Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Authoritarian Seduction of the Church

The Authoritarian Seduction of the Church

            We are in an authoritarian moment. Around the world autocratic, nationalistic leaders offer simple, appealing solutions to complex challenges. The President of the United States openly admires a blood-stained autocrat in Russia and makes autocratic noises of his own. And facing questions of race, gender, and sexuality, many local churches and denominations are being drawn to ecclesial forms of authoritarianism.  It is easy to see the appeal. Strong leaders patrolling strong boundaries make the world less threatening, less bewildering. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is bad. There are enemies of the people and there are friends of the people.  And autocratic leaders tell you what is right and good and point out the enemies. To do this, of course, leaders stoke fears of the “other”, whether it is the racial other, the political other, the sexual other, or an imaginary other. To preserve control authoritarian leaders foment anger and make threats. If the “others” know what is good for them they will keep their heads down or get out of town.
            The church has always struggled with authoritarianism. Over time a scattered, diverse, group of communities with a charismatic leadership model morphed into a highly structured organization dominated by appointed leaders and strict rules. Through a liberal use of excommunication and heresy trials the hold of the popes and bishops was consolidated to the point that Cyprian was able to say, “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.” The Bishops were to enforce conformity, discipline their clergy, and instruct the laity on their roles and expectations.  Everyone was to obey their “superior.” This is not to say there was no opposition to the dominance of the hierarchy. There were “heretics” and schismatics aplenty. But in the end, they often ended up destroyed, exiled, or compromised. The Reformation brought some much-needed light and air into the rigid structures of the church—at some considerable cost. But then the reformation churches went on to create their own authoritarian structures—often using elaborate “confessions” to assure conformity.
            But authoritarianism does not produce healthy, free, and engaged communities. It feeds on fear and rules through silence. Rather than a flowing stream of new ideas it becomes a stagnant pool of stifling conformity. “Freedom” is reduced to moving carefully within a narrowly prescribed set of boundaries. Conversations are limited to safe and trivial topics. An authoritarian church may appear healthy, but it is being consumed by spiritual rot at its very core. The Spirit blows where it will and often produces something that is messy, exciting, open, free and terrifying to those who would control the conversation. An authoritarian church is deeply concerned with hanging on to money, power, influence, and numbers. It placates the powerful, threatens minorities, and bullies anyone who puts peace and quiet at risk. In an authoritarian church (or a church moving in that direction):

            Autocrats replace leaders
            Silence replaces conversation
            Fear replaces faith
            Legislating replaces learning
            Rules replace guidelines
            Secrecy replaces openness.

In an autocratic church:

            You conform or leave
            You can raise no real questions
            You must stifle your convictions
            You find closed doors and closed hearts.

            Among Evangelicals especially Paul is “the” apostle.  And yet he was a trouble maker. He drove both the Jewish leadership and the emerging leadership of the Jesus followers crazy. Wherever he went he created controversy and incited riots. He was not afraid to think new and radical thoughts.  He was not afraid to reframe the older ways of thinking about God and the world. He was the apostle of freedom.  It drove him to distraction when his converts would fearfully revert from the freedom of the gospel to the authoritarian comfort of rules and conformity. “You foolish Galatians,” he wrote to one early group of Jesus followers: “Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1) And later in the letter he would rail at them: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The thin gruel of ecclesial authoritarianism  is not likely to upset your stomach. But it is boring, tasteless, and offers no nourishment. Dear friends, resist it with your life.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

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