Spiritual Authority and the Contents of One’s Underpants

A while ago, I mentioned Neil Postman’s claim that all interesting prose comes from grievance of some sort.  I said I was sure this was probably the case as much for the Bible as any other literature of enduring value, and promised/threatened to reflect a bit about portions of scripture where I discerned the possibility of “grievance” in the background.

Let me start by saying that there is no better place for grievance to be nurtured than on the Internet.  The second best place is church. When you combine the two you get a potent cocktail that puts smugness, entitlement, and victimization into the mix, gives it a good shake until it is nice and frothy, and finishes it off with a dash of bitters.  (Okay, I’ve been watching too many episodes of Bar Rescue.)

Thus goes the group in which I have been most active on LinkedIn–a group targeted to the Christian denomination with which I claim affiliation (even if loose at the moment), but where ecumenical members are welcome.  In fact, I have been the only active manager of this group of over six thousand members for three years.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  Not because it isn’t an interesting group, not because some of the participants aren’t fine people.  But because you always get a couple of people who, for one reason or another have to be obnoxious.  And a group moderator has to deal with the obnoxiousness.

A repeat offender is a “gentleman” who left the Anglican Communion for the Roman Catholic Church, and cannot shut up about how women priests don’t exist.  For Rome, that is true, and fine, and I will not argue about it.  But for those provinces of the Anglican Communion who do ordain women to the presbyterate and episcopate, it is patently false–they have been ordained according to the practices of their member churches, and no matter what Rome (or defecting “Anglicans” say), these women exercise valid priestly ministry.

However, it seems to come back to scripture, and dear old St. Paul:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (I Timothy 2:12; NRSV)

Even though I’m not ordained, it’s obvious to me that a number of men would greatly prefer my silence.  (That ain’t happening, by the way.)  But apparently Paul, and other men (and institutions, and traditions) have quite a problem with women who will not be silent.  It’s a problem as old as dirt, these cultural expectations of appropriate gender roles for men and women–and women who will not be silent must have been a scorpion in Paul’s shorts, so to speak.

I can only imagine that Paul ran into a group of people who had come under the influence (quiet or noisy) of a wise and holy woman who did not agree in every specific with him–and had the temerity not to buckle under to cultural pressure to be all nice and ladylike.  And there were probably a couple of men in the group who heard what this nameless woman had to say, and (gasp, shock horror)—agreed with her.

Instead of engaging debate on the merits of what each party had to say, Paul needed to invoke the “not nice” argument:  it’s inappropriate for a woman to do this.  By extension, a real man (and here, Paul obviously holds himself up as the exemplar of what it means to be a “real (Christian) man”) would never allow himself to be under the authority of a woman.

Some translations have Paul saying that he will not allow a woman to “usurp” a man’s authority.

This is highly problematic.

A person cannot “usurp” authority–they can strong arm someone else, they can silence someone else, but true authority is freely acknowledged and willingly submitted to on the merits of the person and his/her message. And it has nothing to do with male, female, rich, poor, national or ethnic background.  Real authority cannot be taken away from someone on the command of another.  In the cultural context of Paul’s letters, it would have had to be an exceptionally wise, holy, resourceful woman who could have held sway over any man.  And at least one such woman must have existed, else why would Paul have needed to say anything about women having authority over men?  Such a woman was a threat to Paul’s own authority, and all he can do is to say he won’t “permit”  a woman to have authority over men, or that if she does it must be a result of having “usurped” that  that authority.

Merit has nothing to do with this brand of false authority.  Because people of merit and integrity have authority in their own right, and attract others to accept it, without threat or coercion. Real authority cannot be broken because someone who feels his authority is being challenged tells others not to pay attention to them, that the challenger must be “silent”.

Yet, one of my LinkedIn interlocutors insists that Anglican women who are ordained as priests are really not priests at all because  the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the possibility of a female priest. (Rome doesn’t recognize men in Anglican orders as valid priests either, but that seems to go over the head of this gentleman.)

And it all goes back to Paul being so insecure about his authority and manhood that we have to even talk about this.

It’s all about the content of one’s underpants, this question of who must and must not be silent or have authority.  Who has the right parts, and to a lesser (but important) extent, how they use them. We go so far as to identify a person primarily with what is contained in this small amount of fabric:  a female priest, a gay bishop. We like to separate people based on these distinctions.

I think it’s time for Christians to unite on the contents of our underpants. Because, fundamentally (and yes, I mean that literally) we all have the same thing hiding in our Hanes  by which we should be identified.

We all have, and to a greater or lesser extent are, assholes.

(Aren’t you relieved I didn’t put a link to that? You’re welcome.)

And I think true authority sits most securely, so to speak, on our ability and willingness to acknowledge our own assholery. To curb  it when it is right to do so, but also to risk others pointing it out when we speak uncomfortable truths.

I think the first question selection panels for ordination should ask aspiring new ministers is:

How much of an asshole do you understand yourself to be?

And it should be quickly followed by:

How willing are you to have your assholery publicly recognized?

Because if you don’t understand that Jesus was publicly considered to be a dangerously, attractively authoritative asshole, you have no business calling yourself Christian, and you have no basis for authority to lead those who acknowledge  their  status as assholes.


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