Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about my experiences, both as a leader and a member, of various faith communities during the last 30 years or so.
I’ve come to appreciate a lot of good things about those communities, but I have also identified two factors that have always created problems, particularly when they reach a certain critical mass. The first factor is culture of authoritarianism, and the second one is a preoccupation with sin angst.
Whenever these two issues have been present, they have led to a lot of unease, even if they were just lurking in the shadows. I have also seen them jump out of the shadows very quickly and unexpectedly, victimizing the unwary.
Some church communities are dominated by authoritarain worldviews. Like most worldviews, authoritarianism is not so much something that is taught. Rather, it is assumed. In this case, it is the assumption that God’s identity is primarily one of an authority figure, that there is a chain of authority, and that all persons within the chain are required to act in submission to everyone and everything that is above them.
In some cases, the chain is spelled out quite explicitly. It looks something like this:
God -> Scripture-> pastors and/or elders -> men/husbands -> women/wives -> children.
There is little or no room for freedom of opinion or action by those on the lower rungs of the ladder. God and – by proxy – the Bible, primarily act as authorities. And whatever is authoritative must be respected. This is why arguments over the Bible can become so emotional, and even irrational. Some Christians view the Bible as lynchpin within this system of authority. Thus, interactions about the Bible are never mere academic discussions, nor are they friendly disagreements over coffee. What is really going on behind many arguments about the Bible is a power struggle over something that is happening within some strata of the Christian community.
All of this sometimes gets soft-pedaled with protests that, yes, we do believe in a strong chain of authority, but “its not really what it appears to be.” And there can certainly be authoritarian cultures that are less so than others. But, over time, I have learned to be very cautious in these environments.
I have also learned to be cautious about people who are obsessed with obtaining, and then reminding everyone, that they hold a place of authority. There is a whole genre of Christianese that relates to “leadership” which seems to attract this kind-of obsession. I have developed what I think is a healthy distrust of anyone who likes to constantly remind you that they are, or have been, in charge of something.
The authoritarian factor, however, mutates into its most harmful form when it is combined with a preoccupation with sin angst. Here, I am not talking about a preoccupation with sin itself, though that can also be a hang-up. Instead, I am talking about a belief about the way sin should be experienced. Or, more specifically, a belief that believers should experience deep remorse about their sin.
This preoccupation doesn’t seem to trust the idea of grace. It doesn’t believe that people can change without being motivated by a sense of remorse. And so it insists – sometimes very loudly and sometimes very subtly – that everyone should harbor deep angst about all of their hang-ups.
And I’m not just talking about a style of preaching or teaching here. Some of the worst mutations of this issue have come up in small groups. I can remember participating in groups where everyone was supposed to take a turn and talk about how they weren’t measuring up to God’s standards, and then they were supposed to act appropriately remorseful and ashamed of it.
The preoccupation with sin angst also tends to get soft-pedaled. There was a lot of theological language about how all this was necessary for “community” and how liberated it was supposed to make us feel. But in the end I felt like there was a lot of unnecessary self-flagellation, when most group members desperately needed exactly the opposite experience. Also – to be honest – sometimes individuals are pressured to place way too much trust, and to disclose way too many things, to the wrong people and in the wrong places.
The preoccupation with sin angst is not new. It can be traced back to the early days of the Christian tradition. It is an idea that flows from Augustine to Calvin and Luther, and then – through a more or less direct route – straight into neo-Calvinism and modern fundamentalism. But it is not a universally accepted norm within the Christian tradition. It is a line of thought that Wesley resisted, and one that the Eastern church, and some streams of Catholicism, seem to have largely avoided.
When a preoccupation with sin angst gets mixed with a highly authoritarian environment, the gas and fire meet. Pressured to feel badly about themselves by those who wield the power in the community, people get burned. Sometimes, it is simple, outright emotional abuse: a man in authority trying to create the requisite amount of remorse by shaming someone (often, a woman) who holds less power. Sometimes, it is more subtle: the language on the surface is about love and grace, but the subtext is all about guilt and shame. The effect, on an emotional level, is to transform the idea of love into something that is unrecognizable and profane.
I think that Christian communities function at their best when they are – from first to last and from top to bottom – places of grace. Places where people are free to be themselves, whatever that may look like, without fear of judgment, and without pressure to line-up with an array of expectations and demands.
I realize that I may be too much of an idealist in that respect. There will always be a need for some sense of identity and structure. I am not advocating a believe-what-you-want and do-what-you-want anarchy, though it may feel like that to some.
I also think that the creeds (specifically, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Jesus Creed) are more than enough to address most of the need for structure and identity. We should trust them. And we should trust that God can get things done in community without heavy-handed authority or deep-seeded shame.
So those are my two-cents regarding healthy Christian community. Less obsession with authority and the way people feel about their shortcomings. More love. More grace. More freedom.