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January 17, 2016

Authority in Ethics–Introduction (1)

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Written by: Duane Covrig
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The word “authority” does not usually breed warm feelings. People picture a prickly boss or government official rigidly applying a law or abusing power. Most fear freedoms will be taken away and rights violated when the “trump” card of authority is played.

Ranchers recently took over a federal building on an eastern Oregon wildlife reserve to protest federal land claims. The Oregon ranchers are not alone.  Several states are resisting federal ownership of land, many local governments want to sue state governments over land claims and then there is century old debate about the fundamental claim of Native American to land held in the United States. These issues of authority come to my mind whenever I sing “this land is your land, this land is my land, from the….”

Whose land is it? Who has the right to claim any authority? What makes a claim valid? Law? Military power? Money?

The next seven blogs on Authority in Ethics will address these issues. This first introductory blog defines power and authority, frames resistance to authority and connections it to ethics, specifically Christian ethics.

Authority is “legitimate use of power.” Power is an energy or ability to move something or someone. In the material world, we have solar, electrical, hydro, chemical, and other forms of power. In relational circles, we also have various forms of human energy that influence us. Humans use physical power to create change. Sometimes we increase physical power by using tools that leverage that power, from appliances to knives or guns or bombs to change others behaviors. We also use verbal power in thew ords we say, text, tweet, email or write in blogs and books. There is gender or sexual power, knowledge, expertise, skills, education, age and many other forms of human influence. Leadership, at its core, is about influence. There are even more forms of power in teams, groups or communities: control of resources, positional power, the power of setting agendas, power of teamwork, the power even in taking minutes and notes can frame history and influence thinking. There is a lot of power in human relationship.

When power is used in a “legitimate” way we frame it as authority. But who decides what is proper use of power?

“We do” is probably the best general response. But we will see why that varies based on several factors.

To simplify the socialization of individuals into appropriate power, communities and cultures have developed holding tanks of authority which sociologists call social institutions. These are broad social structures-physical and emotional boxes-that help people see expectations, roles, mores, ethics, values, etc. See Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The social institutions I learned at UC Riverside from people like Maryanski and Turner, were:

  1. kinship (how we define and experience family, marriages, parenting, etc),
  2. religion (how we should understand and relate to the divine or supernatural),
  3. business/economics (our ways of production and exchanging services and goods, trading, working, hiring, promoting, firing),
  4. politics (the way we manage scarce shared resources when conflicting values and priorities exist, the way we structure and boundary nations, states, towns, etc.).
  5. law (what we require of citizens and what we do when they don’t comply),
  6. and other emerging social institutions of media (how we share news and communication), healthcare (how we define sickness and manage it) and sports/entertainment (what is acceptable sport both to do and to watch).

Since the modern reformations and revolutions (Protestant, U.S., French, etc.), ancient and medieval authority has been widely challenged and new structures have emerged–specifically strong nation states–that have expressed and maintained authority by force, law or cultural supports (schooling, propaganda, etc.). Even then, the boundaries of nation-states and even the role of states in our lives, has been challenged and redefined. In essence, the modern landscape can best be seen as a continual remapping of authority.

Especially over the last five decades, since the countercultural response to constant world war, two of the oldest and strongest social institutions (family and religion), have been challenged, (specifically the fidelity of heterosexual marriage and the role of organized religion). This has created deep ambivalence and ambiguities about what authority should guide human life and how and why.

Into a vacuum of authority has come personal preference, self-authority, and popular preference marketed as either social norm or even as personal preference. This new locus of authority has worked to de-legitimate some forms of power or others. There is a growing suspicion about external and eternal authority in the modern mind.

As a result, it is understandable that where is widespread caution and resistance to authority. I see both healthy and not so health factors feeding this.

First, resistance to authority is part of the confusion and chaos created in what Adventist call the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. Doubt about God has trickled down to doubt about all persons or regimes that claim authority over us. Satan questions authority even as he abusively uses his power and Adventist, me included, believe this frames the whole frame of human existence.

But we don’t need to blame the devil for all of this resistance. We each have our own deep resistance to God, others and truth. It is called the sin problem. We want something but can’t or shouldn’t have it and we resist and war for it. Selfishness is the biggest resistance to authority.

Granted, we can’t blame only Satan’s rebellion and our own for our pervasive anti-authority spirit. The abuse of power by others, makes us cautious. In fact, some social institutions established in the West show how we take sin in others very seriously by creating protective structures: Free Press and governmental accountability. Our government is a labyrinth of “checks and balances” between branches of governments and also between levels of governments—federal, state, local (that is why they can sue each other). Media—the power to expose potential abuse in other power centers: the rich, organized crime, governments, schools, businesses, etc. has also become a check to authority (even as it has become another source of abuse).

So in the West, we pride ourselves that we have structures to resist Kings and despots and this “anti-authority” ethos runs deep.

There is another reasons for resistance to authority and it is natural and God designed, hardwired into each human. This stems from “a power akin to that of the creator,” authority extended to us from God as children of God. We are “created in the image of God,” and have been “endowed with a power” of “individuality, power to think and to do” (Ellen White, Education, p. 17). Individuality is not a anti-authority word but rather a self-authority word. God designed us like himself, to take initiative and to follow up to make what is in our minds or hearts a reality. It is self-authorship. It is a basic challenge to all external authority, even his own.

So naturally and institutionally legitimate resistance to authority exist. So the huge challenge in social community is managing this process.

Which brings us to ethics: Ethics is especially concerned with authority. Weaving THE OUGHT and THE SHOULD requires appeals to authority.

Ethicists connect local or current oughts to larger more anchored oughts. Ethics is the art and science of authority referencing. From either past practice or from “value reference points” we craft a link back and forth between the authority and the issues. Some even seek authority in desired consequences that appeal to a group as an ideal outcome and map backwards to what needs to be done.

Having varying sources and paths of authority to appeal to makes ethics a complicated process, but very rewarding as the creativity is very expansive. I first got hooked on ethics by my public school 6th grade teacher Mr. Yoshikawa and trained more formally in it at Loma Linda University when I got my MA in Religion. I love this discipline.

Which brings us to Christian ethics. If the ethicist must show the trail of justification from the current situation to authority, the Christian ethicist must ultimately reference to Christ’ authority. But Christ is both historical (past), present, and future. He speaks to us in the Bible and by the Holy Spirit he has sent. Weaving a moral rationale: a moral argument, appeal and ethical justification—to Christ is also multifaceted (and also very creative and fulfilling as we track Christ Lordship in our world).

Tracking this trail of authority is why ethicists write such long prose (like this blog). The creative engineering of connections is required to validate the path of authority in our appeal for right thought and action. It is a creative process that has to appeal to the reader.

Given the central role of authority in Christian ethics, this blog on Adventist ethics has wrestled with many layers of this process: Ascribed authority and the relationship of moral justification to moral authority and power and the role of discipline and harshness in expressing authority and the process of church authority in Acts 15. I have also discussed many times Haidt’s controversial work on innate moral senses—six of them—especial the one on authority that conservatives often do a better job of framing than liberals.

In the next 5-7 blogs, I will discuss  Christ authority and Biblical authority in Adventist ethics.

Post 2 will look at Matthew’s portrayal of Christ as the ultimate authority.

Post 3 will look at Matthew’s unique attempt to show Christ’ use of multiple source of authority to justify his own, and why that is crucial in our understanding of authority.

Post 4 will use Matthew 4 to contrast Jesus’ reference to God’s authority as different from Satan’s.

Post 5 will bring discussion on authority in Christian ethics to the issue of biblical authority and the role of bible in our lives.

Post 6 will bring me to the place of self-authority as a key understanding of Adventist ethics, especially as it relates to education and modern practices.

In Post 7, I raise a caution about how we synthesize all these sources of authority and about the need ultimately to orchestrate our own response to authority in a way that we “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” I will then bring this to the issue of two extremes in Adventism and in Adventist ethics now playing out in North America and some parts of the world church related to state and church authority.

I invite you on this journey as a way to love God more. I believe many who struggle with God’s moral authority don’t get past the first hurdle of that struggle–is there a God, because of an anticipated fear that if they found there to be a God, he would abusively tell them what to do.  I wonder if people would have an easier time accepting and working with God if they had a better understanding and experience of how he frames authority. I hope this journey will help us all understand God’s authority, the authority of others, and our own, and how those are to relate.



About the Author

Duane Covrig

I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.






3 Comments


  1. […] first post reviewed power, authority, and the disdain for both and the how ethics needs authority to makes its […]


  2. […] first introduced power as the ability to influence and move people or things and authority as legitimate p…. Ethicists appeal to authoritative reference points to suggest moral actions and their […]


  3. […] A social institution is a social construct. I have reviewed their powerful role in a previous post on authority. […]



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