The Difference Between Power and Authority - How Confusing the Two Can Hurt Your Ability to Lead

February 22, 2019

The Difference Between Power and Authority - How Confusing the Two Can Hurt Your Ability to Lead

The church world is once again reeling. News of scandals have dominated newsfeeds including everything from stories of clergy abuse to the removal of a high profile leader.  In a world already cynical of the church, especially of its leadership, these recent revelations just add to the growing cultural discontent.

My purpose in writing this article is not to rehash the details, but to talk about an underlying problem that continues to be foundational to each story. The lack of discernment between authority and power.

One of my favourite Eugene Peterson quotes is as follows:

Because leadership in necessarily an exercise in authority, it easily shifts into an exercise in power. The minute it does that, it begins to inflict damage on both leader and led.

There's no doubt that a fine line exists between authority and power. The moment authority moves into the power realm, the potential for real damage escalates, as Peterson so apply states.

In James C. Hunter's book The Servant, he defines power as "the ability to force or coerce someone to do your will, even if they would choose not to, because of your position or your might," while authority is about getting people to do what you want as a result of the influence you carry.

As Hunter illustrates, the power mantra is "Do it or else", while the authority one is "I'll do it for you." Authority, though often rooted in a title or position, is more about the skill of leadership and the character of an individual. It's not a commodity that is bought or sold, or even given away.

Power on the other hand, can be bought and sold. People can be given power simply by the family they are born into or the people they're related to. People can be born into great inheritances and great privilege, all of which comes with a certain amount of power. This is why history is replete with countless stories of failure by power mongers whose character couldn't match their privilege.

Don't misunderstand, power gets things done. It can wield a heavy hand and accomplish great feats, but as time and history have proven, power has within it inherent problems. Here are just a few.

  • It erodes relationships
  • Motivation and inspiration to move others is gone, replaced by coercion and fear
  • Over time, others who hunger for power will become a threat
  • Power has proven over time to create all kinds of unhealthy collateral problems, like office politics to adversarial competition and even fear.
  • When a culture of fear exists, creativity, team-work, vision focus, and a host of other positive necessities for any organization are gone.

This has huge implications for the church world. As leaders, all we are commanded to be and do lies in the area of authority, not power. It's one of the key reasons the Bible is so adamant about character development and holding each other accountable.

Not everyone will agree with the definitions given here for power and authority, but when understood correctly, at least from a biblical framework, they make a clear distinction between the two.

As Christian leaders, we are under the authority of Christ. Our lives are modelled after his, which was a life of sacrifice, compassion, and love. He never forced anyone to follow him or to do something they were unwilling to do.

Authority, when understood as influence, has the potential to cultivate the best in others. It's what made Jesus so attractive to the crowds and to the many who flocked to hear him speak. Interestingly, the people most threatened by Jesus were the ones who lived by a power model.

In the church world we often use the terminology of servant leader. It best describes the ethos of leader who models the life of Christ for others. At a time when we are seeing so many failures, could it be that we've been too enamoured by power and forgot whom it is we serve. 




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