Part 14 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
By Don Enevoldsen
How things have changed. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French writer and diplomat, published the first volume of his impressions of early American life, Democracy in America, a second volume following five years later. Gleaned from two years of traveling to every corner of the United States, his observations give the objective and unique perspective of an outsider intrigued with what made Americans different from Europeans. One passage in particular came to mind as I considered reactions to this series.
“In no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the act committed, and in stopping the delinquent… In Europe a criminal is an unhappy being who is struggling for his life against the ministers of justice, whilst the population is merely a spectator of the conflict; in America he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him.”
This very interesting trait of early Americans, this compulsion to speak out with a view to stopping wrongs from being committed, was described by de Tocqueville as the conviction that standing up for truth and protecting the rights, life and property of others was inherent in the American conception of Christian morality and duty. To be a good Christian, you had to speak out and you had to act. De Tocqueville was fascinated by this attitude that seemed so foreign to his European experience.
As I peruse the responses to this series, Questioning Church Authority, I can’t help but notice the evidence that Americans have changed. There is a clear unwillingness to speak unless directly and personally harmed, and often not even then.
In this series, I have specifically named two public figures and criticized their actions. The incident involving Creflo Dollar was a national news story that illustrated the danger and the consequences of never questioning church leaders. Tom Anderson is also a public figure, and an illustration of the consequences of not examining the fruit of a leader’s life. After a close connection with him for two decades, it is natural that I would draw on my own firsthand experience when looking for real life anecdotes to demonstrate the point of my writing. What I have to say about him is not from secondary sources.
Responses to these posts have been overwhelmingly positive, primarily in the form of statements like, “Thank God someone has the courage to tell the truth.” In fact, I’ve gotten more positive feedback on this series than from anything I have ever written in my life, especially from those who have been hurt by abusive church systems and who felt validated by the information.
I recognize that many of these comments come from people who, because of the past abuse, are simply not in a place emotionally to do more than cheer me on. For many, even that is difficult. But my voice should not be that rare. Where are the others who could speak, but haven’t? Please read this as encouragement to stand up and be heard, not as a judgmental criticism. By way of disclosure, I was silent most of my life. Only recently have I tried to live up to my American heritage.
This series has also triggered the most vehement opposition I have ever gotten from my writing. While limited to a relatively small number of people, actually only three or four, their reactions have been strong. The most consistent charge, which I intend to address here and in the next post, is that I have done a horrible thing by identifying the subjects of my examples. It is bad enough that I dare to criticize them at all, but to call them out by name is unthinkable.
I have no doubt many readers are conflicted on this issue. You agree with what was written. You are glad someone wrote it, and you are particularly glad names were given. You also squirm a little at the thought of ever being so specific with your own words. You can’t shake the feeling it is wrong, but you are glad someone did it.
I believe the uneasiness over this stems directly from a lifelong subjection to the teaching that one should never challenge the man of God, never question appointed leaders, never touch the anointing, no matter what. God is the one who should correct them.
To put this mentality into perspective, the trial of Penn State defensive football coach, Jerry Sandusky, illustrates how this type of thinking works in an organization. Sandusky was recently convicted of dozens of counts of child molestation. The Freeh report, released after an independent study of the case, clearly shows that Penn State head coach Joe Paterno (JoePa), as well as other prominent leaders at Penn State, knew of the abuse for ten years and never took action to stop it.
The one person in this horrific story who actually took some action was former Penn State graduate and assistant coach Mike McQueary, who inadvertently witnessed one of the incidents of abuse when he caught Sandusky in the shower with a young boy. McQueary reported it to Paterno and then expected it to be taken care of. It wasn’t, and dozens of other children were molested in the ensuing years. Writer Jim Sollisch, in the Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2012, identified the reason McQueary never did anything else:
“Mike McQueary is the prototypical Good Soldier. He would have gladly marched off a cliff for Joe Paterno. He is the ultimate Team Player. He’s a model citizen who believes in authority.
“So Mr. McQueary did what he was conditioned to do. He told the ultimate authority: JoePa. You and I might wonder why he didn’t tell the police. In his world, the police were mere mortals compared to Coach. I’m not suggesting McQueary shouldn’t have called the police. I’m just saying that when people wonder why he didn’t alert the authorities, they’re missing the point: He did.
“And the Coach, another lifelong believer in the code of the Good Soldier, let McQueary down. He, too, stayed inside the system. He may have wanted to protect the reputation of Penn State. That’s another attribute of the Good Soldier. They believe in abstractions like team and “Penn State Football.” They often choose abstractions over people.”
Our society has imprinted us over the years with the belief that authority should be universally respected. Instead of considering those who rob, oppress and abuse to be “an enemy of the human race,” as early Americans did, we tend most often to become “merely a spectator in the conflict.” As the Sandusky case suggests, this is true in our society in general, but add to the person in authority the spiritual aura of “man of God,” and people not only don’t question the abstraction of the church, they consider others who do to be ungodly rebels and troublemakers.
“So justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”
How much responsibility does the average person carry to speak out? Not only is it a matter of maintaining our heritage as Americans, it is a primary responsibility of all believers from a biblical perspective. The opening chapter of Isaiah laments the sinfulness of the nation. Then God commands them to:
“Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right.”
When he defines what that means, we do not find the sins we might expect—adultery, idol worship, fornication. Instead, they were commanded to:
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.”
Defending the helpless against the selfishness of the strong, which includes self-serving leaders, is a constant theme throughout the Bible. I find it impossible to reconcile godliness and godly living with silence in the face of deceit and oppression by leaders in the body of Christ. All too often, we are faced with the problem identified by Malachi:
“It is your priests who show contempt for my name.” (Malachi 1:6)
Next, Part 15: Public Criticism of Leaders
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.