Authoritarianism in the church: divine right or coping mechanism?

This news came from Matthew Paul Turner’s blog: a pastor fired from Mark Driscoll’s church has come forward with his story. Five years ago, Driscoll told his congregation he’d like to “go Old Testament on” on a few members of his leadership team, by which he meant he wanted to “break their noses” (referring to Nehemiah 13:25, apparently). After the service, Driscoll walked into a room and fired Paul Petry.

At the time, Driscoll was pushing a revision to the church’s bylaws. Petry felt the new document consolidated too much power into too few hands. So he proposed some changes. He and another pastor were told to get on board with the new bylaws or get out. In his defense of the firing, Driscoll claimed that Petry was “among the least administratively gifted for the task” of rewriting the bylaws. Which is weird, because Petry was a lawyer by trade.

Petry stayed quiet for five years, but recent controversy over Mars Hill’s philosophy of church discipline prompted him and his wife to chronicle their version of the story.

I’m not interested in taking another shot at Driscoll. You can read Petry’s account and decide for yourself. Instead, I want to ask:

Is there a link between the heavy-handed authoritarianism in some neo-Reformed churches and their cultural/theological assumptions about God and women?

I’ll lay out my theory below. (Please tell me if you think I’ve got it right or wrong.)

Over the past few generations, our culture has gradually embraced the notion of equality. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, equal pay for equal work (at least in theory), gay rights, and so on. Some of these ideals have gained near universal acceptance; other are hotly debated. All were controversial at least to start.

To those for whom power is a zero sum game, any advance for one group (women, minorities, etc.) means a step back for others (males, whites, etc.). Sometimes they’re right. Abolition, for example, deprived slaveholders of their power to own other human beings, and rightly so.

Over the years, those accustomed to being in charge have had to cope with a new reality — one in which we don’t enjoy as much power as we used to. One in which we’ve had to learn to share power with those our predecessors once ruled.

Even those who accept that change was inevitable — necessary, perhaps — might resent some of the particular manifestations of it: affirmative action, Title IX, etc. They might feel the march toward equality has created a new disparity in the opposite direction.

Men are no longer allowed to be tough and rude; we’re supposed to be sensitive and in touch with our feminine side. The husband is no longer the undisputed king of his castle. Heck, he can’t even beat his subjects when they get out of line anymore. Realms that once were the exclusive domain of men aren’t any longer. From the athletic pitch to the pulpit, we now have to share space with the fairer (and allegedly weaker) sex.

Now imagine a theology comes along claiming that God is meticulously sovereign over every detail of history, from dust motes to tsunamis. This God is tough, powerful, and he doesn’t mind busting a few heads every now and then.

The divine right of kings: a model for church governance?

What’s more, this God is a man’s God. Not only did he foreordain everything down to the tiniest particle; he also decreed that men should call the shots on his behalf. From the church to the home, men are to lead by divine right. Men are the spiritual authority; women are the dutiful subjects.

Setting aside for a moment whether this is what the Bible actually teaches, can you imagine the appeal such a theology might hold among disaffected, predominantly white males?

Now there’s a way for those who’ve lost power (or think they have) to get some of it back. At least in one or two spheres of life, they can call the shots again.

Is it any wonder someone like Mark Driscoll, who reads his wife’s email and talks wistfully of being able to break people’s noses, would be drawn toward a theology that grants him a privileged place of power, purely on the basis of his masculinity? Is it any surprise that men who live in a bubble where they hold all the power won’t let it go without a fight?

In some ways, it’s an understandable reaction from men who are, after all, trying to find their place in a brave new world. But that doesn’t make it right.

My contention is that neo-Reformed churches like Driscoll’s have reintroduced a medieval theology of power to help them cope with society’s slow, steady march toward equality.

Of course, they would argue such a theology comes straight from the Bible. But does it?

Is this what it means to “value others above yourselves,” as Paul urged the Philippians? Is it what it means to become “the servant of all,” as Jesus insisted when his followers began arguing about who among them was the greatest?

Is it what Paul had in mind when he assured Gentile believers in Galatia that Christ renders social hierarchies irrelevant? Some of the Jewish believers of Paul’s day thought they had the right to lord it over their Gentile brothers and sisters because Jews were the “original” covenant people. They were the first to follow the Messiah. Paul, himself a Jew, responded with a big, fat “so what?”

And speaking of “lording it over…”

Any theology that consolidates power in the hands of a particular group on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, or social status is at odds with the Bible. All churches need some form of governance and authority, but when power becomes absolute or unaccountable, it becomes the antithesis of love.

And love, not power, is supposed to be the defining hallmark of Christ’s church.

9 thoughts on “Authoritarianism in the church: divine right or coping mechanism?

  1. Ben,

    I like your thinking. I think you have hit on the problem, power, who has it, who wants it, and should it be shared. It applies across the board in all Churches, all religions, as women and the former unwashed want their piece of the pie. Thanks for the clear expression of you thoughts.

    Jim

    Like

  2. Wow… I honestly feel a little ill after reading parts of Petry’s account. The whole “discipline” thing at MH comes off as nothing more than an excuse to get rid of people they don’t like. If that’s the case, that’s incredibly sad. What a weird, weird interpretation on the Gospel message.

    Like

  3. This is something I have been thinking a lot about as well. I don’t know what the answers are but it seems like even bringing up theses issues make some people questions your “Gospel” credentials. Interesting.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Linkathon 3/21, part 1 | Phoenix Preacher

  5. Pingback: Linkathon 3/21, part 1 « BrianD blog

  6. Reblogged this on I must follow, if I can and commented:

    Men are no longer allowed to be tough and rude; we’re supposed to be sensitive and in touch with our feminine side. The husband is no longer the undisputed king of his castle. Heck, he can’t even beat his subjects when they get out of line anymore. Realms that once were the exclusive domain of men aren’t any longer. From the athletic pitch to the pulpit, we now have to share space with the fairer (and allegedly weaker) sex.

    Like

  7. Ben, your thoughts are amazingly in sync with mine. I’ve had this angst several years since I’ve witnessed authoritarian abuse in the IFB ranks, it turns the stomach when you know instinctively that this isn’t the way the Faith is supposed to be. That said, I liken authoritarianism to a Pastor using damnation as the “big stick” to “evangelize” : I’ll woe you, speak nicely to you and it that still doesn’t result in conversion, I’ll tell you you’ll burn in hell for eternity and see how that works.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: I Do Not Like the Fruit of Complementarianism | idonotlikethefruit

  9. Pingback: Goodby Neo Reformed Movement | idonotlikethefruit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s