Authority Issues?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

A month or so after I graduated from college, I started working for a small start-up company. Very small―four people, to be precise.

Often, when the company faced an important decision, the founder and CEO, my supervisor, would bring the decision before the team and ask for our input. Sometimes he would ask us to say what we thought, one by one―although among just four people there wasn’t much chance of hiding silently anyway.

It was one of those things that I didn’t always fully appreciate at the time. Sometimes I wondered why I had to weigh in on decisions for which I held little to no relevant knowledge or experience.

But then, after two years at this start-up, I began working for a Christian ministry organization. I very quickly found myself feeling blindsided by how differently authority operated there.

I realized, over time, that I came in to the ministry organization with some unspoken expectations. I expected that my supervisor would ask for my opinion, along with the opinions of the rest of our team of five, as part of the process of making key decisions. I expected that my ideas would be considered based on whether or not they were good ideas, not based on the newness (and resulting low status) of the person who offered them.

But it turned out that this ministry organization―like many churches―was structured in a highly hierarchical way. Authority cascaded down the layers of the food chain―with me, of course, awkwardly situated at the very bottom without quite being fully aware that that’s where I was. (After all, in my one previous post-college job, there hadn’t really been a bottom).

When decisions seemed to float down magically from on high without any effort to obtain input from the team, I didn’t know what to do. When I didn’t like these decisions, which happened fairly often, I didn’t know when, whether, or how to push back. And my supervisor, new to his role (but well-acquainted with and on board with the modus operandi of the organization), didn’t know what to do with me.

When I think about Jesus coming to John to be baptized, and John telling Jesus, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?―in other words, “what? No way, dude; that’s ridiculous, and wrong!”―I think about this kind of thing. I think about the awkwardness of authority structures, and the tensions and conflicts that ensue when people on the underside of these structures challenge their superiors.

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? On the one hand, John has some nerve. What is he doing, trying to prevent Jesus from being baptized? Jesus wasn’t just any regular supervisor or authority figure. He was the authority. The Lord of the whole universe. What on earth would give John the idea that it was okay to contradict him, and to do so publicly, for all to see?

Operating under the logic of many workplaces, churches, and other power structures that humans create and maintain, Jesus might well have taken John’s comment as insubordination. John could be fired on the spot. Jesus could find another baptizer. (I probably know a few unemployed recent seminary graduates who would take the job.)

Instead, Jesus says, let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. And John says, all right, then, let’s do this. John baptizes him.

I wonder what this interaction might suggest about how we function within the authority structures in our lives―and how we influence the structures in which we have some sway.

When John thought that Jesus was doing the wrong thing―when he thought Jesus’ idea was a horrible one―he said as much to Jesus, to his face. John knew who Jesus was―or at least that Jesus was someone more powerful than him, whose sandals he was not worthy to carry (Matthew 3:11)―and still he tried to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus wanted to do.

John did not cower in the face of Jesus’ authority. He took a risk to speak up about what he felt was right. He expressed his confusion, voiced his questions. This was a risk. We can read the story and know how Jesus responded; John, in that moment, did not. But he spoke anyway.

Jesus, for his part, showed no sign of offense. He is not the insecure kind of leader who blows up or implodes when someone seems to question his authority. Jesus explained his reasoning to John, hoping to persuade him to see things from a different perspective.

Jesus is not offended by questions. He did not want mindless loyalty from John, and he does not want that from us. Jesus looks for people to wrestle with him, for people who wrestle with God just as Jacob did so long ago (Genesis 32:22-32). Jesus does not turn away people who come to him with honest questions, doubts, concerns, and pushback.

In the case of this particular interaction, Jesus is successful in convincing John of his perspective. John ends up agreeing with Jesus and baptizing him.

On the one hand, we might say here that John just gives in to the power structure and lets Jesus do whatever he wants. But to me, the fact that John did speak up, and Jesus does legitimately convince him to change his mind, makes a real difference.

Because John spoke up, now, when John baptizes Jesus, he does so wholeheartedly. Jesus helped him see something he didn’t see before: that this baptism, odd as it may seem, is what fulfills righteousness.

If John had not spoken up about his concerns, he might have ended up baptizing Jesus, but doing so resentfully. He might have baptized Jesus the way subordinates sometimes do things just because their supervisor asked: with grumbling rather than joy, muttering behind Jesus’ back about how this wasn’t his idea. He might have started quietly looking for a new job, rather than continuing to be fully engaged in the work God called him to do.

John’s interaction with Jesus opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with all sorts of authority figures. These interactions are not without risk, but, nonetheless, they are marked by honesty and openness rather than resentment and fear.

And, on the flip side, Jesus’ interaction with John opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with people we supervise or have some authority over. These interactions are not without difficulties, but, nonetheless, they are marked by responses to criticism that are appreciative and thoughtful rather than defensive and destructive.

May we let John’s boldness and Jesus’ response to it percolate through the authority structures in our lives, workplaces, and churches.

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