'I want you to be free of anxieties....I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord...' -- I Cor 7:32,35

In the 1960s, there was a saying that gained a great deal of popularity: "Question all authority." It became a slogan for an era that challenged all conventional institutions.

The civil rights movement, the peace movement and the women's rights movement challenged the authority of government and other social institutions to bring about changes in our society.

Questioning the authority of government and social institutions was used as the basis of their challenge to the authority of God over all earthly institutions. They asked, "Where does authority come from?" If all authority comes from God and we are all equal in the eyes of God, then discrimination, inequality and war cannot be tolerated and institutions which promote such behavior have no authority in the eyes of God.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of God's authority in his great speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. He spoke about how we can live in harmony with one another by respecting the fact that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.

Dr. King was able to successfully challenge racism and discrimination because he stood on the authority of God. Dr. King followed a rich tradition of Christianity to challenge institutions that are persecuting and discriminating against people.

Like the martyrs of the early Church, Dr. King gave his life for this belief. Members of the early Church, when faced with persecution, stood their ground and challenged the greatest institution of its time: the Roman Empire. The early Church continually questioned the authority of the Romans by stating that they represented God, the greatest of all authorities.

They pointed to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ: By proclaiming those words, they found success and strength, because the words of Jesus have authority. Jesus is the living Word of God; His Word, when lived out, brings about change.

Jesus questioned authority: that is, the false authority of the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus taught in the synagogue, they were taken with Him because "He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes" (Mk 1:21-28). The scribes' deeds were contrary to their words.

Through baptism, we all have been given authority from God to teach as Jesus taught, to heal as Jesus healed and to make holy the world around us. This sometimes means we must question authority. After all, it is part of our rich Christian tradition.

There is a tension the readings for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time reveals. The faithful are called to challenge authority, especially when those in authority perpetuate injustice, prejudice and hatred. The tension exists when those who have not been given the authority to challenge the conventions of our times take it upon themselves to do so.

By whose authority?
"If a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die" (Dt 18:15-20). The believer who listens to his or her own words rather taking those words to God in prayer risks doing what Psalm 95 warns against: "If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts."

The Israelites questioned God's authority in the desert. God, who gave them the ability to question the authority of Pharaoh by delivering them from slavery and death in Egypt, is now having His own authority challenged. They are being unjust and prejudiced. As God's chosen people, they have been given authority, and along with authority goes responsibility.

St. Paul tells the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 7:32-35) they must recognize that responsibilities will tie them down and they will be conflicted, especially by need to care for their families. These responsibilities mean they will not be able to exercise the authority God has given them: "I should like you to be free of anxieties." Anxieties cause the believer to be distracted from God.

The believer must stand his or her ground and rely on the authority of God; otherwise, the believer's words will not be accepted. If a believer is to challenge earthly authority, he or she must do so with the authority of God. Only then can injustice, prejudice, racism and discrimination be overcome.