The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story.

It struck me that among the many evangelicals and Reformed folks converting to Rome or Orthodoxy, this was a common story.  “We Protestants, we’re so divided, we’re so individualistic, we have no sense of authority, we have to make up our own minds about everything rather than submitting to the judgment of others.  It’s time to stop trying to do all the thinking for ourselves, and submit to authority and tradition.”  And then it struck me that, while this sounds superficially humble, pious, and mature, it starts to look considerably less laudable when you put it in other terms.  “It’s time to stop taking responsibility for my own commitments and value judgments and let someone else make those difficult determinations for me.”  “The commitment to faith and obedience is what’s important, not the content, so I should just leave the question of content to others and focus on relinquishing self-will.”  “It’s too much work being expected to think for myself amid all these different questions and options, so I think I should just check my brain at the door, and embrace a set of ready-made answers.”  Now I don’t mean to be too harsh, of course, on all those who make such moves, and there is certainly a balance; some of us are too arrogantly insistent on making up our own minds about everything, and need to learn to defer to the judgment of others on occasion.  But despite how often we tell ourselves in conservative Protestant circles that this is our big problem, I am not at all convinced that it is, at least for us Reformed in particular.

I would like to suggest on the contrary the bold proposition that this search for authority, this quest to unload on someone else the burden of forming truth- and value-judgments, is in fact an intensification of a pathology that is already rife in our communities.  Our use of epistemic individualism as a bogeyman, then, is another example of the phenomenon C.S. Lewis identified, which I mentioned recently in my post “The Fashionable Outcry of Each Generation,” in which we are always “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
 
It struck me once a few years ago that while we very often warn against the dangers of individual pride, considering the guy who always thinks he’s right as the paradigmatic, and most dangerous, form of arrogance, that the Bible is often much more worried about the sin of corporate pride.  This, as New Perspective scholars have noted, is Jesus and Paul’s greatest beef with the Pharisees—yes, some of them are individually self-righteous, and that’s a problem, but much bigger and more insidious is their national pride, their sense that they are part of the chosen people, the community that’s got it all right, and outside of which are the fools, the ignorant, the sinners whom God will judge.  This kind of pride can do far more harm than any individual’s silly puffed-up pomposity, and what makes it so dangerous is that it is so easy to hide under a cloak of humility (as I noted in my post on The Screwtape Letters a couple weeks ago).  The zealot who maintains that he himself has nothing special to offer, and is just fortunate to have discovered the great leader who has all the answers, or to be born into the community that knows how to serve God, can indulge in the most execrable pride and scorn toward those outside the chosen community, while convinced that he is being humble, and just following his wise leaders.  Indeed, I would suggest that this kind of corporate pride is extraordinarily insidious, and almost impossible to escape.  For even those who have escaped it, by recognizing the unhealthy parochialism of the community in which they started, will then begin to pride themselves on being part of the blessed community of those who now know better.  This kind of pride calls for constant vigilance and constant repentance.

Once alerted to the danger of this sort of pride, it takes little time to recognize the temptation to it everywhere in our conservative Protestant and Reformed communities. In that post from The Screwtape Letters, I quoted where Lewis has the devil say, “We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.”  The more conservative, and thus smaller and more embattled, sectors of American Protestantism acquire this “uneasy intensity” almost automatically, and it takes great effort to resist the impulse.  And of course, the great defining mark of a “clique” is its pressure to conformity, its pressure not to think for oneself, not to act for oneself, but to follow the party line, to throw in one’s lot with a particular club, commit oneself to a particular orthodoxy, and fight tenaciously for it without a second thought.

When we look around at the various Reformed and evangelical micro-denominations and church splits, what strikes us first is the cacophonous difference and variety, individuality run riot as everyone pursues their own vision of the faith.  Too much love of difference, we say, is the root problem, and many, in response, jump ship and align themselves with Rome or Orthodoxy, praising their unity, uniformity, stability.  But when we look more closely, we find that almost every one of these micro-denominations and particular church communities is characterized within itself by a striking lack of difference, an almost stifling uniformity, as members are expected to share the same convictions, values, traditions, and habits on almost every conceivable subject.  I was deeply struck by this tendency on moving back to my home community from a Scottish evangelical church.  In the latter, the church was characterized by extraordinary diversity of theological backgrounds, opinions, worship tastes, preaching tastes, visions of leadership, ministry priorities, etc.—many of these opinions quite strongly held—and yet somehow it all held together.  It wasn’t necessarily always a pretty picture, and sometimes you wished that the community would do more to work through some of these differences and come to a common mind; being Brits, they had difficulty airing differences in public, which often made for deep frustrations.  But at least there was never a sense that just because you were going to this church, you somehow needed to agree with everything it taught, or prioritize everything it prioritized, or share exactly the same ideals of liturgy.  When we moved back here, however, we were struck by how the mere existence of difference was threatening, and voicing it publicly was sometimes seen as an act of betrayal or aggression against the community.

Differences still exist in such communities, of course, since we are dealing with human beings, not robots, but there is great pressure to bury them beneath the surface.  When these differences boil to the surface, the community does not know how to handle it, and fragments, only to re-align itself, as soon as possible, into a new set of perhaps smaller communities each of which manifests very little difference within itself.  The problem, then, is not too much individuality, but too little, not too much of a “heretical imperative,” a love of difference, but a choking fear of difference.  The problem is not that, in these communities, everyone is so busy thinking for themselves on every subject that they just need to learn to let go and submit their judgments to something higher or older or bigger, but that they’re so busy looking for a guru or an orthodoxy to which they can wholeheartedly submit to, lining up their judgment on every point, that they don’t know how to do anything else.  It’s only a question of whether they’re going to check their brains at the door of some very small community or some very large community.  What we need in Protestantism, in short, is actually more people willing to think for themselves, as crazy as that sounds!

Of course, it doesn’t sound crazy within certain discourses.  Among more liberal Protestants, it is of course obvious that what afflicts conservative Protestants is hide-bound traditionalism and dogmatism.  The solution is freedom for people to think for themselves, freedom to embrace a diversity of truth-claims as relative, freedom to abandon the arrogant dogmatism of firm conviction.  But this, as many good conservatives have pointed out, is itself another version of the fear of difference, inasmuch as it seeks to dissolve all truth-claims and all value-claims into a homogenous soup of equally vacuous and un-threatening “I feel”s and “Maybe”s.  Such liberalism has great difficulty handling a genuine clash of genuinely-held convictions, just as much as most contemporary conservative communities do.  It can handle only differences of preference, and indeed it seeks to reduce all differences of conviction to differences of preference.

In fact, genuine freedom of discourse is very elusive and difficult to achieve; it arises only in a community where members have the confidence to hold different convictions, and to voice different views, without being unnerved or frightened or angered by encountering someone who thinks otherwise. Not because they think that their view is not true, or even because they think it doesn’t matter—but because they are humble enough to recognize the reasonable grounds others may have for differing, and because they recognize that it does not matter in an ultimate sense.  This distinction—it matters, but not in an ultimate sense—is easy enough on paper, but devilishly hard to preserve.  We are constantly drawn to one of the much simpler black-and-white alternatives: either we can freely disagree about it, because it is a mere matter of personal taste and preference, or we must agree about it, because it is a matter of spiritual life and death.

This was one of the things that bothered me slightly about some of the otherwise helpful responses to the recent kerfluffle on heath-conscious and ethics-conscious food choices.  Broadsides such as those by Toby Sumpter seemed to imply that the problem was that many Christians were legalistic or idolatrous because they were insisting on the necessity of certain food choices as a matter of righteousness.  The easiest response to this criticism then was to say, “No, I do care about buying free-range eggs and avoiding processed foods that will destroy my children’s health, but that’s just my personal decision, and of course no one’s sinning to decide otherwise.”  I’d much rather have this response than Pharisaic legalism, but there ought to be a middle ground somewhere between legalism and laissez-faire.  In fact, such a middle ground exists, and within its vast spectrum lie most of the judgments that the task of ethics is called to address, as I’ve written elsewhere.  The person who buys free-range eggs ought to think, I would contend, that she is making some kind of moral judgment, and if it has the status of moral judgment, then it has some kind of universal force: all things being equal, everyone ought to try to buy free-range eggs.  Likewise, on somewhat different grounds, one could reason that all things being equal, everyone ought to generally avoid unhealthy processed foods.

So a moral claim is being made, but it can still tolerate different moral judgments.  Why?  Because one recognizes, first, that all things are not equal, and there are enough circumstantial variables and complexities that others may quite reasonably reach different judgments.  Accordingly, one may deem someone else to be wrong without being at all wicked or stupid.  Second, because one recognizes that we are justified by faith, not by works.  This means that I can feel confident in my moral judgments and decisions, without indulging in the silly fantasy that this makes me a wonderful special righteous person, and without needing to get too worked up about my neighbor’s failure to share these moral judgments.  (I should add that all of what I am saying here about moral judgments applies also to truth judgments in the realm of doubtful and debatable secondary matters.)  We are both justified by faith, and this gives us space to differ with one another, to think these differences objectively matter, and yet at the end of the day to love and embrace one another.

In short, to wrap all of these wandering reflections up: the problem with many of us Protestants is not that we’re too Protestant—too individualistic, free-thinking, and anti-authority—but that we’re not Protestant enough.  We’re afraid of the real “liberty of a Christian man” and so we take refuge in tight-knit coteries with respected gurus, official doctrine, and detailed (though often unspoken) rules of conduct.  And this is because we don’t take our justification by faith seriously enough; we look for our justification in our adherence to doctrinal minutia, or to “a Christian worldview,” or to a comprehensively anti-worldly lifestyle, and accordingly we still live in fear, fear of a failure to conform, and cannot bring ourselves to live together as individuals, each exercising our own judgments in submission to the Word and in humble but lively debate with one another.

21 thoughts on “The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

  1. Brad, great post. I especially appreciated your emphasis on the necessity of diligently watching our hearts for pride. Here is a question I have been pondering that relates to what you are saying. Isn’t part of the problem that we have difficulty ranking sins? There are moral sins and theological heresies that should exclude someone from the community. But that list is often smaller than we think. Those of us in conservative circles often put most sins in the "you need to be kicked out" category.Thus we end up making every difference (or even sin) a hill to die on, thus closing all doors to debate and persuasion. Grace, Peter Jones

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks Peter. Yes, I think that is a big part of the problem, and that is why I have found the teaching of the Reformers on the notion of "adiaphora" or "things indifferent" so helpful. Richard Hooker in particular helps us see how something can be "indifferent" in one sense without necessarily being indifferent in every sense or at all times. (See my post here for more on that: http://calvinistinternational.com/2012/04/19/hooker-in-the-bedroom-law-liberty-and-things-indifferent/)

      But I also think that perhaps this issue of "fear of difference" is even more fundamental than that. It seems to me that there are lots of times when people in these kinds of communities could, if you asked them directly, readily admit that some issue (i.e., eating organic or non-organic) was a minor sin issue, if it was even a sin issue at all. And yet, when faced by substantial differences on the question in their tight-knit communities, they don’t know how to react, and get very stressed-out about the difference, and begin to imagine therefore that maybe some greater sin is actually lurking (i.e., the minor issue in question is in fact evidence of idolatry).

      Of course, there’s also another factor here, that I’ve written about before, I think—a misapplication of the perspicuity of Scripture. We think that because Scripture’s supposed to be clear, it’s supposed to be clear on every question, and therefore we really all should be on the same page if we’re being faithful. This leads to the assumption of uniformity, so that the appearance of difference seems deeply alarming, and seems to suggest that someone must not really be faithfully attending to Scripture, since, if they were, they would see the same clear truth that others do.

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  2. Matthew N. Petersen

    I agree with lots of this here. The final exhortation to make moral and truth judgments, but to make them humbly, recognizing that we are likely as fully in error as those (seeming) idiots who…and so they are not in fact idiots at all, but simply people who differ with us, is very important.

    As is the observation that it isn’t exactly cogent to go from a quia subscription to The Book of Concord or The Westminster Confession, to Rome or Orthodoxy because there we can submit to an authority.

    But at the same time, I think perhaps we should listen to the reasons people give for leaving. Whatever is actually happening, it feels like they’ve been fighting for their own opinion, and can finally rest and let it all go. And perhaps there actually is something to this feeling–namely, that, we have been fighting for our doctrine, and we want to rest from the battle, and get down to the real business of the Christian, prayer and Scripture reading. And it doesn’t seem unlikely that someone used to constant fighting would describe "You are free sheath your sword, in fact please do so, and pray. Here’s a rope. Use it." as freedom to submit to authority, and so not worry about doctrine so much.

    (I’m intentionally quoting a Protestant, Hamann, when I say the business of the Christian is prayer and Scripture reading.)

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks Matt. I think you definitely have a point here, and I don’t at all mean to imply that there aren’t understandable and even laudable reasons motivating many converts. And of course, to say that conformism is a problem and people need to think for themselves more is not to say that everyone is called to always be hashing out theological questions. Many people submit to authority on such questions because their gifts lie elsewhere, and they want to get to work on the practical business of serving Christ and others. Inasmuch as much contemporary Protestantism—again, perhaps especially in Reformed circles—does not provide space for people to do that, and forces people to be constantly choosing sides and arguing about theological and ethical questions, then it deserves much of the blame when pious Protestants get fed up and seek more peaceful pastures. And there are certainly converts of this sort.

      On the other hand, many converts that I’ve seen seem just as, if not more, eager to argue over theological questions, now trying to proselytize people to join their newfound church home. If folks like this insist, "Oh, I’m just trying to find a place where I can pray and serve in peace," I’m going to be rather skeptical.

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    • Matthew N. Petersen

      This comment was very different when I wrote it, and there hadn’t been a plethora of responses regarding converts. My only point is that however it seems from the outside, (and I think you’re correct about many of the issues) the convert who says he wants to finally have the opportunity to submit is accurately describing what conversion seems like internally.

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  3. Brian M

    Really good, but to key off of Matt’s comment, here’s a few things I have been thinking about.

    I think you’re onto something when you talk about people throwing up there hands. "Will we never stop finding things to disagree about?" and leaving instead of learning to have vigorous disagreement upon the foundation of justification. But then there are plenty of people who will do this (on some issues everybody) because they simply don’t want to do any more studying. Some Christians just aren’t intellectual and even brilliant intellectuals like C.S. Lewis eventually say, "You would be surprised to learn how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say, ‘No time for that’, ‘Too late now’, and ‘not for me.’"

    This raises questions about what Pastors need to emphasize in their preaching. Obviously, a congregant doesn’t need preaching to be saved, but how much ‘abstract’ theology about Calvinism, paedobaptism, Federal Vision, etc, etc, etc is needed. There seem to be enough problems just in getting the practical side.

    One last thought. I think this endless intellectual searching explains Doug Jones’ recent concerns, but the search for truth also can take a spooky turn. Recently, I read this statement by John Piper, "If we take our doctrines into our hearts where they belong, they can cause upheavals of emotion and sleepless nights. This is far better than toying with academic ideas that never touch real life." There’s a sort of pride in not getting tangled up in the mess and caring about ‘the important things’.

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  4. Much good stuff here Brad. My only quibble(s) are the early "quotes" given to those who convert. Are you quoting a real convert here, or inventing the "quote" as a good foil to make you point. Matthew’s comment below, "But at the same time, I think perhaps we should listen to the reasons people give for leaving." is good counsel. What DO they really say? In my 3.5 yr journey to Orthodoxy, reading, talking to dozens and listening to dozens of ‘Journey Stories’ I never encountered a convert who expressed such a resignation of ‘mental-yielding’ to authority. Perhaps your ‘quote-foils’ can be put in some converts’ mouths, though real quotes from real converts would be far better and fair. My suspicion from reading & listening is that most converts would more likely confess to seeing/reading/thinking…yielding to Scripture and Church history within a new Tradition. Meanwhile Reformed & other Protestant loyalists are content to stick with their own Tradition or Guru(s). Beyond this quibble, you make several good points, not the least is the serious questions about the root, credibility and extent of ones authority-Tradition.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Fair questions, David. Of course, I am not directly quoting any one convert, but I am offering what I think is a faithful composite sketch of cases I’ve encountered or read about. To be sure, I don’t pretend to be giving anything like a full phenomenology of conversion, or a one-size-fits-all account of what’s motivating everyone. That said, I am convinced that this is part of what is going on in many cases. I’d be really surprised to hear that you really haven’t encountered anyone who has said something along the lines of: "We Protestants, we’re so divided, we’re so individualistic, we have no sense of authority, we have to make up our own minds about everything rather than submitting to the judgment of others. It’s time to stop trying to do all the thinking for ourselves, and submit to authority and tradition." That sort of statement seems quite common.

      If you mean that you’ve never encountered anyone who put things in terms of the quotes further on in the second paragraph—well of course not, that’s the point. No one actually thinking that way is going to admit to themselves that that’s how they’re thinking. And so it’s not surprising to me that most converts would deny fitting my description here. To be sure, we need to listen to the reasons converts are actually giving—and I am attempting to do that here, more than many I’ve heard who have tried to diagnose the cause of such conversions—but we needn’t take those reasons at face value. Quite often we are very poor judges of our own motives, often worse than others watching us, in fact. We are very prone to deceive ourselves and make ourselves sound much more patient and objective and rational and humble than we really are.

      Of course, in any individual case, I would want to be slow to make that harsh judgment—"Ah, I know what’s really going on in your twisted mind!"—but I am willing to venture some general judgments about what is often the case.

      In any case, though, I wouldn’t really expect a post like this to be very persuasive to anyone who has already converted; my interest is much more in talking to other Protestants about our own pathologies.

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  5. gene

    Given that CS Lewis is plenty sighted here, i think another quote by him is very relevant:

    "The Nazi and the nudist make the same mistake. But it is the naked body, still there beneath the clothes of each one of us, which really lives. It is the hierarchical world, still alive and (very properly) hidden behind a facade of equal citizenship, which is our real concern."

    The Weight of Glory (Membership)

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  6. Brad,

    While I agree in principle with most of what you wrote here, as a friendly bit of pushback from one who spent years arguing with lay converts from various Protestant denominations to Catholicism, I find it important to say that actually, yes, it is widely perceived among laymen who have some degree of curiosity about the world and who develop misgivings about their tradition that to be Protestant means being adrift in a sea of conflicting opinions that oneself is simply unequipped to resolve. Many laymen, confronted with very complex historical-theological issues such as Christology or the seeming absence of sola fide and sola Scriptura (as these doctrines are popularly taught and believed, at any rate) from the first 1500 years of Church history, quickly find that navigating such waters is extremely difficult and time-consuming, and just can’t be done given the matrix of other responsibilities they have (family, work, etc.). And so the more they come to feel that some Issue X of theology or history really is quite problematic for their present traditionary standpoint, the more they begin to feel attracted to the idea of "just submitting" to someone who represents something that does (or at least seems to) resolve the conflicts at that point.

    Sometimes decisions to convert based on problems like this are the result of intellectual sloppiness / laziness. I think of many convert stories I read where the people admit they knew nothing about patristics when they started their journey, but thanks to 6 months of reading books written by converts, now they See the Light At Last and can confidently speak about "what the Fathers believed" and use that to condemn their present tradition and justify a huge, life-changing move. But other times, again, many people simply get justly tired of being told that, doggone it, you’re a PROTESTANT – just THINK about it and MAKE YOUR OWN DECISION. It’s not easy for scholarly types to understand this. Because of our temperament and training, because we live so much of our lives around amazing libraries and so perceive there to be a superabundant surfeit of intellectually robust material right at hand, we tend to believe that there aren’t all that many obstacles to a person who WANTS to become well-informed actually becoming well-informed. But that’s not the case for the masses of ordinary Protestants

    . There’s just no way that Presbyterian Joe Auto Mechanic, who spends 50 hours a week immersed in the guts of engines, and then comes home to 5 little kids each night, can hope to have the time or energy to sit quietly in a study (does he even have a study?) poring over 17th century tomes about ecclesiology so he can figure out a reasonable path through some conflict about that that has come to his attention and has begun to bother him. At some point, Presbyterian Joe is just going to have to make a brute decision of will to let the issue go, to trust someone "in authority," whether that be his own pastor or the pastor of some other church to which he is attracted.

    And you know, on some level there’s really nothing wrong with that. Scripture doesn’t tell laymen that they have to figure out everything for themselves. Scripture doesn’t say that laymen are going to be held accountable for holding heretical doctrines on extremely complicated issues of historical theology. Scripture says, rather, that the PASTORS are going to be held accountable for that. So while I do take your overall point about the need for individual Protestants to be thoughtful, there are significant and often insurmountable limitations that many individuals face which cannot be solved in the manner you outline. I found that out myself as soon as I got out of the quiet, peaceful environment of school, where I got to sit around for 8 hours a day poring over books and writing, and took a 50+ hour a week job teaching, and then started being blessed with 3, 4, then 5 children. I had to face a serious issue once, about whether Reformed Christology is actually heretical on a number of points, and that in the context of people telling me I was going to read 4 bookcases full of books on the topic. Well, that was just never going to happen. So despite what few scholarly books I was able to read (and a semester course on Christology), I couldn’t personally, with my own brainpower, resolve the issues, and I had to just decide that I wasn’t going to let it bother me whether my pastor was, unbenownst to him, some kind of quasi-Monothelite, and therefore teaching heretical doctrines, and supposedly therefore doing harm to my soul. I had to just decide that I was going to trust him, and beyond that, trust GOD to take care of me if, indeed, I was unwittingly (and given my life circumstances) irremediably, imbibing quasi-Monothelitism.

    I guess what I’m saying in a nutshell is that we scholarly types need to consider what the world outside the study is like, and not propound idealistic notions of what The Individual is able to do / must do in order to satisfy the demand of the Protestant credo, "Here I stand, I can do no other." The world outside the study just ain’t that accommodating.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Hey Tim,I pretty much agree with everything you just said here, except that I don’t think you accurately understood the intent of my post at all—though that may well be my fault for not being more clear. Let me try to be clearer here:I’m not at all saying that what we need more of is churches full of people saying, "Well, my pastor may be an Amyraldian hypothetical universalist, but I’ve been doing some reading, and I think I’m a non-Amyraldian universalist, and so I’m going to stick up for my own opinions, rather than simply taking everything he says at face value." Of course the majority of congregants are not going to be scholars. Of course they have more important things to do with their time than to sort through the ins and outs of every epistemic or moral problem that they run into, and this is why we have authorities—so we can still function without settling every question for ourselves. In a normal healthy congregation, there’s probably going to be a solid majority every Sunday who leave the service saying, "Good sermon. I can’t say I understood everything he was getting at, but what I understood makes good sense to me and I’m sure the pastor knows what he’s talking about on all the rest" or even "Hm, that sermon didn’t sound right to me at first, but I know that the pastor knows a lot more about it than me, so that’s probably the right interpretation." And while I think that we should always be striving for more and more lay theological education, and a thoughtful, engaged, articulate laity as our ideal, that the reality most of the time is going to be that a lot of people take things on authority, and that’s fine.

      What’s not fine, though, and what I’m particularly keen to combat in my post, is where such deferring-to-another’s-judgment is treated not as a pragmatic necessity, but as a good in itself, so that questioning is discouraged altogether. Or where the pastor’s superior judgment is so exalted by his parishioner that the parishioner becomes angry at encountering anyone who disagrees, and can’t abide other parishioners forming somewhat different judgments of their own. I want a church climate in which Joe Auto Mechanic feels encouraged to go up to the pastor after the service, and say, "Hey pastor, can you please spell out how you reached that conclusion, because I wasn’t quite comfortable with what you seemed to be saying about X" or express this concern to a friend on Sunday afternoon. I want a church climate in which Joe Auto Mechanic says, "You know, I don’t know much about this subject, so I’m just going to follow what Pastor Bob says about it, but if Jim Schoolteacher has some rather different opinions on this issue, I’m fine with that, and happy to hear him out too, so long as he’s being respectful and charitable. Heck, maybe one day Jim might even change my mind if I get enough time to look into the question for myself." And conversely, I want a church climate in which Jim Schoolteacher feels quite comfortable speaking up and voicing respectful disagreement, without fear of being treated as a traitor.In other words, the key thing is that Joe Auto Mechanic recognizes that Pastor Bob may well be wrong, and that therefore, he Joe might turn out to be wrong too, since he’s deferring to Pastor Bob’s judgment, but that that’s not the end of the world, as long as he’s doing his best to be faithful and read the Scriptures. If Joe Auto Mechanic is deferring to Pastor Bob in the (usually subconscious) belief that Pastor Bob has all the answers, and everyone else is probably wrong, well then, there we have a problem. And that sort of thing is, I think you’ll grant, quite common among conservative Christians.

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      • I do think what I wrote about is just the flipside of what you wrote about, but especially in light of what I take to be the original impetus for your article in some actually existing circumstances we’ve both taken part in, yeah, I see now that my comment distracted attention from a particular inquiry that really doesn’t seem to take place in many circles. Sorry about that!

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  7. David wrote, "In my 3.5 yr journey to Orthodoxy, reading, talking to dozens and listening to dozens of ‘Journey Stories’ I never encountered a convert who expressed such a resignation of ‘mental-yielding’ to authority." My experience has been just the opposite. During my time of converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, I came across people all the time that spoke of Orthodoxy as if it was the default position once a person gave up trying to work everything out for himself; that once someone realized that he couldn’t trust himself, it meant he needed to mentally yield to the authority of the Orthodox church. The narrative of choosing for oneself not to choose for oneself, together with the assumption that this condition of non-choosing just happens to correlate with a choice to enter the Orthodox church, instead of all the other groups that claim a similar authority, always functions simultaneously with the person thinking for himself and reasoning and researching and doing his homework, so that the narrative the convert tells himself seems disingenuous.

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  8. Oskar Schell

    The reasons anyone converts to anything are always in flux, much like the reasons we marry. Strange motivations bring us in, or take us out, but radically different motivations keep us where we are. We settle into the real reasons we do important things. In the same way that Paul’s Damascus Road conversion story becomes more lucid, more precise with each retelling, we often need more time to reflect on what we’ve done to see our motivations. I’d wager that many people (though not all) are rather nonplussed in maturity when reflecting on their own motivations for a range of decisions made during youth.

    As for the person who has just converted to Orthodoxy because he wanted "someone to submit to," or for the person who has just left Orthodoxy for Protestantism because he was "tired of submitting," I wouldn’t put much stock in those words. They’re not particularly telling.

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  9. Joffre Swait

    Thank you, Brad, this is excellent. Especially the last several paragraphs! 🙂

    One of the effects of the leader-fixation you mentioned is anger and resentment toward the leader when he disappoints you. That usually happens because in his mind the disciple had handed over his moral responsibility to the leader, which is a silly thing to do.

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  10. Roger Bennett

    Having left the Reformed world for Orthodoxy 16 years ago, I feel qualified to say that if you come to Orthodoxy eagerly expecting to be told what to think about everything, you’re going to end up sorely disappointed. There are some dogmas as boundary markers — generally, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. But those boundaries surround a surprisingly capacious field of thought, with lots of paradoxical "both and" or apophatic answers to questions you perhaps expected to be answered with laser precision.

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  11. Prometheus

    Brad,

    I think that, in many ways, Protestants ask questions about authority in traditions such as the Catholic or Orthodox churches that they are unwilling to ask of their own. For instance, you critique the "submission to authority", but at the same time submit to an authority – scripture. Conservative Protestants make many assumptions about the nature of their authority (scripture) that they are disallowed, typically, from questioning. For example, we assume that 2nd Peter was written by Peter. We assume that the scriptures are infallible. We assume the content of the canon, though the list of which books should be in the canon is certainly not scriptural. So there is a clear orthodoxy imposed on the believing Protestant communities . . . as it should be! And Orthodoxy is no different. If there is no authority to conform oneself to, then there is no point to religion. It is not that Protestantism lacks an authority and Orthodoxy has authority. It is that the understanding of authority in the Christian life is different. For the Protestant, it seems, authority is related to several <i>fiats</i> given by the reformers . . . the <i>solas</i>. But for the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the issue of authority is bound up in Tradition (how Christians pass on the faith from one generation to another). What separates the two sides is how they answer the question of <i>how</i> God chose to transmit his truth through time. Orthodox seekers, in my experience, have very good reasons for doubting the sufficiency or even necessity of a doctrine such as <i>sola scripture</i> – and often long before they actually make serious overtures to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, for them, comes as an intellectual as much as spiritual resolution to deep foundational problems in Protestant theology.

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  12. Vanessa

    Read your article with interest and appreciation.

    I’ spent 20 years in the Reformed church. My background is (and remains) protestant. Presently, I am in a protestant church which is not reformed.

    You note that your Scottish church was less afraid to encounter/appreciate other Christians with some range of diverse opinions. Back in the USA you have found that your church is more rigid. That was my experience going from a famous (and highly conservative yet racially/culturally integrated) Chicago church to a Reformed church which was then almost all people of one belief system from childhood, one ethnic origin.

    Before my marriage, I attended a famous Chicago independent protestant church whose name you would recognize (one of the more socially strict churches…for instance, the choir director asked that persons in choir not drink alcohol).

    However, this Chicago church (ironically) was much more tolerant of Christians from somewhat different perspectives than the reformed church we attended after our marriage. The reformed church had many fine qualities and on some lesser personal lifestyle choices probably allowed more freedom.

    A few possible reasons that the reformed church (slightly less strict theologically) was still…not open to new ideas (however mild theologically and socially) were possibly these reasonsAlmost all members were of one racial/ethnic group (in this case, Dutch).Many had been brought up in that church from birth. Certain things were just done "certain ways"…One simply could not deviate, however mildly.Many people were related to each other. Many had training in the Heidelberg Catechism and the "Tulip" & other common reformed packaging of Christianity.

    I learned very quickly not to "shock" people by my mild questioning of the "Tulip"–which is a kind of acronym if I remember for some Reformed theology.

    I served in the church, learned in the church, and had much respect for the many fine people there. But I found out it was easier not to ask questions. I also figured out some of the "secret rules and customs" which I (basically a quiet person) did sometimes transgress and then get "that look".

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