Religious authority is not something that exists “out there,” independent of humanity. On the contrary, the existence of religious authority is predicated upon a particular kind of relationship between those who are “religious leaders” and the rest of a religious community, considered “religious laity.” It is in this relationship that questions about religious authority, problems with religious conflict, and issues of religious behavior play out.
Because the legitimacy of any authority figure lies in the how well that figure meets the expectations of those over whom authority is supposed to be exercised, the ability of religious leaders to meet the varied expectations of the laity poses what may be the most fundamental problem of religious leadership. Many of the problems and conflicts between religious leaders and religious laity are located in the varied nature of religious authority itself.
Most religions began with the work of a charismatic figure who was necessarily separate and distinct from the rest of the religious community. This figure usually retains a revered status in religion, and as a result, even after a religion is no longer characterized by charismatic authority, the idea that a person with religious authority should also be separate, distinct, and possess special (spiritual) power is retained. This might be expressed in ideals of religious leaders being celibate, of living separately from others, or of eating a special diet.
Over time, charisma becomes “routinized,” to use Max Weber’s term, and charismatic authority becomes transformed into traditional authority. Those who hold positions of religious power do so by virtue of their connections to traditional ideals or beliefs. For example, a person born into a particular family is assumed to be the appropriate person to take over as shaman in a village once his father dies. Because of this, even after a religion is no longer structured by traditional authority, those who wield religious power are thought to require some connection, defined by tradition, to leaders from the past.
Eventually, traditional norms become standardized and codified, leading to a transformation into rational or legal systems of authority. In this case, those who have legitimate power in religious communities have it by virtue of things like training or knowledge; allegiance is owed to the office they hold rather than the person as an individual. This is only an ideal, however — in reality such requirements are combined with holdovers from when the religion was was structured along lines of charismatic and traditional authority.
Unfortunately, the requirements don’t always mesh very well together. For example, a tradition that members of the priesthood always be male can conflict with the rational requirement that the priesthood be open to anyone willing and able to meet the educational and psychological qualifications. As another example, the “charismatic” need for a religious leader to be separate from the community can conflict with the rational requirement that an effective and efficient leader be familiar with the problems and needs of the members — in other words, that he not simply be from the people but of the people as well.
The nature of religious authority is not simple because it has typically accumulated so much baggage over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. This complexity means that what the laity need and what the leaders are able to deliver is not always clear or easy to decipher. Every choice closes some doors and that leads to conflicts.
Sticking with tradition by restricting the priesthood to men alone, for example, will please those who need their authority figures to be firmly grounded in tradition, but it will alienate the laity who insist that legitimate religious power be exercised in terms of efficient and rational means, regardless of what the traditions of the past were limited to.
The choices made by the leadership do play a role in forming what sorts of expectations that the laity have, but they are not the only influence on those expectations. The wider civil and secular culture also plays an important role. In some ways the religious leadership will need to resist the pressures created by civil culture and hold on to traditions; but too much resistance will cause many members of the community to withdraw their acceptance of the leader’s legitimacy. This may lead to people drifting away from the church or, in the more extreme cases, to forming a new breakaway church with a new leadership that is acknowledged as legitimate.