1. Teaching with authority

The Gospels contain many examples of Christ teaching “as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7: 29; see also Mark 1: 22). Other examples have Christ acting with authority, such as when casting out the unclean spirits: “And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him” (Mark 1: 27). This authority is coupled with power as shown in the healing of the paralysed man: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house” (Mark 2: 10-11).

These experiences give the modern day disciple teacher an insight into what it means to teach with authority. Although the authority of Christ came from being the Son of God sent by the Father, and we know that Christ is the “only begotten Son” (John 3: 16), there are elements of his authority that we can emulate in our teaching. I would suggest that there are three such expressions of authority, all of which naturally link with the others:

  1. Having authority given us
  2. The authority of knowledge
  3. The authority of righteous living


Having authority given us

The Saviour often referred his own identity, and his relationship to the Father, as the source of his authority. Pheme Perkins (1990) suggests that in the synoptic Gospels his identity is made known through the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, whereas the baptism serves this purpose in Mark; he argues that “Luke’s infancy narrative set the stage for the relationship [between Jesus and the Baptist] by showing that John recognised Jesus’ superiority even in the womb (Luke 1: 39-45)” (p. 25), The later events of the baptism establish Jesus as the “beloved Son’ (Mark 1: 11) which is the source of his authority; a theme that is prominent in the Prologue of John in his identification as the light that came into the world. John’s identification of Jesus as such is for the benefit of his readers, however, the events of the baptism and the call of the disciples establish Jesus’ authority as the “Lamb of God” (John 1: 29) and the Messiah (John 1: 41). Although somewhat at odds with the idea of the Messianic Secret of Mark, there is no doubt that early in his ministry each Gospel establishes Jesus’ authority at the outset.

His authority came from his identity as the only begotten Son of the Father. Although, children of God, we do not automatically have this authority. This authority that is given to us comes in different ways dependent on the role that we have.

Firstly, as disciples of Jesus Christ we are commissioned to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16: 15). As we accept Jesus Christ into our lives and begin our path of discipleship we become a part of this great commission to preach the Gospel or good news of salvation. This is evidenced in the life of Saul; we read that following his road to Damascus experience, “He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9: 18-20). This is the impact that discipleship has upon us as we consider the command to preach the Gospel.

Paul is an interesting example to use to recognise the authority with which we teach. In the denomination of Christianity that I belong to, the call to lead and to act with authority, meaning the call to the ministry is bestowed by God through those who are in authority: “No one takes this honour upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5: 4). This, following the example of Jesus himself: “So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’” (Hebrews 5: 5). As such, those who speak with authority are those who are ordained to the priesthood and called by God. The call of Paul as an Apostle of Jesus Christ may seem to be in opposition to this principle. Paul begins a lot of his Epistles in a similar way, this example comes from Galatians: “Paul, an apostle–sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—“ (Galatians 1: 1); and from Ephesians: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1: 1). It seems as though Paul receives his Apostleship, his authority directly from the risen Christ and his experience with him rather than by any assignment or calling by the Apostles. Indeed, this is very similar to the way that Jesus received his authority- direct from heaven.

This raises an interesting issue for a Christian. Is it possible to receive authority directly from God beyond the commission to all disciples to preach the Gospel? Some Christians would say yes, I would suggest that Saul/Paul worked with and under the authority given to the Apostles at Jerusalem- he dwelt with them, he worked with them and he accepted their authority. Although Paul traced his authority to his personal experience on the road to Damascus I would suggest that his call to the Apostleship was mediated by the apostles in Jerusalem. Whichever interpretation we accept, it is important to recognise that whoever is given authority, the source of that authority is God. No person can take this authority for themselves. As a Christian leader we are expected to teach with the authority given to us from heaven, but not to laud that authority over others. Rather we become the kind of teacher and leader that the Saviour was, one who recognises that “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23: 11-12).

I have to admit that this is really difficult, when you are placed upon a pedestal, or people look to you for guidance and respect how can you keep the Saviour uppermost in your mind and in your actions? How do you not become as the Pharisees who act to be seen of others, and as those with authority we are commanded to “not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6: 2). Authority from God is not a stick with which to beat people, but a gift with which to bless and guide people.

As I think about my role as a father, I am led to consider the similar way in which I will act with authority in my home. My authority comes because I am a parent, however, I must act in a way that the authority is recognised and remains. The need for unity in the home, in a similar way in which unity is expressed in the Church, is developed as my wife and I act in unity and humility as leaders. A phrase which I heard consistently as a teenager was “Don’t do as I do, do as I say!” Although this links with the third type of authority to be explored in this chapter it also links with the discussion about authority being used as a stick with which to beat people, or to impose our will on others. It is, perhaps, in the home where this is most difficult. It is in the home where we are at our most honest, it is the place where boundaries are pushed beyond those we would normally accept in any other walk of life. For these reasons, and many more, it is imperative that we act in the same way as our Saviour. Jesus showed love in every situation, yes, he could occasionally reprimand but this was in a measured way. We must be aware of the humility with which we must carry out our role of authority within the home- whether we do that as a father or mother in a two parent or single parent home. We must seek for a unity of love and oneness shown by the Father and the Son: “I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me–so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17: 11).

My third role in which I act with authority is that of a teacher. My authority is given because of the qualifications and the appointment I received. It would not be appropriate for someone without background and training to become a teacher. Although this assumption of authority is where the discussion could end, it is important that this authority is maintained by the type of principles elucidated as a leader in the Church and in the home.


The authority of knowledge

A mentor of mine from early in my ministry had an adage that has always lived with me, it was: “You cannot teach what you don’t know, any more than you can come back from a place that you have never been.” Undoubtedly, the ability to teach with the requisite background knowledge and expertise is imperative to teach with authority. As we explore the Sermon on the Mount we recognise in Jesus a person that knew the Law of Moses but encouraged, indeed commanded, us to be better. This was impossible without a knowledge of the Law:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5: 21-25).

The standard was raised, the prohibition against adultery was changed to not even thinking about it, and many other examples could be used. Following the Sermon on the Mount the people recognised: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7: 28-29).

Having the authority of knowledge a person is able to correct false teachings. In his interactions with the Pharisees he taught the importance of teaching correct doctrine: “He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—  then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother,  thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7: 6-13). In today’s society when sometimes truth is seen to be subjective and anyone can set themselves up as an authority through the creation of a webpage it is important to explore the authority with which a person speaks, we must avoid the condemnation given to the scribes: “For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11: 52).

The implications for a teacher of anything is seemingly obvious- I am an expert in Religious Education- therefore I am able to teach it; if I were to teach geography or maths people I teach have every right to expect me to be expert in those subjects. This knowledge is not an end in itself but rather an ongoing process of learning throughout our lives. It is not just Gospel knowledge that is acquired line upon line, all knowledge could be that to which Jesus referred when he said: “‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Luke 19:26). It should be acknowledged that, as with other aspects of a Christ centred pedagogy, this characteristic is not limited to the Christian teacher, but is perhaps a greater requirement in following Jesus’ example. Others within the world of education have highlighted the need for a strong grounding in subject and pedagogical knowledge for a teacher (see for example, Metzler and Woessmann, 2010; Coe, et al, 2014; Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005) . Consider one of Coe et al’s findings about the characteristics of effective teaching:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions (2014, p.2).

Which links with the one of the skills necessary for a teacher is having such aptitude with the high level of knowledge that they have that they can distil it for the people they teach to understand. The ways of doing this in the experience and teaching of the Saviour will be explored in later chapters, but this should be acknowledged at the point whether we are teaching in a secular environment or one in where we are aiming for Christian formation.

As a parent or Church leader, knowledge in this sense is a little harder. It is a knowledge of Christ- gained through study and faith. A lifetime study of the scriptures should be central in every Christian’s live, as they seek to come to know God and their relationship to him. Only by having a knowledge of Christ can a person hope to become like him. But ‘knowledge’ in this sense is not enough. It is about having a passion for the subject that we teach. As a secular educator this is very evident in the way that we speak about the topic– as a young teacher I remember being asked to teach geography. This was taught to the same class that I taught Religious Education to­. The children themselves recognised a difference in the way that I taught; I neither had the same passion or knowledge for geography and although they were taught everything they needed to know I felt as though they were short changed.

For a disciple teacher this enthusiasm is developed and this knowledge is also gained through having a relationship with him. Joseph McConkie suggests:

In the context of the Bible, knowledge− in its highest spiritual sense− had little to do with the intellect but was rather a matter of the heart. The Old Testament references to a man knowing God and to a man knowing his wife− meaning conceiving a child with her− both use the same Hebrew word (yada). As a man was to leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and become one flesh with her, so he was to leave the things of the world, cleave unto his God, and become one with him. As faithfulness in marriage was essential to the nurturing of love, so faithfulness in keeping Gospel covenants was understood to be necessary in obtaining a knowledge of God. As love of spouse was strengthened in sacrifice and devotion, so the knowledge of God was obtained in living those covenants with exactness and honour (McConkie, J. 1987: 230).

The Christian educator teaches with authority when they know about Christ, and also when they know him. For a Christian leader this is recognising that they are primarily a Christian, a teacher and a leader rather than a leader. Hugh Nibley has suggested:

True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible. There is necessarily some of the manager in every leader, as there should be some of the leader in every manager. Speaking in the Temple to the Temple management, the scribes and Pharisees all in their official robes, the Lord chided them for one-sidedness: They kept careful accounts of the most trivial sums brought into the Temple, but in their dealings they neglected fair play, compassion, and good faith, which happen to be the prime qualities of leadership. The Lord insisted that both states of mind are necessary, and that is important: “This ye must do [speaking of the bookkeeping] but not neglect the other.” But it is “the blind leading the blind,” he continues, who reverse priorities, who “choke on a gnat and gulp down a camel” (see Matthew 23:23ff).

Christian parents and leaders who are also teachers exemplify their knowledge and authority by knowing the Saviour.

The authority of righteous living

As the Saviour taught in the synagogue he was recognised as someone who taught with authority in contradistinction to the scribes. If we look back at the previous two types of authority it could be argued that the scribes had those authorities, though the later discussion of ‘knowledge’ as a relationship might not apply. They were widely recognised to have authority under the law, and indeed, the Pharisees and Sadducees may be seen to have authority from God to teach and make offerings respectively. They also had a knowledge of the law and of the scriptures. So what was it that made Jesus’ authority different? Jesus himself gives us an indication: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 20).

There could have been something in the way that he spoke, but I would suggest that Jesus’ authority was markedly different because of the way that he lived what he taught. The authority with which a person teaches is enhanced by their enthusiasm for it, and also, in Gospel terms, in the way that it is a part of them and their daily living. Without tarring all of the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus with the same brush, the same condemnations that Jesus uttered would have been recognised by the majority of people who lived at the time. As such, the authority of Jesus came because he lived what he taught, as Christians we are called to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ every moment of every day. The armour of God is not a bolt on and off accessory to be discarded or utilised casually, rather we our teaching is to be underpinned by our living in the grace of Jesus Christ. To slightly amend a phrase from the last section, we cannot teach what we do not live any more than we can come back from a place we have never been.

This is evidenced throughout the ministry of the Saviour. The teachings that he outlined were reinforced by the life that he lived. He taught: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6: 37). His interaction with the woman caught in adultery showed how this could be applied: “Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8: 10-11).

The same Jesus who taught the parable of the Good Samaritan healed the soldier’s ear and provided spiritual healing for tax collectors and others who were on the margins of society; he who taught to love your enemies died on the cross for all of humanity, even those who nailed him there. His authority came from his example and the life that he lived; there had and have been many people throughout history who have said “Do as I say”, the Saviour is the only one who can say “Do as I say, and as I do.”

What implications does this have for Christian educators? As a Church leader and parent the implications are obvious. We live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every facet of our lives so that, while recognising that we will fall, we can radiate the light of Christ in our lives. St Francis of Assisi is reported to have said (though he probably didn’t): “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Being a disciple of Christ is a lot about who we are, what we do in addition to what we believe. We can be described as was John the Baptist: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1: 7-9). We do not become stumbling blocks to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9: 42).

What about our roles as educators in schools or Universities? I often share the story of applying to train as a teacher. I was asked the question “How will your faith affect you in the classroom?” I did not react very well but I did ask for clarification. The interviewer explained, “Surely your faith requires you to witness within the classroom”. I responded with an equal opportunities answer about how that question should not have been asked. In the intervening years I have had cause on numerous occasions to reflect on the answer I gave. For the first few years, I was happy with the righteous indignation I had shown- my faith would not affect me in the classroom. My career and my faith were separate and never the twain would meet. Despite my denials, my faith was an integral part of my classroom practice, both as a teacher generally and thence as a teacher of RE. I would also argue that every teacher’s beliefs about God, the world, themselves and other people are integral to their work. Rather than fighting against this, it is important for a teacher to recognise and evaluate these influences.

My faith and religion permeates every aspect of my life. As a parent I strive to follow the patience and love that my Saviour showed. As a friend I try to exemplify the service that Jesus taught and showed. In my recreational time I try and abide by the teachings of the Saviour and the prophets- such that there are many films I will not watch, music I will not listen to and substances I will not use. I have not always explored what it means for this covenant to extend to my practice as a teacher.

Let me provide two examples of how my religious beliefs impact on my classroom practice. I will begin by explaining the religious belief and then reflect on what role this has played in developing me as a teacher. invitation I am led to the experiences of the life of Jesus; whether it is him being moved with compassion to raise the son of the Widow of Nain, when he blessed the little children, or when he bore the pains and humiliation of the cross with grace and love for all people. This teaching builds on the belief that every person is a child of God. As such, I should treat every person or every child in my classroom in the way that Jesus would. He would not turn any away because of the way that they looked (the woman anointing his feet with oil), what they have done in the past (the woman caught in adultery), or how they treated him (he died for all of humanity even those who nailed him to the cross). I must build up every child whom I teach in every aspect of my dealings with them, I must not lose patience when they stretch it to breaking point, I must offer time and understanding. Every year as I address a new group of trainee teachers I offer my philosophy of teaching which is “To be the kind of teacher I want my children to have” which is only a slightly disguised plagiarism of the Golden Rule. For me, as a Christian, I must follow Jesus’ example in every aspect of my life. The command to follow him was not a part time opportunity.

Only when there is a coherence between our beliefs and our actions in every aspect of our lives can we truly teach with authority.