Love and Authority


As a response to the discussion of the group, at the end of our third class on Essentials of Christian Theology, I posted three questions on my Facebook wall. The questions that I asked were “When you think of divinity or deity what words come into your mind?” What is the essential character of God?” and “If you are a God worshiper, why do you worship God? If you are not a God worshiper why do you not worship God?” Of the thirty-eight comments on the first two questions, eleven directly mentioned love; one post questioned what we mean by love and the other posts were mostly references to power and glory. Of the 8 people that responded to the last question two directly mention love, one mentions trust, another belief and the rest are in relation to being created. Of the people who responded to those questions all have been Christians for at least 10 years and many have had seminary or bible school training. I remember singing with most of those people the song Oh, How I Love Jesus and wonder what changed for them that the reason for their faith is no longer “because he first loved me”? As I reflect on this change I remember the emphasis on God’s sovereignty and holiness, the emphasis on our brokenness and the impression of God as a stern judge rightly consigning the evil to eternal damnation and saving a select few for glory. This was most evident in the way authority visibly worked in churches. For many the pastor modeled God for the congregation. (I won’t be going into the problematic nature of that impulse, just mentioning it as an unconscious reality in many churches.) When the pastor behaved in an authoritarian manner that was the way God was interpreted to the community of faith and when the pastor behaved as a servant leader there was a different God communicated. The purpose of this reflection paper is to explore the relationship between God’s authority and God’s love and what that means for the exercise of authority in the context of the community of faith. I will begin by attempting some definitions and revealing some known personal biases (probably some I am unaware of too).

Love, Relationship and Hierarchy

The definition of God’s love that I am using is summarized in 1 John 4:8-10

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NRSV)

This love that we see at the root of God is seeking the best of the other even though self-sacrifice is necessary to gain that “best.” Sometimes the love we experience, that seeks the best in us, feels harsh. Stanley Grenz cautions us to not look at this love through the lenses of sentimentality, but to remember that in seeking the best God wants to free us from the worst. “Genuine love is positively jealous or protective, for a true lover seeks to defend the love relationship whenever it is threatened by disruption, destruction or outside intrusion.”[1] In creating the universe, living among us in the person of the Son, experiencing the worst of humanity in the cross, returning from the grave and living within us God displays the true character of the love that is at the center of the divine community.

Love that seeks the best of another cannot exist outside of relationship, which is why the Trinity is so important for Christian faith. If God is characterized by love then there must be relationship for that love to have a source. The relationship that generates this love consists of the three persons of the Trinity: the Father, Son and Spirit. Clark Pinnock underscores the importance of relationship in Trinitarian thought by explaining “There is one God, eternal, uncreated, incomprehensible and there is no other. But God’s nature is internally complex and consists of a fellowship of three. It is the essence of God’s nature to be relational.”[2] One of my personal assumptions is that the relationship within the Trinity is one of loving mutuality and is not hierarchical. If we believe that God is love, that this love is self-sacrificing, and that this love exists within the context of a unified Trinity, then hierarchy is unnecessary to the function of God. Grenz’s outline of the way God operates is helpful in understanding the internal workings of the Trinity: “the Father acts through the Son by the agency of the Spirit.”[3] It is problematic to speak of hierarchy in the context of the Godhead because when we infer subordinate relationships in God we open up the possibility of division in the Trinity, and when we apply hierarchy to the community of faith, we create subordinate relationships and open up the possibility of division in the church.

Authority and Love

If James is correct that the very being of God is love then all of God’s activity will be rooted in love. What does it then mean for us that God’s exercise of authority is rooted in love? Could it be that the harshness we perceive is motivated by a desire to protect us from destruction? That would be a much better explanation for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus than making God into a divinity with multiple personality disorder. There is not a merciful Jesus standing up for us against a wrathful Father, but a merciful Trinity allowing its own creation to humiliate and inflict death upon it, fully experienced by all of the Trinity, so that creation could be redeemed. This is the love of God that is described in James and indeed all through the Bible.

This sacrificial love then becomes our model for the exercise of authority within the kingdom of God. Jesus describes this reality when the disciples misunderstood the nature of authority within the kingdom:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV)

Jesus underscores this model of service as the basis for leadership in his kingdom in the foot washing on Maundy Thursday. It is my contention that with love as the motivation of authority it will emulate the service and sacrifice of Jesus. Robert Greenleaf writes that the motive of caring in leadership is “an exacting and demanding business. It requires not only interest and compassion and concern; it demands self-sacrifice and wisdom and tough-mindedness and discipline.”[4] Greenleaf’s description definitely fits what we have modeled for us not only in Jesus’ submission to death, but in his submission to life as a human being. It is truly at this point that the ideas of a God bent solely on demanding recompense for each offense break down and we must look at God with new eyes. Jean Vanier describes this primary quality in this new vision of leadership in the community of God as “The first quality needed by those who carry responsibility is a love for all the members of the community and a concern for their growth. This implies that they also carry the weaknesses of others.”[5] A love that carries others weaknesses is what has been emulated for us by Christ. My experience of God’s love displayed in my weakness is what has led me to faith and to accept God’s authority in my life.

[1] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 48.

[2] Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 35.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 47.

[4] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 243.

[5] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 130.


Jean Vanier. Community and Growth. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.

Robert K. Greenleaf. Servant Leadership. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

Stanley J. Grenz. Created for Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

Clark H. Pinnock. Flame of Love. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996.

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Love and Authority by Gilbert L. George is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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One response to “Love and Authority

  1. Check out a blog entry that looks at how this is working out in Indiana Yearly Meeting.

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