Gemma Papworth attempts to answer one of religion’s toughest questions

The issue of authority in religion is an often complex, confusing area which tends to have an even more complex, confusing answer. For many, the concept of a benevolent, transcendent God is an almost impossible idea to comprehend.

Yet for others, the words of humans can be seen as untrustworthy and open to being misinterpreted. So, as an RS teacher how do we decipher these complex ideas?

Religions are always changing. Over the 16 years that I’ve taught, I’ve lost count of the number of textbooks that have been published and become redundant due to the changing nature of religion. Of course, the basic premise of each religion has predominantly remained the same, but the application of these beliefs has often had to change with time to allow for followers to apply it to their lives.

This isn’t a weakness but a demonstration of how religion is, for many, a way of life and not just something followed on certain days of the week. However, something that can often cause frustration for many is the issue of authority in religion.

Should religion remain unchanging to have any credibility? If God created the world, why does religion change so much? I’m not suggesting there is an answer to this highly complex and possibly controversial question, but it is one that links directly to the issue of authority.

It’s true to say that, on the whole, most religions accept there is an unchanging truth. Is it more acceptable to follow the authority of a human who can we can empirically prove, or the authority of a God who, for many, cannot be experienced?

This is something, as RS teachers, that we must get across to our students while getting them to explore different ideas.


Max Weber has a particular viewpoint on religious authority; he divides it into groups, two of them being charismatic and traditional. Although Weber was discussing authority figures, not the power or right to give orders, these groups still apply.

While he did not believe these types of authority exist in pure form, he said in every society you will be able to identify the concepts. For example, traditional authority will have a focus on traditions and customs that regulate how people act or behave.

It will be based on what has happened in the past and actions have become regulated and continued to happen. For example, the Catholic Church following the authority of the Pope. This is demonstrated in the idea of marriage – traditionally seen to be a union between man and woman with the purpose to procreate; in today’s society we have civil partnership and gay marriage.

For many religions it’s difficult to accept gay marriage as it is not seen as ‘traditional’ as their religious authority permits marriage with the aim to procreate. However, young people need to be accepting of all viewpoints and this is something, as RS teachers, we need to present to them.

An RS teacher needs to be unbiased, regardless of their own beliefs. This is not to say they need to be accepting of anything immoral, more that young people need to understand and appreciate there is always more than one belief.


Another type of authority Weber discusses is charismatic authority, which is often seen to be synonymous with religion. An example of a charismatic leader would be a prophet or a sage, someone who is different to others, spreading information about their beliefs to those who hold alternative beliefs while often claiming to have special powers.

While this is not true for all prophets, many of whom were messengers of God rather than possessors of special powers, there are many who claim to have had a religious experience and feel they have a duty to tell others about this.

While charismatic authority often stems from traditional ideas, it’s more emotive in nature allowing humans to feel closer to it and part of it. This is why there are often negative feelings or emotions connected to the charismatic ideals, as many feel that it’s removed from the true meaning of religion.

This is where it becomes difficult to distinguish religious authority as there are many adherents who believe charismatic authority is the ‘right’ way, while others argue only traditional authority is ‘right’ as it’s closer to the original meaning.

In a classroom it becomes almost impossible to present these ideas, so close yet so far from agreeing with each other.


One thing I always do at the start of Year 7 is teach Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. This allows students to understand what makes a belief system a ‘religion’ while giving them something concrete to use in their definitions and ideas.

I use it to explain the nature of religion rather than give a definitive definition. This way students can see and decide where religious authority comes from. In today’s world, RS is vital in giving students the tools to see different perspectives and understand that religion and belief are not two dimensional.

There are very few subjects where the nature of authority comes under such scrutiny and we need our students to be able to deal with this conundrum. There will be people reading this who disagree with what I have said and that’s fine, it just goes to show how complex and confusing religious authority really is, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

Gemma Papworth  https://twitter.com/PapworthRe

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