By What Authority?

Woman who is preaching with authority
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Dear Working Preachers, this question about preaching with authority hit pretty close to home this time around.

Classes began last week at Luther Seminary and so it’s my 34th semester, give or take a few for sabbaticals, teaching Foundations of Biblical Preaching. While these students typically have one year of seminary under their belts, it is the preaching course that begs the question, by what authority? You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their queries. And with the preaching course, it gets worse before it gets better. Inevitably there comes a time when the reality of the hard work of preaching gets equated with failure. When their lack of confidence in their preaching gets conflated with their sense of call.

Preaching with authority

Because “by what authority” means you can’t escape. You can no longer hide behind layers of biblical exegesis or essays on ecclesial historical or explaining systematic theological terminology. You can no longer abscond into the abstract of confessional commitments or denominational dogma.

All of a sudden, and suddenly too soon, you are out there—with your theology on the line. Your claim about a biblical passage on the line. Your character on the line. We might think that we can veil our truth or shroud our beings and bodies in all of our homiletical processes, but our hearts and experiences know otherwise. Because God’s Word speaks to us, touches us, transforms us—which is to what we give witness in our sermons.

We can no more get out of the way of our preaching than Jesus could. And to think that we can sidesteps the rub of the question, “by what authority?”

A legitimate question

“By what authority?” is not simply an inquiry from wary leaders or religious authorities consumed with proper credentials. It is a legitimate question, a justified question, that Jesus has to answer. You don’t get to go around and talk about God the way Jesus does and then skirt this issue.

And neither do we. Before we get too far into the exegesis of this passage, we preachers need to answer the question of preaching with authority for ourselves:

  • What does having this authority to preach mean?
  • How do you define that authority?
  • How do you exercise it and embody it?
  • What happens when we think of authority as not just a noun but a verb?
  • Where do we locate that authority?

Because there are too many voices out there speaking about God who assume authority without demonstrating it. Assert authority without earning it. Claim authority ignoring its correlate—who gave you this authority? Authority has always been up for interpretation and debate and is never immune from critique. But for too long, the church has rested on its privilege of ontological authority—the church has authority in the lives of people because it’s the church. And likewise, the church’s leaders have operated with the same circular argument about the Bible—the Bible is authoritative because it’s the Bible.

How many leaders in the church, whether in congregations, judicatories, seminaries, presume authority ignorant of the consequences—for relationships, for community, even for how theology gets done? The chief priests and the elders of the people have every right to ask Jesus, “by what authority?” They see Jesus bringing about a different kind of kingdom. If Jesus had to answer these questions, those of us called to preach “repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near” do as well.

Dear Working Preacher column ending

I wonder if this very question is why “Dear Working Preacher” has been an important part of your sermon preparation and preaching life. While it has taken on some different emphases and penned by different authors, at the end of the day, I think it voiced this question that, if we are honest, is the one that keeps us up at night. That speaks the loudest in our insecurities. That just won’t keep quiet when the weight of ministry seems more than we can bear.

At the same time, with all the changes we have experienced these last few years, the challenges we face going forward, and the shifting horizon of homiletics and church, we sense that it is time for something new to speak into “by what authority?” While this is the last “Dear Working Preacher” column, we are excited about the something new to come. More soon!

In the meantime, dear Working Preachers, I hope this week you will hear these words of Jesus spoken directly to you. After all, it’s how Jesus finally answers the question: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Thank you for reading and accompanying this preacher.


Ed. note: After 683 articles stretching back to 2009, this is the final Dear Working Preacher column. Watch for updates in the Craft of Preaching blog in the new lectionary year.

Vista at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Sermon Brainwave at Ghost Ranch

A preachers’ retreat with Working Preachers Karoline Lewis, Joy J. Moore, and Matt Skinner.

Hosted by Ghost Ranch in New Mexico July 29-August 2, 2024, this conference is for preachers who want to learn, workshop, discuss, renew, and worship together.