What Is Authority?

authority

  1. The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
  2. A person or organization having political or administrative power and control.
  3. The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

The Book of Mormon speaks about authority in multiple ways, some positive and some negative. Today, I have found it useful to classify the 47 appearances of the term according to the three definitions given by the Oxford Dictionary:

  1. The ability to compel obedience (20)
  2. A delegated administrative duty (16)
  3. Persuasive ability (11)

“I seek not for power, but to pull it down”

Wherever the word “authority” means compulsion, the Book of Mormon universally condemns it:

  • Lehi defended Nephi from the accusation that he had sought authority over his brothers (2 Nephi 1:25).
  • Both the people of King Limhi and the people of Alma suffered because the Lamanites “[exercised] authority over them” (Mosiah 21:3, Mosiah 24:8-9), forcing them to carry heavy burdens and perform hard labor.
  • Captain Moroni made it his mission to fight against “those who sought power and authority over the people” (Alma 51:8). At least five times in his letter to Pahoran, the chief judge, he condemned “those who are seeking for power and authority” (Alma 60:16-18, 27-28). In the conclusion of his letter, he reaffirmed his own motives: “I seek not for power, but to pull it down” (Alma 60:36).
  • Mormon attributes the rise of the Gadianton robbers, and the consequent collapse of Nephite society, to the desire for authority (Helaman 2:5, Helaman 7:4, 3 Nephi 6:15).
  • After the Savior’s ministry on the American continent, the people who heard his teachings lived in peace for about 166 years. Eventually, pride returned, which led to contention, which led again to a desire for authority. A church was established which “did exercise power and authority over the disciples of Jesus who did tarry,” casting them into prison, into furnaces of fire, and into dens of wild beasts (4 Nephi 1:30-33).

“Having authority given me of Jesus Christ”

In any organization, definition of roles and responsibilities is important. When Alma baptized several hundred people at the waters of Mormon, he stated that he had authority from God to perform this ordinance (Mosiah 18:13). Thereafter, he ordained priests, instructed them on their duties, and clearly defined the limitations of their authority (Mosiah 18:18-26).

Later, as he established the church in the land of Helam and in the land of Zarahemla, he was careful who he chose and authorized to fulfill church functions (Mosiah 23:17). He warned the people that they should “trust no one to be [their] teacher nor [their] minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14).

When King Limhi and his people were converted to the gospel, they wanted to be baptized like the people of Alma, but they had to wait because “there was none in the land that had authority from God” (Mosiah 21:33).

When the Savior visited the American continent immediately following His death and resurrection, one of the first things He did was to clarify who was authorized to perform baptisms in His church. Calling Nephi forward, He said, “I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven” (3 Nephi 11:21). He also authorized others to baptize. When they performed baptisms, they were instructed to specifically state that they were authorized to do so by Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 11:24-25).

“They taught with power and authority of God”

Many times in the Book of Mormon, the word “authority” refers to persuasive ability. Just as a prominent professor might be considered an “authority” on a subject (and therefore worthy of our attention and trust), servants of God can speak with such convincing power that people are persuaded to believe their message. For example:

  • When Alma the Younger met the sons of Mosiah at the end of the fourteen-year mission among the Lamanites, he was overwhelmed by their spiritual growth. They had searched the scriptures and “given themselves to much prayer and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God” (Alma 17:2-3).
  • King Benjamin, with the help of “many holy prophets,” taught the gospel to his people “with power and authority,” with the result that peace was again established in the land (Words of Mormon 1:16-18).
  • The prophet Abinadi was able to deliver his entire message to King Noah and his priests, even though they didn’t want to hear it, because “the Spirit of the Lord was upon him; and his face shone with exceeding luster…and he spake with power and authority from God” (Mosiah 13:5-6).
  • The prophet Nephi and his brother Lehi were able to convince thousands of Lamanites of the truth of the gospel because they preached with “great power and authority” (Helaman 5:18-19). Many of those Lamanites, in turn, successfully taught many of the Nephites by preaching “with exceedingly great power and authority” (Helaman 6:4-5). Later, Mormon tells us that Nephi taught his own people with such power and authority that “it were not possible that they could disbelieve his words” (3 Nephi 7:17-18).

Conclusion

Today, I will remember what I have learned about authority from the Book of Mormon. I will remember that compulsion is not consistent with God’s will. I will strive to fulfill my responsibilities in the church, acting in a way that is consistent with the authority I have been given. I will also seek for persuasive power and authority in teaching the gospel, following the examples of the sons of Mosiah, Nephi and Lehi, and others.

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2 Responses to What Is Authority?

  1. Jenny Furse says:

    Great insights and helpful categorization, thank you!

    I have been thinking a lot about agency recently. I love what you say about authority as compulsion being condemned throughout the Book of Mormon. It’s just not within the character of God. And yet, He has all authority and exercises it perfectly in accordance with His plan.

    Like

    • Paul Anderson says:

      Thanks for the comment.
      I agree that it is not in God’s nature to compel obedience. I think it’s interesting that D&C 121 teaches us to lead by persuasion, not by compulsion, with the eventual promise that, “thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

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