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Who Gives Us the Authority?

The question of power echoes throughout history.

 by Carol Howard Merritt

Gospel Reading: Matthew 21:23-32

For Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011: Year A−Ordinary 26

As a high school senior, I attended a large, nondenominational congregation where I felt a call to go into the ministry. I was excitedly getting ready for four years of religious studies when I went to the Sunday night church service one last time to say goodbye to my friends.

Call from Elsewhere

As the service began, my giddiness quickly faded and my heart began to ache. A male church member also happened to be going into the ministry. He didn’t have a degree and would not be earning one—but he would attend a six-week church-planting program, where he would learn everything he needed to know to be a good pastor. The hour was dedicated to surrounding him, blessing him, and sending him off.

I drove home, sorting out my experience. I didn’t expect any grand ceremony, but it was difficult to be completely ignored.

My evangelical church didn’t believe that women ought to be ministers, so there was no reason for them to recognize the calling blazing inside of me. But I couldn’t disregard it, because it didn’t seem to come from my church. It originated somewhere else. After a few years of struggling, my theology changed and I sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Dose of Empowerment

Some of my male emergent friends, who also grew up evangelical, don’t understand why I needed that external validation from an outside body. Why did I need that all that bureaucracy? Why didn’t I just plant a church, like they did?

It might be hard for them to see how privileged they were, with a culture surrounding, encouraging, and blessing them. In contrast, on a good day I was ignored and on bad day I was chastised for my calling.

I needed a good dose of empowerment. Though the ordination process could be infuriating, at least there was a process for me.

Plus there was the cold, hard fact that I was entering a profession with a terrible history of sexism. Even when women have all kinds of credentials, they often get paid much less than their male colleagues. At least with an R-E-V in front of my name, I’d have some chance of an even playing field. I would be able to pay off my student loans and wouldn’t have to eat dog food in my retirement.

Wrestling with Authority

Religious people wrestle with authority. Our traditions, privilege, educations, histories, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicities form us in different ways. Within the church, we struggle with questions of servanthood, power, empowerment, and calling. We ask ourselves these difficult questions: Where does our authority come from? How does authority manifest itself?

We are people who have the audacity to attempt to utter the Word of God, and we need to consider, “Who gives us that right anyway?”

The question is an ancient one. It echoes from temple, as the chief priests and elders asked Jesus, “Who gave you this authority?” It was a loaded inquiry, embedded with the understanding: we certainly didn’t give it to you.

The Hardest Question

In our current religious landscape, it’s vital that we keep asking, “Who gives us the authority to do the things that we do?” Is this an autonomous, independent calling that I received from God, without the external discernment of a community? Is it something that we earned through solely through education? Is it something that we are born into, because of the way that we look? Is it something we gained from going through bureaucratic hoops? What gives us that daring hope that we can preach the word of God?

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at


  1. Jeff says:


    You went a compleatly different way with the scripture than I was going. However, it was refreashing to be reminded of my call experiance. And to ask myself about the issues of authority. Thanks for that! Perhaps our people need to be reminded of what gives them “athority” to preach the good news in their places of work and play! Good insight.

  2. Which way were you going with it, Jeff?

  3. Kurt Lammi says:

    Thank you for this post. The call process at seminary is a good example to reflect on in light of this text. (How can we help the people in the pews who didn’t go to seminary reflect on this text, though?)

    My comment is actually a reply to the video blog on this text. (I didn’t see a comment section for that. Maybe THQ can add one.) In the video, Tony and Russell say that, last week, we heard that it doesn’t matter how long you work, you get paid the same – but, in this week’s text, it sounds like there is a hierarchy. (The prostitutes and tax collectors will get into the kingdom of heaven before the elders and chief priests who are questioning Jesus.) I have to disagree. I don’t think it’s a hierarchy at all. Last week, we did hear that everyone got paid the same. Some rejoiced at the generosity of the landowner. Some grumbled because they were envious. But they all got the same thing. Here, it’s the same. The tax collectors and prostitutes rejoice (I imagine) at the generosity of the one giving them the kingdom of heaven, and the chief priests and elders are grumbling. Everyone still has the same thing. In other words, Jesus says that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of heaven _before_ the chief priests and elders. He doesn’t say they will enter the kingdom of heaven _instead_ of them. Everyone is in. Some people just see it in their lives before others do. They rejoice at it – while others grumble and are envious.

  4. it is always interesting to see what other peopel are thinking about the text as we go through the week leading to Sunday’s sermon. i appreciated your story…I heard the call at 14…didn’t really like school…long and winding path to ordination…still trying to figure out what God is doing with me after 30 years in the ministry…thanks for giving me some thoughts for this week Carol

  5. Rev. Russell says:

    Carol, I too appreciate hearing your story, and I wish it were not so but I think even if women do have the R E V in front of their names, a level playing field is still a long way off. Here’s to us all working and praying for that equity.

    I had a question about your reading of the text. The chief priests and the elders are ask Jesus by what authority Jesus teaches, then Jesus ask them what authority they thought John the Baptist had–is this a way of turning the question back on the religious leaders? And/Or is the question of Jesus’ authority and the question of our own authority two different questions?

    Thought provoking,

    Thanks Carol

  6. Neal Presa says:

    On Authority and the Teaching office of the Church:

    Why is it that in our Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, to have an ordained elder mount the pulpit to preach requires merely the authorization of the local council/Session, but to have that same ordained elder preside at the Lord’s Table requires both the authorization of the local Session and the regional presbytery? What is substantively distinctive about the pulpit vis-a-vis the Table when we speak of authority? From whence does the authority come in the ministry of Word AND Sacrament? If from the Church derivative from Christ’s own priestly authority, who is the Church?

  7. Jennifer Johnson says:

    Hi Carol and the rest of my brothers and sisters,

    As a ‘woman of the cloth’ who is also in the PC(USA) I certainly know about that authority. I remember serving my first church in Mississippi when a woman in the community (not a member of my church) defended my authority to someone. She said (and I’m paraphrasing) “No man would come to this town to serve the church, so they had no choice but to call a woman. On judgment day, it won’t be the women who are judged because they served God; it will be the men who are judged because they refused to serve and left the women no choice.”

    Holy Crap!!! I didn’t know whether to thank her or beat my head against the wall at the so-sincere argument which was, at the same time, completely clueless as to how God called and equipped me to the ministry.

    For myself I’ll be focusing on those two brothers in the parable-maybe have a little fun with what’s more important preaching that word or living it out.

  8. Rebekah Eckert says:

    Your last comment made me laugh, Jennifer, as that’s where we went in our bible study group too.

    The whole conversation actually made me feel sympathetic for those chief priests and elders. “You got all the answers? Yikes, sometimes we’re just tired of listening to the complaints of the congregation, Jesus, and we don’t want to deal with tough questions.”

  9. John says:

    I think we wrestle with the distance/closeness of authority vs. power. I think sometimes we use to two as though they were one. Power can be either positive or negative, although at first blush, at least for me, it conjures up images of coercion and force. The idea of “authority figures” for others can be limiting. Even the adage of questioning authority has some challenges. Or the authority of Scripture which is at least derived from a nod to being inspired by God, supported by the Apostles’ teaching, and whether or not it was actually being used by the early church.

    Can one have authority, but no power? More likely that a person can have power, but no authority.

    I wonder how we begin to talk about authority as something both intrinsic, conferred, and demonstrated to/for/by Jesus.

    I also wonder if we can differentiate between a person having authority vs. a person’s actions having authority. It seems as though authority is attached to the action, rather than the person, although enough authoritative action will most likely lead to public perception that an individual has authority.

    Depending on which translation you use, Luke 4:32 suggests that people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he spoke with authority or his message had authority. KJV translates authority as power.

    Interesting stuff…

How do you read?