Faith and Reason: Golden headship feet of clay: Tom Wright considers the nature of authority in the the Bible and in the Church. His The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK, pounds 15) is published this week

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The Independent Online
SHELLEY's 'traveller from an antique land' came back with news of a giant authority: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone', surrounded by desert. Nearby, in the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.

Then, with a Delphic double meaning, the punch-line:

And on the pedestal these words

appear:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair]'

Shelley probably wasn't alluding to Daniel, chapter 2, but there are some striking similarities. There we find, in a vision, a statue with a head of gold, a torso of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and (of course) feet of clay. The feet were struck by the 'stone', which broke them in pieces. The 'stone' then became a mountain which filled the whole world.

Daniel's statue symbolises the power and arrogance of human empire. His 'stone' was understood by first-century Jews as the coming Kingdom of God, which would subvert and overturn all human pride. The early Christians saw the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the rejection and vindication of the 'stone'.

Human arrogance did its worst to Jesus; and God vindicated him as the subverting and redeeming Lord of the whole world. This is, in fact, the heart of the Christian gospel right from the start. Christianity was built on a radical subversion of the arrogant authority claimed by human societies, and by individuals or groups within them. 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,' said Jesus; 'but it shall not be so among you' (Mark 10:42). There is no room for Ozymandias in the Kingdom of God.

What then does authority or headship mean for the Christian?

Phrases like 'the authority of the Bible' are often thrown around as though we knew what 'authority' meant, and were simply claiming that this authority (whatever it is) is contained in the Bible. Appeal is then made to the Reformation tradition: if you do not agree with 'the authority of the Bible', then (so the rhetorical implication runs) you are obviously either a crypto-Catholic, or a radical, bent on abandoning old-fashioned Christianity altogether.

But supposing 'authority' actually meant something rather different from the frowning, coldly commanding attitude taken by golden heads on solemn statues the world over (and, alas, in the Church as well). If the Gospel redefines authority in terms of the execution of Jesus - the radical antithesis of all human power structures - the same turns out to be true of the Bible itself.

As it stands, the Bible as a whole is not a manual of doctrine to be believed or ethical rules to be obeyed. It is a storybook. And stories possess a quite different sort of authority from manuals and rule-books.

The biblical story of God and the world focuses on the story of God and Israel, which then leads the eye towards one sharp point, the story of God and Jesus. By this story, the Bible exercises a far richer, more subtle, authority than it could have any other way. Story-telling is a creative, dynamic authority, bringing new worlds into view and enabling hearers to enter them freely. The biblical story sets us free by subverting the enslaving stories that we bear on all sides, not least stories of cold, arrogant authority that leaves us crushed and choiceless.

The 'authority of the Bible', therefore, cannot be used as a weapon of arrogance and oppression without radically undermining the Bible itself (which, of course, has happened often enough in church history). This should not surprise us because actually the biblical doctrine of authority runs like this: all authority comes from God, and is given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). If 'the authority of the Bible' means anything, it must relate closely to Jesus' authority, which was fully expressed on the cross.

What, then, are we to make of 'headship' in the New Testament? What sort of authority does it imply? How can we avoid turning it into the sort of authority possessed by Ozymandias, or by the head of gold on Daniel's statue?

The fullest exposition of headship in the New Testament occurs in Ephesians 5:21-33. This passage is about marriage, not about the position of male and female within society, nor yet about ministry within the church. But it is about headship, which has featured prominently in recent debate about ministry.

The meaning of 'headship' in this passage subverts Ozymandias-style headship in exactly the same way that the Gospel and the Bible both do. Christ is the head of the Church, says Paul; that is, he 'loved the Church and gave himself up for her'.

The death of Jesus is the act which demonstrates what headship really means.

Elsewhere, Paul explains in more detail what Jesus's death involved; it meant radically abandoning all privilege, all status, all authority of the head-of-gold variety (Philippians 2:6-8, 2 Corinthians 8:9). The only truly Christian headship wears a crown of thorns.

We cannot, therefore, use the idea of 'headship' in a discussion of ministry as though it settled the issue. Nor does it help to cite biblical authority as though the current debate were that easy. There are difficult passages in the New Testament. For instance, it is not clear from the Greek whether 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which forbids the woman to teach the man, refers to all women and all men, or simply to wife-and-husband combinations. But the good old Reformation rule ran as follows; expound the difficult parts of scripture in the light of the clear parts. And in Ephesians 5, which is a very clear passage, we find this subversive definition of 'headship': it means abandoning rights, privileges and status.

Whatever conclusions we may reach about ministry, then, any solution that enshrines privilege, maintains vested interest, and shores up existing status can claim no authority from the Bible, the gospel or the notion of headship.

Such solutions possess the authority of Ozymandias, presiding over a pathless desert, not the authority of the cross, going out to save the world. The coldly commanding head turns out to be the head in the sand. Arguments that emphasise heads of gold may turn out to have feet of clay.

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