Leading with Authority, part 2: A Key Distinction Regarding the Locus of Authority (Because who wants another Hitler?)

Yes, I used the word locus. Me, 1 – The World, 0.

This is part 2 in a series on what true authority really looks like, or, how it behaves.

After reading Charlotte Mason’s writings on this matter, I was both convinced and convicted.

  • I became convinced that how we treat a student is more important than what we teach a student. For those cynics in the crowd, don’t run off into the weeds with that statement. I’m not talking about teaching falsehood or garbage.
    • What I am saying is that how we relate to these young Persons is paramount if we want them to love learning, let alone love our schools. Of that, I am convinced. 
  • I am also convicted. After reading Charlotte Mason, I am staggered by the thought of how often I resort to autocracy with my own children, rather than functioning faithfully within the office of authority God has bestowed upon me as a father.
    • That distinction between authority and autocracy should be clearer by the end of this series. 

So what I want to do is begin with a key distinction regarding the locus of authority–that is, where is authority actually located. From there I will move to what autocracy is and how it behaves and finish up with how authority behaves.

All along, though, we must bear in mind that this conversation has woven through it the principle of docility, which speaks to someone being easy to handle or one easily taught

  • Neuroscience has shown that babies are born wanting to know. That is to say, they’re hardwired for knowledge. They instinctively react to different situations and people, all with the aim of connecting. Synapses are forming left and right based on how they’re learning to relate and draw connections. 

In other words, kids have a natural curiosity–which is what drives us all so crazy at times. It’s what leads them to shove crayons into the DVD player and ask 1,000 questions per hour and walk up to you, their loving mother, and proceed to smack you across your face…just to see what you’ll do!

But Charlotte Mason’s aim was to represent authority in a God-honoring fashion so that this docility was cultivated and cared for and grew up with the child, noting that when authority is violated, children shut down, as well as resent and bemoan the educational process.

So first up, a distinction regarding the locus of authority.

Where is authority vested?

There were centuries in which authority was believed to be vested in a person. Mason writes about “the divine right” of kings and of parents back in the day–whose view of God as some arbitrary, autocratic Being ultimately shaped their own forms of governing.

  • This is the kind of thinking that led to the absolute rule of Czars in Russia; as well as the likes of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini. Kim Jong-un would fit the description as well.Adolf-Hitler-tijdens-een-speech
  • Some of you were raised under what felt like an autocratic regime depending on your age.

But, Mason, writes…

“…we have been taught better; we know now that authority is vested in the office and not in the person; that the moment it [authority] is treated as a personal attribute it is forfeited. We know that a person in authority is a person authorized; and that he who is authorized is under authority.” (School Education, 1989. 11-12)

  • So, authority is vested in the office. The office of parent, for example. The office of teacher. The office of administrator. The office of President of the United States.

Accordingly, when someone asserts himself in an independent fashion or governs upon the impulse of his own will, that person, according to Mason, “Ceases to be authoritative and authorized, and becomes arbitrary and autocratic.”

We have a prime, modern illustration of this. Those who know me well know that I am one of the least politically charged people east of the Mississippi. What I’m about to say, then, only serves the agenda of illustrating the larger principle.  

Policies and party politics aside, at the very core, why is it that some people on every side of the political spectrum take issue with Donald Trump?

It’s not just that he’s a womanizer. It’s that from his Twitter feed to his taped conversations, people know deep down that he is not acting as one under authority. It’s why personalities on CNN AND Fox News comment that he’s acting in unpresidential fashion.

There is great authority and honor in the office of President of the United States. But when anyone, man or woman, abuses that office and operates from the impulse of his own will, he ceases to be authoritative and authorized.

Let’s shift focus from the Donald to me. This is exactly what happens when I get tired and worn down by having four kids, ages 7, 6, 4, and 2 in my house, and I shift from governing as one governed to absolute, arbitrary rule. It sounds like, “No! You can’t do that!” “You’re going to get spanked!” “One more time and I’m throwing the toy in the trash after I burn it in front of your eyes!” 

               No training. No discipling. No teaching. Thus, no authority. Only autocracy.

Authority rests, not in a person, but in the office. The question for us to ponder is whether we are behaving as authorized persons or as our own lesser versions of tyrannical autocrats whose names are emboldened in History texts.

To be continued…

Are You Leading with Authority, Really? part 1

Elementary school kids and teacher sit cross legged on floor

This is the first post in a series on educational leadership, particularly as it pertains to the difference between true, godly authority and its alternative, autocracy. The primary tenets I am writing about can be found in the work of Charlotte Mason, a mid-19th to early 20th-century British educator. Her philosophy of education is what undergirds the pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) of The Habersham School, where I am privileged to serve as Academic Dean.

Just this week I gave a talk to our wonderful staff on this principle of Authority versus Autocracy. This series is an adaptation of that talk.


Charlotte Mason codified several divine laws of education, the first being:

  • A child is a Person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of a person.

In other words, every single child we encounter–whether on the street, at the mall, or in a classroom–every single child bears the image of your heavenly Father and mine and is thus deserving of the dignity inherent to them.

It is educational and spiritual malpractice, then, for us to treat a child as anything less than an image bearer of God, as anything less than a fully capable and rational person who is being shaped and discipled (for better or worse) by what we do and how we do it.

To be as clear as possible – it is a sin to cause a little one to stumble, whether that little one is 5 or 15. The Lord knows that we as educators and parent have all sinned in this manner, whether with our own kids or standing in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) with others’ kids.

Ultimately, what I hope to accomplish in this series is to help Christian educators feel the weight of what we are called to do (and be). For those tempted to navigate elsewhere at this point, let me add that this has as much bearing on what you do as a parent, coach, office staff, Sunday school teacher, etc., as it does a teacher. If you are in an authoritative position around children with any regularity, in the presence of these heavenly wrought human beings, you will be held accountable for your interactions with them.

We must feel the weight of that, not in some sense of guilt-based obedience, but recognizing that only by God’s grace and only as we abide in Christ and are attuned to the Holy Spirit will we be able to carry out the high calling of being educators (regardless of location or title).

The series will carry on from here…

BUT, for more reading on this matter and others, I highly recommend you visit Ambleside Schools International. Bill and Maryellen St. Cyr are lovely people who care deeply about God’s kingdom and the role that Christian education plays in bringing that kingdom to earth.

The inevitable loneliness of leadership

crossing-crossroad-businessman-fashion

The really hard thing

Sorry, let me start again…

One of the really hard things about being in Christian leadership (and maybe any leadership) is the unspoken expectation that you have it figured out.

As someone serving on two sides of the aisle in Christian ministry, both in education and the church, the following are representative of the unspoken–

  • You believe all the right things about all the right things, especially those things that other people really hang their theological (or ideological) hats on
  • You uphold tradition because tradition is, well, tradition, and to question it means you’re a troublemaker
  • And you don’t change things, at least not too quickly, because someone might be offended. Someone’s feelings could possibly, perhaps at some time, be hurt…in fact, please don’t change things

It’s a lonely place.

For those in leadership, being in process on matters remains private, just like your obsession with CrossFit should be kept to yourself. I can’t even tell you what I mean…that’s how private it has to be, because to raise a question in voice or print is to signal to the congregation or constituency it’s open season on you.

What’s the point?

When dealing with educators, administrators, elders, pastors, and other Christian leaders, bear in mind that it can be/is lonely, more lonely than you realize.

  • Words are scrutinized and decisions are scandalized…

Usually in the most passive aggressive manner possible, though sometimes by a boisterous, victimized minority. And in the south it’s even portrayed politely at times, which just means the knife is pushed in at a slower rate.

I get it. I’ve played armchair preacher critic, teacher critic, and so on. But how much more do these folks–me, folks–need your prayers and grace?

We need a lot. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll have regrets–so many regrets. We’ll be judged by God more harshly for how we have stewarded these opportunities. We really don’t need other gods.

We need grace-filled, prayer-saturated, meal-sharing, cheer-leading men and women who will help us finish well.

Does that mean never ask questions? Of course not. But what are the motives? Speech should be seasoned with salt that it might give grace to the hearer…that’s how the apostle Paul put it.

I’m working on all of this myself. I’m extending more grace towards leaders. I’m slashing my suspicion quotient and choosing to trust.

That’s hard.