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Authoritarianism in the church

11 February 2012

I would like to draw your attention to this post from a blog by Wade Burleson. I don’t know anything about Mr. Burleson but was very interested by this post and intend to read some more of his blog. In it Burleson asserts that “Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that a Christian, because of title or position, has moral authority over another Christian.”  That is an assertion that may be difficult to back up if you take into consideration the moral authority that Paul assumed he had the congregations under his direction. I suppose though that you would have to say that Paul’s authority came not from some position or title , but from the Spirit of God the the people in those congregations recognized working in him. What I consider the most precient point that Burleson makes though is when he goes on to list ten ways that church leaders use power to influence thought, opinion, or behavior by force or control. It’s a pretty good list. The ten ways that he sees authoritarianism in the church are:

“(1). There is never any freedom to question the leader.

(2). The leader often makes claims of having special insights from God, insights that the laity are unable to possess.

(3). Disagreement with the leader is deemed a sign of the devil’s influence in one’s life.

(4). Events are designed to bring attention and praise to the leader rather than equipping others to do the work of the ministry.

(5). Any concept of equality is immediately labeled rebellion or the end result of a “liberal” denial of the Bible.

(6) Authoritarian leaders are only comfortable around like-minded leaders; thus, there is an unofficial ‘speaking tour’ where only imperial, authoritarian leaders share the platform with each other.

(7). The measure of success becomes the number of people who follow the leader (“It must be of God! Look at how many come to hear me speak!“)

(8). If a person leaves the community or church, the problem is always in the person who leaves, not the leadership.

(9). Leaders who wrongly perceive themselves as those “with authority” insulate their lives by demanding absolute loyalty through giving large financial benefits to their closest ‘advisors.’

(10). The ultimate end of this kind of Christian leadership is always more; more money, more power, more followers, more publicity, more, more, more…”

All but perhaps one or two of these points ring true to the very negative experience that I have had during my brief time in the Orthodox Church in America. I’ve written before about my extreme disappointment with that dysfunctional and, too often, abusive institution. The OCA is so organized that it tends toward making the institution the whole life of it’s members. There are subtle and not so subtle forces at work to separate members from old friends and family and to limit their associations only to other members of the Orthodox Church. After a while it begins to seem that all your friends are in the OCA and that the liturgical, dietary and other demands of the OCA are taking up the whole of your waking time. It controls all of your thought life. You spend your days thinking about ways to apply the demands of the priests and the monks to your own life.

Those who give themselves to the sometimes cult-like institution that is the OCA genuinely believe that that institution is giving them ample scope for thought, but they don’t seem to ever realize that it’s never original thought, never anything more than applying to their own, increasingly restricted,  little world a law that has already been laid down for them in the strictest detail by the priests and monks. To break from this vicious cycle is quite difficult. The demands of the OCA cult have filled every thought and moment of members lives to such a degree that the member contemplating a change becomes terrified of the vacuum that their life would seem if they were ever to leave the cult.

Having your life filled up in this way could be seen as a very good thing, marvelous even, if what was filling it was Our Lord Jesus Christ. And that is just what they believe is happening, and what I did too, at least at for a while. But eventually I came to see that way too much of it was only religiousness, authoritarianism, tribalism, and cultishness.

The manipulative techniques that Burleson describes in his evangelical context, and that I experienced in an Orthodox context, are remarkably effective.  putting yourself in the authority of a bishop, priest, monk, or protestant pastor who is skilled in these methods can be a very intense experience. Victims of this kind of abusive authority can be left disoriented, damaged, and isolated. The recovery process can be long, and he individual can be left with difficulties in establishing trusting relationships with other more healthy believers, congregations, and clergy.

This kind of manipulation in the supposed name of God is nothing new. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was martyred by the Nazis, wrote of its pernicious effect in his book “Life Together”:

“Thus there is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person. He has been overpowered … ” (page 33)

The church of Jesus Christ is however not meant to function in this way. In the Gospel according to Matthew chapter 23 verse 8-11, we can find Jesus saying:

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Jesus is the One who rules in His Church, and under His lordship, we are all brothers and sisters, equally. Jesus explicitly rejected the pagan ideas of authority by saying in Mark chapter 10, verse 43 that, “It shall not be so among you.” The New Testament places little value on authority that is derived merely from any office or position. Christ alone has the rules in the church and He has no vicar on earth but His Spirit, who resides in the heart of every believer. Any authority that a priest or pastor does have comes only from the faithful witness to Christ that others are able to see in their life.

And where in the church today can we find this kind of faithful leadership? Leaders like this are there, but you’ll have to look for them. and you might have to re evaluate the criteria that you are used to judging leaders by. Every one of us has someone in our life that is a faithful spiritual leader. But they are often those people that it wouldn’t naturally occur to us to think of in that way. They might not have those qualities that would easily lead us to label them with the word “leader.”

These may be those people that inspire us, encourage us, make us laugh. They are people through whom we are able to see Christ. We can see Christ in their attitudes, in their love, in their actions, or in their peaceful spirit. These true and trustworthy spiritual leaders are more focussed on bearing fruits of the spirit like “humility” than they are on claiming spiritual gifts like “leadership.” They are the sort that C.S.Lewis was talking about in his book, “Mere Christianity”, when he aptly described the humble person who, “Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”

The best advice that I can give to you is that you seek out these kind of people in your own life and pay more attention to what they have to teach you through their humility, patience, and love.  And of course the otherside of that bit of advice is that we’d all do better if we paid less attention to those who revel in calling themselves leaders.

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