Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Authority, Power, and Control

In a recent comment, I stated that I want to combat the mistaken notion that authority equals control. In other words, I believe it is possible to have authority without being "authoritarian" and "controlling". In response, both an egalitarian and a complementarian contested that notion. The egalitarian basically argued that authority always leads to controlling behaviors, while the complementarian questioned whether it is inconsistent to make a distinction between authority and control. It would appear, therefore, that we need to clarify some terms.

Note that I am not trying to deal with Greek terms which are typically translated as "authority," "power," and "control"; I am merely trying to make sure we mean the same things when we use these English terms.

The Oxford American dictionary defines authority as "the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience" or "the right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organization to another." When we use the term "authority," we are speaking of the right to do something, to make a decision, or to give an order and expect it to be followed. When the Pharisees asked Jesus, "By what authority" he was teaching in the temple (Matthew 21:23), they were essentially asking him what "right" he had to teach.

The dictionary defines power as "the ability to do something or act in a particular way" and "the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events." Thus, where authority has to do with "rights," power has to do with "ability."

Is it possible to have authority without power, or power without authority? Absolutely. In ancient Israel, David had authority as king, while Absalom quietly secured the power of popular support. Similarly, Ahab had the authority as king, but his wife Jezebel was the one with the real power. A church may have pastors and elders in official positions of authority, yet essentially be run by some member of the congregation who has the power to influence decisions. In a marriage, regardless of how "authority" is divided, one spouse may have all the "power" in the relationship. I think that we can say with some certainty that "authority" does not equal "power".

The dictionary defines "control" as "the power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events." As such, control and power are largely synonymous. Yet "control" connotes the successful exercise of power. If I lose "control" of my car, it is not for lack of "authority." I am licensed to drive, and therefore have the "right" to operate an automobile. Neither is it for lack of "power." I am physically able to drive, I have the knowledge of how to drive, and I have years of experience doing it. If I lose control of my car, it is because I have failed somehow to exercise my ability to drive.

Control can be positive or negative depending on the kind of control being talked about. "Self-control" is listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). An elder is expected to keep his children "under control" (1 Timothy 3:4 NASB; literally, "in obedience"). In English, "losing control" is always seen as a bad thing.

Yet there are also negative forms of control. To be "controlling" is to attempt to control everything another person does, says, or thinks. A "control-freak" is someone who wants to control people or things he has no authority to control. While "losing control" is always bad, "releasing control" is usually seen as good. It implies that someone who previously had "control issues" is no longer trying to control that which should not or cannot be controlled.

When I wrote that it is a mistake to equate authority with control, I was using "control" in this negative sense of being "controlling." In other words, I was asserting that one can be in authority over someone else without trying to control everything the other person says, thinks, or does. I am under the authority of my employers, but I am grateful that they don't try to micromanage everything I do. Though I am constrained by their authority to pursue the priorities and accomplish the tasks which they designate, I am free to offer my input, take personal initiative, work the way I work best, etc.

In English, we recognize the distinction between proper authority and those who misuse their authority. We refer to the latter as "authoritarian." I think the connection between authoritarianism and controlling behavior is clear, but in that case we're dealing with the misuse of authority and a sinful form of control.

With respect to marriage, male supremacists ascribe absolute authority to the husband: that is, he has the right to tell anyone in his household to do virtually anything. This is indeed dangerous, yet even absolute authority may not lead to "control" (in the sense of "controlling"), if he does not also have the "power" to enforce his will. Remember, it is "power" which "tends to corrupt" and "absolute power" which "corrupts absolutely." Absolute authority, combined with absolute power, will almost certainly lead to abusive forms of control.

Complementarians ascribe absolute authority in marriage not to the husband, but to Christ. Neither do they (at least theoretically) give the husband absolute power. Rather, complementarianism asserts that the husband has limited authority in marriage, and by extension, limited power and control. Complementarians may differ as to how this actually plays out, what kind of authority the husband actually has, and in what ways that authority is limited, but they all agree that it is limited in some way.

Egalitarians assert "equal" or "mutual" authority in marriage. Egalitarians may differ as to how this actually plays out, and they still have to deal with the proper division of "power." Again, it is "power" which "tends to corrupt," and even in egalitarian marriages, one spouse may wield emotional, financial, or other forms of power over the other. Thus, the absence of authority does not necessarily equal the absence of control.

Whatever their differences, both comps and egals agree that Christ-like love is the best restraint against abuses of authority and/or power within marriage. We likewise agree in condemning the unhealthy "control" of one spouse by another. Perhaps if we stop confusing the meaning of terms like "authority," "power," and "control," we can avoid much of the confusion which so overshadows the things about which we agree.