There is no doubt that we in the West – particularly in the United States – are facing an authority crisis. One only needs to take a cursory look at posts on social media, comments on YouTube, or the stories run on various news channels to see that we have a real problem with authority. Intense disagreements with authority figures or established sources of information have become the norm for the world we live in.
Author Tom Nichols has described this phenomenon in his book The Death of Expertise. He describes what we’re experiencing as the “collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers.” Equal rights means that our opinions must be equal as well; to reject authority and expert figures is to assert our own autonomy and individualism – both of which are national virtues. “The death of expertise,” Nichols writes, is a “rejection of authority in all its forms coupled to an insistence that strongly held opinions are indistinguishable from facts.”
Nichols identifies several causes for what we’re all experiencing today, such as the lost art of conversation, critical thinking being replaced by the Google search engine, and the fusion of entertainment with journalism. Yet regardless of its cause, this shift in the public attitude is marked by the fact that it is now a positive thing to be hostile toward sources of expertise and authority.
It is in this context of our current age that makes the Christian view of authority completely unique. In a world where we have associated the word ‘authority’ with abuses of power, privilege and platform, true Christian authority is marked by an ethic of service, sacrifice and suffering. The Church has been tasked with shining a light on this ethic of authority by Christ himself through the practice of ordination.