Silencing Dissent to Protect You From Dissent

Gothic Cathedral

Photo Credit:  Michael D Beckwith

Although I think that pursuing spirituality is a critical part of life, it is no secret that I have no love for religion.  I do not hate religious people, but I do hate the hierarchical systems that keep the masses from asking questions, that constrain spiritual growth and critical thought, that put every ounce of effort into consolidating power in the hands of a few clerics under the guise of providing spiritual nourishment.

A recent article by Tish Harrison Warren at Christianity Today illustrates the utter corruptness of the Christian religion.  I found it when I read Doug Wilson’s response over at Blog & Mablog.  Now I will give Warren this:  she seems to approach the issue from a standpoint of genuine concern and humility, and I appreciate that.  But the mindset she and most other Western Christians have adopted is one that idolizes control and dominance and mandatory conformity.

Now frankly, I don’t care how any given person pursues a relationship with the Creator.  If you want to burn incense, stare at stained glass windows, sing in a choir, play in a rock band, or go sit on a rock in the desert, that’s your prerogative.  But when you start telling other people exactly what they must think and that they must bow to someone who is higher up the religious pyramid scheme, then you have constructed a relational and intellectual barrier that was never intended by the Creator.  The demand for conformity and acquiescence to an organizational leader, while it may keep the masses docile, ultimately suppresses spiritual growth and relational development.

At the heart of Warren’s article is the unsettling fear of bloggers that are not attached to a denomination or vetted Christian organization.  Why, such people can simply jump on the internet and write whatever they want and there’s no one to hold them accountable!  Her attempt at rational discourse doesn’t hide the panic that is taking hold of the institution, as she repeatedly refers to this situation as a crisis.  Her article is fraught with examples of how the institutional mentality of Western Christians is corrupting spiritual life.  Here are some of the most egregious excerpts from the article.

Just as the invention of the printing press helped spark the Protestant Reformation and created a crisis of authority, the advent of social media has catalyzed a new crisis in the church.

Where do bloggers… derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders?

With the blessing and power of leadership comes the duty and vulnerability of speaking out of one’s particular theological tradition and in turn being held accountable to that same tradition.

And although many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a woman must be ordained in order to blog, publish, or speak. A formal recognition of authority and accountability can be called commissioning, endorsement, partnership, or something else.

So she will graciously allow female bloggers to write or speak as a lay person—so long as they are endorsed by an institution of some sort.  Very generous.  For all of her lamenting that many Christian religious denominations refuse to ordain female clergy, she is not above demanding that women submit to the rules and intellectual restraints of The Establishment.

All of us—whether complementarians or egalitarians—need to create institutional structures to recognize the authority held by female teachers and writers and then hold them accountable for the claims they make under the name of Jesus and in the name of the church.

Where does this perverse need for iron control come from?  How is it even remotely intellectually honest to say that an institution established by flawed humans has some inherent credibility and authority and has the right to grant other flawed humans authority?  Warren dares to give an answer:

The New Testament presupposes that church authority, hierarchy, and discipline exist to protect orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

The New Testament (apparently a living, breathing, thinking entity) presupposes?  Mightn’t it be possible that those who hold this maniacal desire for control over others pervert the New Testament in order to justify their empires?  Because the New Testament that I read contains the teaching of folks like Jesus and Paul who both spoke repeatedly against the hierarchical structure and religious rituals upon which Western Christianity™ is built.

Warren wraps up the article by comparing religious teachers to doctors in that both, if untrained, can cause serious harm to those they are serving.  So naturally it follows that since we have academic diplomas, board certifications, and institutional credentials for doctors, we ought to have the same criteria for writers.  I assume that’s because our educational and health care institutions are so altruistic, competent, and virtuous.

Let’s briefly examine the fallacy that institutions are necessary for the preservation of The Truth.  I think that a study of institutions of any discipline—religious, scientific, academic, or business—will show that institutional structures tend to discourage independent, creative thought more than they foster it.  Whether you look at historic or contemporary institutions, they have all proven to be far less than paragons of truth.  No doubt there are many deceivers and deceived out there.  But give people some credit.  Those who have a bit of personal initiative and a desire to seek the truth do not need institutional sheltering.  And if Christians have the Holy Spirit to guide them, why must we demand that their spiritual growth and understanding look exactly like ours?

Apparently there has been a significant backlash to this article, and rightly so.  Yet Warren doubles down with a defense of her CT article on her blog.  Here are some excerpts from her defense.

There needs to be an active and creative conversation about what it means to respond responsibly, faithfully, and institutionally to the proliferation of teachings and teachers brought to us through social media. Otherwise, the tail of new technology will inevitably end up wagging the dog of church authority (and, consequently, orthodoxy).

I wish I’d spent more time explaining how I can invite others to submit to an institutional church that has done much damage and waged much violence, even in the name of the Prince of Peace.

If we are to step into greater institutional authority, we have to be willing to take on the mantle of institutional accountability. We cannot have one without the other.

At the end of the day, here I stand: The church, in so many ways, is a sinful mess and tragically responsible for all manner of evil and oppression, yet still each Sunday I stand up before my congregation and proclaim that I believe in “one, holy catholic and apostolic church.’ [sic]

This last paragraph, to me, is unconscionable.  Like most ardent defenders of the institution, she confuses the stupid, faceless, bloated, corporate structure of institutional religion with the vibrant, organic assembly of followers of Christ.  The revered corporate structure is a gilded cage—a prison of our own making.  It is devastating to spiritual life and growth.  Yet because it is a source of personal power and status and control, those who have a vested interest in the institution will defend it to the end, no matter how detrimental it is to the people held in its grasp.

I believe that most defenders of the institution are well-intentioned.  They have a genuine concern that people might be exploited by religious hucksters.  The arrogance and hypocrisy of their position escapes them—the position that they must be allowed to dictate the content of people’s beliefs and demand conformity of their followers in order to protect them from those that would exploit them.

I have been uncharacteristically optimistic about the information revolution, as it offers a window of opportunity for the masses to study for themselves and realize that their intellectually inbred denominational dogma is not the only lens through which to view life and theology.  “Common people” now have virtually unlimited access to books, teaching, and a host of free bible study tools.  As the printing press was enormously instrumental in fanning the flames of the Protestant Reformation (as briefly discussed by Ms Warren), the information revolution has offered seekers of truth access to a level of information that is unparalleled in history.

The priestly caste (of which Warren is a proud member) recognizes this and the panic is beginning to set in.  I believe that some religious institutions will collapse at an accelerated rate over the next 20-30 years, and some will desperately seek political alliances to silence dissent and retain their power.

So let the nations rage.  Let the power hungry play their games.  Don’t let the fact that there are exploiters and trolls on the internet send you into a panic.  Once you look past the politics and the rituals and the posturing, we’re ultimately left with each other and with a redeeming Creator who desires that we grow in maturity together.  Seek the truth.  And for heaven’s sake, give people some room to grow.

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