The Authoritarian and the Finisher of My Faith

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I have a love/hate relationship with institutionalized religion. I love the church, and I miss being part of a local church, but I can hardly abide what the church has become, particularly the modern-American church.

There are times when I find myself pointing out all the bad and others when I’m defending any good. I’ve seen the church help a lot of people, yet I’ve seen a lot of harm done as well. And it’s not always clear to me who’s to blame in a system that’s built on an unseen, unheard authority figure.

We were taught in church to give “double honor” to those who held authority. We read First Timothy 5:17 to demonstrate that this was a biblical principle, followed by verse 19 where it loosely says, “don’t accuse your leaders of anything wrong, unless you have a lot of people willing to back you up.” Not that it was ever stated this directly, but, essentially, the message was, fall into submission to the leaders over you, and don’t question them, or their directions.

Obedience was revered as a quality of a morally upright person. It was akin to righteousness and disobedience or disobedient persons were always made the example of what not to do or how not to act. To be disobedient was to be rebellious and this was always demonized as the worst sort of behavior at the root of all other sins.

There is a study conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961, aptly referred to as The Milgram Experiment. The purpose of the study was to examine obedience to authority. Participants were asked to administer levels of shock to a “learner.” The shocks weren’t real, unbeknown to the participant, and the learner was an actor who was part of the study. Participants were told this was a study in learning and tasked with asking the “learner” questions. They had to administer shocks when the learner answered incorrectly. The shocks were incremental, ranging from fifteen volts to four-hundred-fifty, and each time an incorrect answer was given the shock level increased.

The true test was to see how far participants would go in the study and what level of shock they would administer to the learner. The actor playing the learner would even cry out and scream in pain as the shock levels increased, and eventually went silent, causing the participant to assume they’d been seriously hurt. Eighty percent of the test subjects shocked the actor past his screams to the point where he fell silent. Sixty-two percent of the subjects completed the study, administering shocks (to their minds) up to four-hundred-fifty volts.

The reason so many participants in Milgram’s study continued to shock the learner, even as he voiced duress, even as he screamed, some of them, even after he went silent was due to obedience. They felt compelled to finish the study because they were in the presence of an experimenter, someone who represented an authority figure. The experimenter was someone else in on the study. He would instruct participants to continue with the study when they showed reservations about shocking the learner and wanted to stop.

Milgram’s study demonstrated that obedience to an authority figure can cause individuals to act in ways that would harm others, individuals that might otherwise have no malice within them or a propensity to inflict harm. Under the right circumstances and prodded by the right person, anyone might have the capacity to hurt another.

This study is one of significance to me because there was a time when I would have done anything I was told by the leaders at my church. I passed on opportunities that I had pursued. I stayed in ministries long after I wanted to. I even took a job one time because it was suggested to me. And regretfully, I also hurt others through my actions and my complicity in a system that required blind obedience.

In church, when we want to model a particular behavior we don’t “shock” people. What we do is sometimes worse. I have seen fear and other emotionally and spiritually abusive tactics used to manipulate behavior. I’ve witnessed people called out and shamed in small groups and in church services. I’ve seen guilt used against people who made honest mistakes in their personal lives or in their ministries. I listened when we were told that we should avoid people or conversations with people, particularly those who had left our church. And I partook in gaslighting individuals who had legitimate criticisms and, instead of listening, insisted that they had a problem submitting to authority.

I spent so much time basing right and wrong on my ability to toe the line that I lost a sense of what right and wrong even was. Eventually, I lost trust in the system and those in charge of it after realizing the damage that’s been done to so many. There is a calculable degree of harm that could be measured had the shocks in Milgram’s study been real. What’s difficult to measure are the effects of subservience to authoritarianism, generally, and hegemonic Christianity, specifically.

Authoritarianism is a style of leadership that demands obedience to a figurehead with limited transparency and no accountability. Hegemonic Christianity can be defined as the systemic and pervasive sociopolitical and cultural dominance of Christian “values” at the institutional level. The amalgamation of the dominant Christian culture with authoritarianism are spiritual leaders who work to confine the thoughts and actions of parishioners and people as a means of maintaining a parochial form of control. Within the sects of religious hegemony, congregants are conditioned to conform to a rigid system of right and wrong. Morality may be based on a greater theology or on the Bible itself, but how these are interpreted are left to the discretion of those in charge. Those who don’t conform to the prescribed meaning or status quo are treated as subversive.

Authoritarianism is not unique to Christianity, in fact, we see it exemplified in many hegemonic cultures. What is unique to Christianity, or, more broadly, religion, is the perception that leaders who have been exalted into positions of power carry with them some special, divine anointing, direct from God. Religious leaders have that benefit – of not just having authority in a secular sense, but of having the perception of God’s authority in a spiritual sense too. Some believe that to question or oppose church leadership is to question God himself, and religious authoritarians know this and use it to their advantage. They use God and the Bible as tools to maintain their power and control.

See, it’s easy to believe God is the one in charge. It’s him and his word we assumedly follow. But the issue is, God isn’t the one who harms people. She’s not the one that shuns. He doesn’t divorce Himself from those that believe in a different doctrine or hold another faith. She doesn’t manipulate, shame, guilt, or gaslight people into acting or conforming to a certain way. We’ve done this. The church and its leaders have done this.

I left church over a year ago thinking I could just take some time off from organized religion – that eventually I would find a new, less autocratic, church. I thought I’d feel more secure and ready to move on by now, but I’m not. God supposedly gave us free will, and yet so many of his followers seem hell-bent on exploiting the sovereignty of others. I know that there are good churches and good church leaders out there, but I’m not ready to hand over trust to another spiritual leader in an organized religious setting. There are too many totalitarians out there and I don’t feel like taking the risk. And, at this point, I’m not sure I ever will.

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