Authority: Cultural Approaches to Authority


Western culture prides itself on the democratic principle of governance. Individual rights and equality are worshipped; this is what is at the heart of the current debate about “gay marriage”. Everyone knows that Australians, perhaps more than any other people, have an issue with authority e.g. our “tall poppy syndrome” is world renowned.

No doubt this goes back to the very origins of Australia as a modern nation, a bunch of convicts lorded over by soldiers. This is a unique heritage and a very painful one that has come down the generations. For example, if you ask the average person on the street who was the first American President they will nearly all know the answer. But ask the same group, “Who was the first Prime Minister of Australia?” and they may all be clueless.1)The answer is Edmund Barton [1901-1903].

The Aussie attitude to politicians is symptomatic of a much deeper issue. This came home to me in a very pointed way last month. We had just got off a plane from Vietnam, where respect for authority is very high. Catching a taxi home the first thing I noticed was how dismissive the driver was to the authority of the official at the taxi rank, and then he started speaking about our Prime Minister derogatively as Juliar Gillard. Since all authority from parents through to P.M.’s is given by God we must confess that our national disrespect for authorities reveals a blatant disregard for the honour of God (cf. Rom 13:1-2; 1:21).

Ingrained attitudes to hierarchy go very deep amongst Australians, including (unashamedly) myself! E.g. I was with some African pastors recently and they were all graciously calling me “Dr.John”, when I kept telling them, “Just call me ‘John’”, one of the guys who has lived here quite a long time, remarked, “He’s an Aussie. ”

Most Australians are, like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, “secret rebels” Outwardly indifferent to spiritual things they are in their deepest heart fiercely opposed to God’s Lordship.2)Scripturally this must be true at a heart level e.g. Rom 3:9-18.

The motto “no one can tell me what to do” goes very deep into the heart of what it means to be Australian. This has radically affected the preaching of the church. Contemporary churches are often fixated on being comfortable and attractive, but few dare preach repentance in a biblical mode. The average preacher doesn’t want to be thought of as overbearing or controlling; though many are. In my opinion, the typical ethnic church has an equal but opposite problem.

In South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa I have encountered the “spirit of the strong man”.  The apostolic founder or “senior pastor” of a group holds an authority that can never be questioned; this hierarchical approach to authority is expressed in a multitude of ways e.g. when I was reading a Nigerian Church’s newspaper congratulating the “mother” of the denomination on her birthday the picture of the lady that appeared on each page was the largest image, the picture of the senior pastor of each congregation was a size smaller, and the picture of the associate pastor a scale below that.

What sort of a trinity do you think that images?? It represents an image of God as Father who is somehow dominant over the Son and the Spirit. This is very common.

Some years ago I attended a meeting held by some Chinese folk. I appreciated their earnestness, zeal and prayerfulness, but when it came to the hymns exhorting us to honour our fathers and mothers I believe we had slipped from the Bible to Confucius.3)For this topic in depth see

I have vivid memories of the look on the faces of my theology students from Asia when I was lecturing and would say something like, “There must be some areas of theology where my understanding is wrong, I just don’t know what they are. I have changed my mind over the years about some things and no doubt will in the future.” The notion that the authority figure could be self-confessedly fallible seemed not only very foreign but indigestible.

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References   [ + ]

1. The answer is Edmund Barton [1901-1903].
2. Scripturally this must be true at a heart level e.g. Rom 3:9-18.
3. For this topic in depth see

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