On Authority

Two months ago, I decided to write on the topic of spiritual authority. As soon as I decided to do this, I realized that I have never talked to a single person who did not have a strong opinion about it in either a negative or positive sense. Because of this, I apologize in advance if this is something that has been beaten to death in the the course of your readings on the internet. My intention in this post is not to rant on about how much I dislike spiritual authority, or how badly it has been abused throughout history, but just to voice my honest attempt to understand it from my experiences. In addition to this warning, if you have never had problems with church or other religious authority, what I am going to say will probably not make sense, or worse make me sound like a person who hates authority because he is selfish. You would probably be better off not reading on because it will not be productive. But to everyone else, hopefully you’ll find my musings interesting, and if you are willing, to leave your own thoughts in the comments.

There have been many positive examples of great spiritual leadership when I was growing up in the church. All of the seminary professors my father introduced our family to, and probably most of the leaders of churches we attended were really humble and good people. Only recently have I seen the darker side of authority, and it has opened my eyes towards a bigger problem. Because I ran into such problems, it forced me to try to understand it better, whereas before I hardly thought about it at all and simply took it for granted as a perfect institution.

I decided to seek out others who have likewise become disillusioned with spiritual authority from bad experiences in their lives. I enjoy reading MindOnFire’s (www.mindonfire.com) commentary on the topic when it comes up, and usually in a critical sense. Most of the criticisms I read about I agree with.

The church I got my first taste of bad authority from ended up being an “independent” church – meaning it had no accountability to a higher denominational authority which the head pastor had to answer to. He pretty much ran the show – the church staff, all the deacons, elders, and other lay ministers were all answerable to the main pastor – who had the authority to fire or kick out anyone he wanted for any cooked up reason. So what became clear to me for the first time in my life was that spiritual authority was a flawed thing. This is not so bad if you have someone else watching over you to help stop you from making big mistakes, but this is not always the case. It seemed to me that without accountability from someone else besides God, who we all know can easily be ignored, absolute spiritual authority, that is authority without accountability, leads inevitably to moral corruption.

So now let us say we have a mass of people who do not hurt themselves with hard thinking, but are very inclined to latch onto charismatic “spiritual” leaders and believe anything they say – suddenly things can get a lot worse. Now we have authority that is not only unaccountable to moral peers, but will convince their followers into believing the same immoral lines of thinking that they do. In doing this, they succeed in separating their devoted masses from better sources of morality (such as the Bible, common sense, good scientific study, etc.) With this mass of unthinking, devoted followers, they now have the power to turn against people who do not believe what they do either on moral or intellectual grounds, and can succeed in making life miserable for them.

So based on my experiences, bad authority exists because of two main factors: devoted spiritual followers that refuse to think for themselves and their leaders that have no system of accountability to keep them from becoming morally corrupt. Both parties are responsible for creating an atmosphere of ugly and immoral religion that when incubated over time can become very destructive to many – probably millions of people. A thriving spiritual life is ever increasingly difficult to obtain in this diseased atmosphere because the followers care more about what their faithful leader thinks than what any other independent source of morality or scholarly thought has to say. Moreover, I have discovered that even the most glaringly obvious bad things are clung to all the more due to the unfortunate failings of humans in special groups and societies – pride in not wanting to be wrong, and groupthink. Unchecked spiritual authority can do a lot of subtle damage – such as destroy the spiritual lives of most of its members, permanently separating or severely distancing them from any relationship with God. Even worse, however, would be destroying their lives – such as in the case of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Most of the time, in the stories I’ve heard and in the examples I have witnessed, the damage occurs more often in the former sense rather than the latter. In a way, I think the former is worse, because I believe God can console the people who died in the People’s Temple rather than living the rest of their lives in their religious hell. But the rest of us don’t get that luxury – we struggle on with the spiritual abuse that always results in some mild or extreme form of spiritual handicap.

I have said this before, and I will say it again – people who loose their faith because of corrupt leadership in all its forms are probably closer to God and the real spiritual life because of it. Because a spiritual leader represents the perspectives and behaviors of the divine, a disgusted follower will logically reject the God of that religion. In my opinion, good riddance.

I will pick up next week with a continuation of the topic of authority with part 2 of 3. Some of you may not believe that due to my inability to write consistantly, but I assure you, this entire essay is already written, so it will show up, I promise!

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