On Authority – Part 2

Last week, I talked about the dangerous of a spiritual community with unaccountable authorities and blindly obedient followers. I also mentioned that I attended a church like this and had to wrangle with this problem. So in this second of a three part post, I will continue to discuss these issues and my responses.

After leaving the first of many churches with bad leadership, I remember facing the struggle of thinking of religion as an evil thing- a tool for corrupt men to control the emotional and relational lives of the people under them. But in the end, even though the pain of loosing friends and a time of intense anger, the only thing that I decided was hopelessly flawed was church, not God.

This was not a huge jump for me. It’s easy to see that power corrupts in the sphere of national politics. A church or religious denomination also has places of authority and leadership, so it is not hard to make the connection that people in both spheres will inevitably become corrupted. This simple realization was based on my unique Christian worldview, which I realize is not shared by all, and thus requires explanation. Some Christians may argue that God is in the heart of Christian leaders, so they are somewhat immune from the corrupting influences that politicians succumb to. But I believe that anyone who is a student of history will find this belief laughable. This view may be traced in part to a Beza-Calvinistic worldview which says that only Christians are capable of good in the world. I am not arguing that Christians are not capable of great good, nor that God cannot influence their hearts; I am simply arguing that they are capable of great evil, and can ignore God quite easily. The corruption of power taints both the non-Christian and Christian alike. I know because it twisted me when I was a leader in the church.

So this became pretty clear to me. If I were a leader in the church, I would not trust me either. I know myself pretty well, and I know I have many human failings – pride, anger, etc. I know these failings will motivate me to do “religious” things for the wrong reasons. How could I put myself even under the leadership of a person like me and let them do all the thinking?! Human leadership in the church is flawed, and cannot be trusted. For those of us living the spiritual life, our leaders cannot be trusted completely, and what they say must always be tested by some other standard.

So what standards can we turn to if it is not our religious leaders? Myself? My own beliefs? Certainly not, because I am no different then they are. I have already talked at length about motivations behind my own beliefs and my “religious” actions. If I were in their position, would I not fall pray to the same pressures and give in to the same temptations. I might not be so bad as to lie and steal “for Jesus’, but would I not find corruption in some other area eventually? People who understand human nature will come to realize that ultimate spiritual authority must exist outside of ourselves and of spiritual human leadership. They are incapable of this job, and so are we.

Another truth that pressed upon me was that God was not at fault for corrupt leadership. A pastor could be corrupt, but that didn’t mean God was. Even if there were a corrupt church whose denomination and its authority structure all the way to the top could become corrupt (sadly, this is more the norm than the exception), that wasn’t proof that God was. It simply meant that men could ignore the voice of God in their lives and fall prey to corruption. Because God wants us to be free, He allows us to follow our selfish natures. This means by rational logic that His warnings and attempts at correction can be ignored. Either we are free to ignore God, or we are robots. It cannot be both ways. How can we hold God responsible for our own selfishness?

This last line of thinking might be odd to some outside of the Christian faith. Would not the behavior of the leaders or even the followers of a religion epitomize the God of that religion? I have in the past made similar judgments along the same logical lines criticizing other religions. I have come to realize that I am mistaken in those judgments. The behavior of religious people is not an accurate reflection of their god. Why? Because human nature, the conscious and the selfish nature, throw a monkey wrench into the otherwise straightforward comparison. Is the religious person being selfish, or are the mimicking their god? In the case of Christianity, anyone familiar with the teachings of Christ in the Bible would realize very quickly that the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the People’s Temple are very, very far away from anything Christ would approve of.

But returning to our argument about corrupt leadership, it appeared to me that large religious structures can do even worse damage – if everyone from below trusts the guy at the top, and he/she is corrupt, they will be drawn to the same corruption though the stronger influence of their selfish natures, and they will altogether fall and drag thousands of their followers down with them. This is a concept that I want to draw out in a diagram – the concept of the social selfish nature – a societal influence on all members of a human community or society that each share the selfish nature, but as a whole, are influenced by a more independent manifestation of it. If you don’t think that this level of corruption is possible with Christian society, I encourage you again to read history. Look up the crusades and the behavior of the catholic church in the middle ages. If you dismiss religion in human history as being devoid of modern perspectives, and that we have all learned from our mistakes, look up Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. A fellow seminary student told me an interesting quote that sums up my thoughts on the subject – “Beware the constructs of men.” Especially religious constructs.

So instead of turning to atheism or some milder variation after seeing this disaster, I clung to what I only believed in theory before – that no man alone is a spiritual authority, and especially not if they fall outside the guidelines of other independent sources of authority. This is why to this day, I rely on the Bible as an absolute authority on spiritual matters – because to me anything else means I have to trust another human being with my spiritual life.

Let’s say I do – what could happen?

  • A bad scenario would be that I end up dead, say if I attended a church like the People’s Temple. This may be surprising to some, but I do not think this is the worse scenario.
  • The worse one is one that destroys my spiritual life and continually separates me from God, so that I become more and more of a shell of a human being the older I get. Many Christian communities / churches fit this bill. I would be better off dead then slowly rot at a place like this. People who leave churches or spiritual communities like this and drop Christianity completely are closer to God than the ones who stay. Yes, there are many atheists out there who are closer to God than many Christians.
  • A less awful scenario is one draws me into what has been mistakenly coined “fundamentalist” Christianity. I would rather call it “cult’ Christianity or something else, but that word has taken on other connotations that don’t fit the meaning I am trying to convey. This is where a believer believes everything their pastor / leadership says, and then refuses to listen with an open mind towards any other versions of Christianity, refuses to read the bible with a mind towards alternative interpretations, or can see the good in any other religions. They do not have an open mind to see the world with. This perspective would be fine if Christians were perfect and our leadership was perfect. However, if there is any doubt in human perfection, an open mind is a rational imperative, and fundamentalist Christianity is a disaster. Not even God will be able to show me my mistaken beliefs and fix them. And that is the ultimate danger in religious fundamentalism – you have closed off all avenues to fix the inevitable wrong beliefs we all have – not only have you cut off other people than your pastor, you have cut off God and his personal guidance in your life to see things His way.
  • Another bad scenario is that I only trust myself – to put myself in charge of my own spiritual life. On the surface, this may seem the most sensible thing to do in the face of such obvious corruption. In some cases, this may even appeal to our sense of self-independence. However, if I do this, its not too hard to realize that I will gravitate to what suits my selfish interests, and this will often occur subconsciously without me even knowing it. My spiritual life will become stagnate – I will only focus on the aspects of the spiritual life that benefit me. This is horrible because the spiritual life is about being selfless – giving your life for the benefit of others. To try to live it selfishly is to slowly die spiritually. I need another form of spiritual authority that is not me and is not another human being.

I feel bad for religious people that are caught in these situations. I am guessing that as long as they stay within an abusive church with destructive authority, they will live miserable lives, either consciously or unconsciously. Even if they manage to see what is going on and they extract themselves, they will inevitably live the rest of their lives broken people in some way – never fully able to recover from the spiritual and mental damage that was done.

This system of spiritual human authority unchecked seems to be what most of the churches I have attended appear to be operating under. Many of them had only a mild case of this system, but nevertheless, it was visible. With seeing so many bad examples of religious authority, I began to forget what good authority looked like – the kind I experienced growing up. I began to doubt even if those men and women were legitimate, reasoning that I was just a child and couldn’t see what was really going on behind the scenes. So instead of trying to find good examples of authority in the subsequent churches I attended, I decided to find answers to these questions on my own. What is the purpose of authority if it is so flawed? How can we keep corruption in check so it can successfully fulfill its purpose?

I will pick up next week with part 3 of 3, where I will tackle these final questions and wrap up this series.

    4 Responses to “On Authority – Part 2”

    1. Elise Johnson

      Hey there – I don’t have any profound response yet to this series, but wanted to let you know I’m reading intently and still processing your thoughts on spiritual authority. Thanks for an incredibly well thought-out and written summary of your experiences and conclusions on authority. I’m glad to see part three is already up and looking forward to diving into it tomorrow!

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    2. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Thanks Elise! Good to hear from you again! I’m trying to take your and BiV’s advice on posting on a more regular schedule – I’m shooting for 1 post per week. I’m thinking about pulling out the drawing tools and doing more diagrams about authority structures too. I’m working on a piece on spiritual accountability right now that will kind of be an authority part 4…

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    3. Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV)

      Hear, hear!

      I have some comments on this I’ll make after I read part 3.

      Reply to this comment.
    4. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Great to hear from you again! I’d love to hear your ideas on the subject if you get a chance!

      Reply to this comment.

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