One of my favorite websites is the Online Etymology Dictionary. A favorite topic at dinner in our family is “Where did this phrase or that word come from?” (We’ve recently explored the fascinating history of ketchup.)
According to the OED, the word authority comes to us from c. 1200, autorite, auctorite, “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture,” from Old French autorité, auctorité “authority, prestige, right, permission, dignity, gravity; the Scriptures”, from Latin auctoritatem “invention, advice, opinion, influence, command,” from auctor “master, leader, author”.
We see in this etymology that two primary ideas that come to mind when we think about an authority. Either someone who is an authority (from the Latin auctor) or some thing that is an authority and settles an argument.
Very few of us qualify as a true Renaissance man (or woman) – a polymath such as Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo Galilei. We cannot draw all of our knowledge from our own observations and experiences – and neither did these great men – but we accept authorities, at least temporarily, to fill the gaps in our experiences.
Most of us are not going to enroll in pre-med school or check out a dozen volumes on biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, etc. before being willing to submit ourselves to a doctor’s authority when we are sick. You recognize that the doctor has already accomplished the necessary years of study to diagnose your illness and prescribe the needed exercises or diet or medicines to help you get better. You recognize his authority and you are willing to submit to his authority.
Obviously children cannot become experts before submitting to their teachers as they enroll in school. That is backwards. They (or at least their parents) have to recognize the authority of the teachers and the children will submit to the teachers in order to learn a sufficient education.
Consider then, that the Church combines both of these examples. The Church has been described as a hospital. The congregation is in varying degrees of illness, coming for remedy. The Church is also there to teach. In both of these ways, the Church is an authority and has the authority of Christ to disciple the nations. But more on that later.