

But what kind of leadership? And who gets to decide?

The recent Labour leadership contest highlights the fact that determining who chooses leaders is no simple matter. Corbyn is elected by grassroots party members, but his parliamentary colleagues refuse to work with him. Michael Gove questions the public’s trust of ‘experts’ as part of his Brexit campaign. Donald Trump is inaugurated as president of the United States; his support from white working-class voters has been largely portrayed as a reaction against the ‘Washington elite’ who have up until now called the shots.

It all boils down to a question of authority. Who has the authority to decide what happens, how do those decisions get made, and by whom?

The issue of authority is big news in the church too.

Determining who has the authority to make decisions about the life of a church is the source of a great deal of strife. Some want to see a change in the church’s teaching—on same-sex partnerships, for example. Others don’t. How do you decide whose view prevails? And who gets to claim that trump card —the authority of the Bible?

Differences in leadership style across denominations often boil down to different understandings of authority and where it comes from. Does the authority to make someone a leader come from the people (such as a congregation), from a group of people (such as a synod), or from individuals who represent God’s authority (such as bishops)?

You decide. (Or maybe you don’t.)

Jesus was noted as having a unique gift that politicians everywhere would give their eyeteeth for: ‘He taught as one who had authority’ (Matt 7.29).

One of the challenges for leaders, especially those of us in church leadership, is to make sure we are operating with a Jesus-like authority, and not with models of leadership and power drawn from more worldly sources.

If leadership is influence,1 all of us, whether in formal leadership or not, have a degree of power and authority that we can wield more or less well (even though it might not feel like it at times). You may not lead a mega-church, but you might lead a cell group. You may not direct a multinational corporation, but you may be a parent ‘leading’ your family. Encouraging small kids to get their shoes on in the morning is exercising leadership within a framework of authority. Or at least trying to.

In the early 20th century, the sociologist Max Weber described three different kinds of authority:

Traditional authority occurs where ‘it has always been so’. People with this kind of authority have often inherited it and can get things done because they have got an intrinsic mandate to do so. A good example would be the monarchy.

Legal-rational authority is that ability to get things done because you’ve been appointed or elected to do so. It’s based on systems, selection procedures, expertise, ability to succeed in the job. Political elections give this kind of authority.

Charismatic authority (not ‘charismatic’ in the sense of spiritual gifts, but of ‘having charisma’) influences by virtue of character, powers of persuasion, qualities, charm, rallying people to achieve things.

So, if we translate that into the parent trying to get their kids’ shoes on:

Traditional authority says, ‘Because I’m the mummy/daddy’.

Legal-rational authority says, ‘I know how to tie shoelaces and am uniquely qualified in this situation to do so’.

Charismatic authority says, ‘Hey! Let’s see who can get their shoes on the quickest so we can go to the park where we’ll have fun!’

You may have all three of these kinds of authority in your work or other leadership roles. You may be the leader because you’ve inherited the post (less likely these days). You may be the leader because you’ve been appointed and you’re qualified to do it. And you may have authority because you have the charisma to get people to do things.

So much for Weber. What about the Word of God?

That’s not going to be easy, because Jesus himself cautioned against using the common words for leadership and authority around at the time: ‘You are not to be called “rabbi”, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your “father” on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called “instructors”, for you have one instructor, the Messiah’. (Matt 23.8-12)

I wonder if he might have added today, ‘And be careful about being called “leaders”, because there is only one Leader’.

A crucial passage for understanding Jesus’s leadership ethos is in Luke 22. The disciples were obsessed with notions of leadership and authority (a bit like us perhaps). When they began to quarrel about it Jesus offered them a very different way of thinking about leadership: ‘The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’.

But not so with you.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t condemn human authority and leadership. He knows that it’s inevitable. Studies have consistently shown that wherever groups of people exist, human nature is such that eventually power will rest in the hands of one or a few. So Jesus doesn’t say ‘Don’t do leadership’, he simply says ‘Don’t do leadership like the world around you. Do it differently’.


What would a ‘not so with you’ view of leadership and authority look like today? What if we allowed God as Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—to shape our approach to leadership and authority?

Leadership with the authority of the Father

One of the distinctive things about a Christian view of leadership is that even though we might derive our authority to lead from all sorts of places, such as elections, selection, authorisation and certification, no human authority is ever absolute.

Any authority we have as leaders is derived from the ultimate authority of God.

In Romans 13, Paul tells Christians to obey their earthly rulers: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’, but he also reminds them that ‘there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God’.

While there are all sorts of questions we might want to ask about whether we are meant to obey earthly authorities if they are leading in ways directly opposed to God, the point still stands: any earthly leadership is relative to that of God the Father, Creator of the whole earth.

We need to remember this when the world around us gets frantic about leadership, and we’re tempted to join in with the hype and allow others to make us (or anyone else) into the Messiah.

That job is already taken.

God is the ultimate authority, the absolute leader, the King, and Christian leaders (of whatever kind) are his ambassadors, sent by him to represent him in the world (see 2 Cor 5.19).

One of my favourite writers on ministry,

Richard Neuhaus,2 says it’s a bit like being appointed as the ambassador of a king whom other nations don’t yet recognise. It’s all slightly awkward. We turn up at court and announce ourselves, but no one else seems to have heard of our king, or know why we’re here. But faithfully represent him we must.

Perhaps this image helps explain some of the tension and downright slog that being a Christian leaders brings sometimes, especially in mission contexts.

We are premature ambassadors.

One day all the world will see and know our king, but until then, our authority as Christians will aways be questioned and challenged. As Neuhaus says, ‘We must resist the temptation to relieve the awkwardness by accepting a lesser authority from another kingdom’.

We may not have the traditional authority of monarchy in the way that Weber understood it, but we do have the spiritual authority of the King of Kings.

Leadership in the name of the Son

The world demands its leaders are successful. Football managers are quickly sacked if they don’t win trophies, politicians anxiously watch their poll ratings, leaders are judged on their statistics and rapidly deposed when they dip.

Success for Christian leadership will look very different to business or politics or football. Like Jesus, who made himself nothing, our leadership is not concerned with power and status, such that we’re prepared to lay down claims to ‘success’ as the world sees it. To most eyes, the ministry of the One we follow looked anything but successful. But what looked like monumental failure—the cross—was actually the greatest victory ever.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that as leaders we shouldn’t seek to be the very best God has made us to be, and we are certainly meant to look for fruits and growth arising from our ministries, but we also need constantly to be checking the motivation for our desire for success.

As we watch our politicians held up and cast down according to the whims and vagaries of popular opinion, we need to be careful to base our authority in our ‘status’ as God’s children, in His calling and qualification for ministry, and in the knowledge that our ability to do the job comes from his strength rather than our own.

Leadership in the power of the Holy Spirit

Weber’s charismatic authority category describes the ‘exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character’ of the leader. It all depends on the personal appeal of the individual.

Politicians and celebrities often rely on a sense of personal charisma to uphold their authority to lead, and when it’s either overdone, or lacking, it gets commented on by the media.

For Christian leaders, ‘charisma’ takes on a very different meaning. We rely not so much on our own personal va-va-voom but on the gifts and empowering of the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into our endeavour.

That’s not to say the Christian leaders should be boring and dull! There is an important role in leadership inspiring people in winsome ways to aim high for the greater future God has promised, holding out a vision of hope. But we do that by the power and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Christian leadership is hard work. If we try to do it in our own power, based on our own charisma, we’ll soon burn out or trip up. But if we draw daily on the resources of the Holy Spirit in exercising leadership in our communities, homes, workplaces, churches, as politicians come and go and leaders and celebrities rise and fall from grace, we will stand firm in the authority of God.


1 Walter Wright, in his book Relationship Leadership, for example, describes leadership as ‘a relationship in which one person seeks to influence the thoughts, behaviours, beliefs or values of another person’.
2 Freedom for Ministry



Reprinted with permission from the November 2016 issue of New Wine Magazine.


Revd Dr Emma Ineson

Emma has been Principal of Trinity since April 2014. As well as previously being a member of the faculty, teaching Practical and Pastoral Theology, Emma actually completed her own ordination training at Trinity in 2000 alongside her husband Mat. She has two children and two dogs and therefore not much spare time, but when she gets some she really loves to cook.

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