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How Authoritarianism Hurts Religion

By the Rev. Howard Bess
April 25, 2010

Editor’s Note: The Roman Catholic Church is in crisis over its failure to address the problem of abusive priests in part because the church's hierarchical structure stops laymen from questioning the ecclesiastical judgments of the Pope and other senior clergy.

In this guest essay, the Rev. Howard Bess suggests that the Vatican is not alone among Christian churches in discouraging questions and thus driving many Christians away from organized religion:

The drain of young adults from churches has been verified by surveys and studies – and as one who cares deeply about the health of Christian churches, I ask the question: “Why are people leaving our churches in such great numbers?”

Recently, I read a review of Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, with the thesis that Christian churches have not been asking the right questions and that they need to be asking a number of different questions.

I believe McLaren is on to something, in part, because his proposal flies in the face of the practice of many churches that demand agreement rather than encourage questioning. Asking questions may well be the key to restoring vitality to struggling churches.
Questioning and arguing about Christian beliefs and practices have roots in the First Century, the earliest days after the death of Jesus and the first years of the new faith. In Chapter 15 of the Book of Acts, a gathering of church leaders is described in Jerusalem.

It was a contentious meeting with lots of arguing and questioning. The conflict was between the apostle Paul and the disciples of Jesus. The subject was the tension created by the new faith’s early diversity.

The result of the conference was more a truce than an agreement. Except that if there was an agreement, it was that it would be impossible to prevent Paul and his mission from including non-Jews in the emerging churches.
In the following years, Christian teaching spread rapidly in every geographic direction. Paul went north and west, and others headed in other directions.

Yet, in those early days, there was little communication among the Christian churches, with continued diversity an unavoidable outcome.

Indeed, diversity remained the hallmark of Christianity until the early 4th century CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine became an arbiter resolving differences among the disagreeing churches.

Out of Constantine’s intervention – and his conversion to Christianity late in his life – the Bishop at Rome took on new powers and Christianity became unified under his rule. Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. With the concentration of authority, the vitality of diversity was lost.

Since then, Christian churches have been mostly authoritarian with empowered clergy maintaining creedal affirmations. Theological conformity is routinely required of clergy to attain ordination and some level of obedience to hierarchy is demanded. 

My wife’s education was in science, primarily in biology with an emphasis on ecology. One of the lessons that I have learned from her is the strength that diversity brings as a working standard that aids stability, whereas uniformity can produce instability because of its rigidity of thought.

I believe that the same principle transfers to theology.

It is my observation that churches have not created opportunities for questioning and honest discussions. Worship services are dominated by rituals that are controlled by clergy; sermonizing is authoritarian and the prerogative of ordained clergy. Teaching tends to be catechetical.

Today's churches are not very exciting places for people who have questions.

The Barna Research Group has found that at least 5 percent of all Christians in America worship in home churches, with the actual number being possibly twice as high. Home churches are typically led someone who is not an ordained clergyperson.

Yet, this phenomenon of “home churches” is little known to the general public. I suspect that most of the people who attend home churches are people who have been denied the opportunity to ask serious questions in churches where they were reared.

What are the questions that should be asked? Brian McLaren lists ten; I have my own long list. But it’s not my purpose here to list questions. The more pressing issue is “what is your question?”

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is               

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