The term ‘authority’ has been hard to define throughout human history. More to this theoretical problem, the concept of authority itself has always been at the roots of so many disagreements and wars all over the world.
Due to the way it has been defined, understood or misunderstood, used or misused, the concept of authority has always been very problematic.
While defining the term ‘authority’, many scholars have ended up with the entanglement of the concepts of power and legitimacy, whereas these terms are different from each other, they are very often defined as if one is a function of the other and vice versa.
Generally speaking, power is the ability, whether personal or social, to get things done. On the other hand, legitimacy is a socially constructed and psychologically accepted right to exercise power.
Hence, a person can have legitimacy but no actual power, such as when a legitimate leader resides in exile. Like wise, a person can have actual power without legitimacy as in some cases where someone appropriates the symbols of the office of a certain authority.
Under normal circumstances, an authority is a leadership with both power and legitimacy. But in simple terms and at the bottom line; authority is just an occasion to serve man kind, though it has not been always so.
It is interesting to note however, that the above elements of power and legitimacy are not always a guarantee that a leader shall exercise that power over his or her subjects very smoothly.
There is another equally important aspect which is psychological and in the mind of the one being ruled: he or she must accept and acknowledge the authority over him or her as authentic.
Whenever one of the above ingredients of authority is absent, the exercise of authority becomes problematic to the point of being rejected by the people to whom it is intended.
This has been the cause of many problems as manifestations, graves, rebellions, just to mention a few. It is therefore very important for those in authority to know how to present themselves and their authority to the people they lead.
Every time the authority is well exercised, it meets with lots of appreciation from the people under that authority. This has been the case for so many good leaders.
As far as authentic authority is concerned, the world boasts of the legacy of a leader per excellence in Jesus Christ. The way he presented himself and his authority to the people who listened to him has no equal in human history.
On many occasions, he taught people in a way that touched them. In this he made a very big difference compared to the scribes and Pharisees of his time.
This was observed in a special way by the people of Capernaum on one Sabbath as he was teaching them. After watching him and listening to his teaching for hours, the people unanimously agreed that they were listening to a great authority before them.
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). Looking at each other, they continued to wonder: “Here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it” (Mk 1:27).
This means that Jesus presented his authority, power and legitimacy in a way that the people had never seen before. He was so convinced and convincing in what he said that he touched the hearts of his listeners.
Here arises the question which is very relevant to our situation today as far as authority is concerned. What does it mean to teach, to speak or to act with the kind of authority whose power and legitimacy is admired and appreciated by those under the same authority?
How can authority be presented today such that it can touch the hearts of those it is intended for? Many good leaders are known to pay much attention to the answers given to these questions.
When we compare and contrast the teaching of Jesus with that of different authorities, we notice some distinguishing qualities: his teaching is man cantered, and his words and reactions are from the heart and not just from the head.
Jesus focuses on the spirit and not on the letter of the law. He inspires a positive change of heart in his hearers. He teaches with absolute conviction in his message, because he knows that it is in accordance with the mind of God and is the truth.
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen”(Jn 3:11).
Unlike Jesus, the scribes and many other authority holders get their knowledge from their various long and intricate studies. As a result, most of what they say is from the head and not from the heart.
There is a difference as well on the level of the content of the message. Whereas the scribes seek to protect their authority and to apply the prescription of the Law to the letter, Jesus goes deeper to find out the spirit, the original intent of the law which can help man to become a better person.
Consequently Jesus is able to discover the positive value that the law seeks to protect whereas the scribes busy themselves with words and their minutest applications without paying attention to the truthfulness and to the relevance of what they request from the people.
It is precisely because of Jesus’ intention that people found his teaching and authority liberating and good news in contrast to the authority of the scribes which was a heavy burden to them.
And here lies the great lesson on authentic authority; it liberates the people and makes them grow instead of being a heavy burden for them.