Types of Religious Authority

Communication, Structuring, and Wielding of Power

Church in Brooklyn, stop sign and one way sign
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Whenever the nature and structure of authority becomes a subject of discussion, Max Weber’s tripartite division of types of authority figures inevitably plays a role. That is especially true here because religious authority is especially well suited for being explained in terms of charismatic, traditional, and rationalized systems.

Weber described these three three ideal types of authority as being regarded as legitimate — that is to say, they are accepted as creating binding obligations on the part of others.

After all, unless a person is obligated to obey certain commands in a manner which goes beyond mere external submission, the very concept of authority is nullified.

It is important to understand that these are ideal types of authority and it would be very unusual to find any of them existing in a “pure” form in human society. At most one might find a type of authority which is predominantly one type or another but with at least one of the others mixed in. The complexities of human social relationships guarantee that authority systems will be complex as well, and that is certainly true of religious authorities.

When examining the actions of a religious institution, it is important also to examine the structure of authority which the members of the religious community believe legitimate those actions. Upon what authoritative basis do people believe that men may be priests but not women? Upon what basis may a religious group expel one of its members?

And, finally, on what basis may a religious leader legitimately ask the members of a community to kill themselves? Unless we understand the nature of these structures of authority, the behavior of the community will be incomprehensible.

Charismatic Authority

Charismatic authority is perhaps the most unusual of the bunch — it is relatively rare compared to the others, but it is especially common to religious groups.

Indeed, many if not most religions have been founded on the basis of charismatic authority. This sort of authority derives from the possession of “charisma,” a characteristic which sets a person apart from others. This charisma may be regarded as stemming from divine favor, spiritual possession, or any number of sources.

Political examples of charismatic authority include figures like kings, warrior heroes, and absolute dictators. Religious examples of charismatic authority include prophets, messiahs, and oracles. Whatever the case, the authority figure claims to have special powers or knowledge unavailable to others and which therefore entitles him to obedience from others not similarly blessed.

Key, however, is the fact that the mere assertion that one is distinctive is not enough. All types of authority depend upon the psychological factor of other people perceiving that that authority is legitimate, but this is much stronger when it comes to charismatic authority. People must agree, for example, that a person has been touched by God and that they now have a transcendent duty to follow that person in what he or she commands.

Because charismatic authority is not based upon externalities like traditional or legal authority, the bond between the authority figure and followers is highly emotional in nature.

There exists a devotion on the part of the followers which stems from an unwavering trust — often blind and fanatical. This makes the bond very strong when it is working; yet should the emotion fade, the bond breaks down dramatically and the acceptance of the legitimacy of authority can disappear entirely.

When a group is regulated by a system of charismatic authority, it is typical for there to be a single person occupying the pinnacle of power; charismatic authority does not readily share the limelight. Because this figure is often unable to perform all tasks necessary for the regulation of the group, of course, others are assigned positions — but these are not careers with salaries. Instead, people are heeding a “call” to the “higher purpose” which the charismatic leader also presumably serves.

These assistants share in the charisma of the prophet or leader by their association with him.

Charismatic authority never appears in a vacuum — in every case, there already exists some form of traditional or legal authority which creates boundaries, norms, and social structures. By its very nature charismatic authority poses a direct challenge to both tradition and law, whether in part or whole. This is because the legitimacy of the authority cannot derive either from tradition or law; instead, it derives from a “higher source” which demands that people pay it greater allegiance than they currently show towards other authorities.

Both tradition and law are limited by their very nature — there are constraints on action which charisma does not recognize or accept. Charismatic authority is not stable and need not be consistent. It is characterized more by movement and revolution — it is a means of overturning traditions and laws for an entirely new social and political order. In this, it carries the seeds of its destruction.

The emotional and psychological investment needed on the part of followers is very high — it can last for a while, but eventually it must peter out. Social groups cannot be based upon continuing revolution alone. Eventually, new stable systems of action must be created. Charisma is the antithesis of routine, but humans are habitual creatures who naturally develop routines.

Eventually, the practices of a charismatic group become routine and routines eventually become traditions. Inevitably the original charismatic leader must die, and any replacements would be but a pale shadow of the original. The practices and teachings of the original leader will if the group is to survive, become traditions. Thus charismatic authority becomes a traditional authority. We can see this movement in Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism.

Traditional Authority

A social group that is organized along the lines of traditional authority is one which relies heavily upon traditions, customs, habits, and routines in order regulate human behavior, to distinguish right from wrong, and to assure sufficient stability to allow the group to survive.

Whatever has come before is assumed to be the way things should be, either because they have always worked or because they were sanctified by higher powers in the past.

Those who hold positions of power in systems of traditional authority typically do not do so because of personal competence, knowledge, or training. Instead, people hold their positions based upon characteristics such as age, gender, family, etc. At the same time, however, the allegiance that people owe towards authority figures is very much personal rather than towards some “office” that the person holds.

This doesn’t mean that the exercise of such authority can be entirely arbitrary. People may owe allegiance to a person rather than their office or to tradition as a whole, but if a leader tries to violate tradition, the legitimacy his authority requires may be called into question and perhaps revoked entirely.

In a sense, the authority figure owes his allegiance to the boundaries and structures created by tradition. When such authority figures are rejected and opposed or both, it is the person who is normally opposed, in the name of the traditions which have been transgressed. Only rarely are the traditions themselves rejected, for example when a charismatic figure appears and promises to overthrow the old order in the name of a higher purpose or power.

While charismatic authority is by nature independent of tradition or law, and legal authority must be independent of the whims or desires of individuals, traditional authority occupies an interesting middle ground between the two. Traditional authority figures have enormous freedom of discretion, but only within certain limitations which are largely outside their control. Change is certainly possible, but not easily and not quickly.

It is important to keep in mind another important difference between legal/rational and traditional authority, and that is the fact that the traditions which create the social structures of authority are not codified. If that were to happen, then they would acquire the status of external laws and that would lead us to legal/rational authority. It is true that the power of a traditional authority may be supported by external laws, but the authority itself is regarded as deriving primarily from the traditions and only secondarily, if at all, from written laws which codify tradition.

To consider a very separate example, the idea that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman but never between more than two people or two people of the sex is derived from social and religious traditions. There are laws which codify the nature of this relationship, but the laws themselves are not cited as the fundamental reason against gay marriage. Instead, gay marriage is said to be excluded as a possibility precisely because of the authoritative and binding nature of traditions which are held as a sort of collective common sense.

Although tradition can easily have a strong hold on people, that often isn’t enough. The problem with pure tradition is its informal nature; because of this, it can only be enforced in an informal manner. When a group becomes large enough and diverse enough, informal enforcement of social norms simply isn’t possible anymore. Transgressions become too appealing and too easy or both to get away with.

Those interested in preserving tradition must, therefore, seek other methods for enforcement — formal methods which rely upon codified rules and regulations. Thus, social pressures which challenge or threaten the sanctity of tradition cause a group’s traditions to be transformed into formal laws and rules. What we have then is not a system of traditional authority but rather legal/rational authority.

Rational, Legal, and Professional Authority

Rationalized or legal authority can be found throughout history, but it has achieved the most widespread acceptance in the modern industrialized era. The purest form of rationalized authority is the bureaucracy, one which Max Weber discussed at some length in his writings. It would be fair to say, in fact, that Weber considered the bureaucratic form of administration to be a symbol of the modern world.

Weber described rational or legal authority as a system that relies on people’s acceptance of a number of important factors. First, this type of authority is necessarily impersonal in nature. When people follow the commands of such an authority figure, it has nothing to do with personal relationships or traditional norms. Instead, allegiance is owed to the office that a person holds on the basis of (presumably) competence, training, or knowledge. Even those who are in charge and who exercise authority are subject to the same norms as everyone else — to quote a phrase, “no one is above the law.”

Second, the norms are codified and ideally based on expedience or rational values. In reality, tradition plays an important role here, and much of what becomes codified has less to do with reason or experience than with traditional customs. Ideally, though, the social structures are supposed to be dependent upon whatever is most effective at reaching the goals of the group.

Third and closely related is that rationalized authority tends to be closely circumscribed in its sphere of competence. What this means is that legal authorities are not absolute authorities — they do not have the power or legitimacy to regulate every aspect of a person’s behavior. Their authority is limited to only particular subjects — for example, in a rationalized system, a religious authority figure has the legitimacy necessary to instruct a person on how to pray, but not also on how to vote.

The legitimacy of a person who holds their position of legal authority can be challenged when she presumes to exercise authority outside the area of her competency. It can be argued that part of what creates legitimacy is the willingness to understand one’s formal boundaries and not take action outside them — again, a sign that the impersonal regulations apply to everyone equally.

Some form of technical training is typically required of anyone filling an office in a system of rational authority. It doesn’t matter (ideally) what family someone was born into or how charismatic their behavior might be. Without at least the appearance of the appropriate training and education, that person’s authority is not regarded as legitimate. In most churches, for example, a person cannot become a priest or minister without having successfully completed a predetermined course of theological and ministerial training.

There are sociologists who argue that the increasing importance of this sort of training justifies the use of a fourth category of authority, usually called technical or professional authority. This sort of authority is dependent almost entirely on a person’s technical skills and very little or even not at all upon holding some particular office.

For example, medical doctors are regarded as having considerable medical authority by virtue of the fact that they have successfully completed medical school, even if they have not been hired for a particular post at a hospital. At the same time, though, holding such a position also serves to increase a doctor’s authority, thus serving to demonstrate how different types of authority appear together and work to reinforce one another.

As stated before, however, no system of authority is “pure” — this means that rationalized systems also typically preserve within them traits of earlier types of authority, both traditional and charismatic. For example, many Christian churches today are “episcopal,” which means that the principle authority figures known as bishops control the functioning and direction of the churches. People become bishops through a formal process of training and working, allegiance to a bishop is allegiance to the office rather than to the person, and so on. In several very important ways, the position of bishop is enmeshed in a rational and legal system.

However, the very idea that there is a “bishop” who has legitimate religious authority over a Christian community is predicated upon the belief that the office can be traced back to Jesus Christ. They have inherited the charismatic authority Jesus is believed to have originally possessed in relation to his immediate followers. There are no formal or charismatic means to decide how and why a church’s bishops are part of a lineage going back to Jesus. This means that this inheritance is itself a function of tradition. Many of the characteristics of the office of bishop, such as the requirement to be male, are also dependent upon religious tradition.