The Emotional and Psychological Consequences of Authoritarian Religion

by Bruce Gerencser

(Cross posted from Bruce’s blog The Way Forward)

authoritarianism

Over the past few years I have met countless people who have escaped authoritarian religions like the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement or your every day garden variety Evangelical church. Authoritarian ecclesiastical structures and authoritarian pastors dominate the lives of those who come under their spell.

Most authoritarian churches believe God ordained a chain of command, not only in the church but in the home. These churches almost always practice complementarianism.

Wikipedia defines complementarianism as:

A theological view held by some in Christianity and other world religions, such as Islam,that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere.

Some authoritarian churches are more complementarian than others, but all of them believe God ordained a strict order in the church and home. An extreme form of complementarianism is Biblical Patriarchy.

The central tenets of Biblical Patriarchy are:

God reveals Himself as masculine, not feminine.

God ordained distinct gender roles for man and woman as part of the created order.

A husband and father is the head of his household, a family leader, provider, and protector.

Male leadership in the home carries over into the church: only men are permitted to hold the ruling office in the church. A God-honoring society will likewise prefer male leadership in civil and other spheres.

Since the woman was created as a helper to her husband, as the bearer of children, and as a “keeper at home,” the God-ordained and proper sphere of dominion for a wife is the household and that which is connected with the home.

God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” still applies to married couples.

Christian parents must provide their children with a thoroughly Christian education, one that teaches the Bible and a biblical view of God and the world.

Both sons and daughters are under the command of their fathers as long as they are under his roof or otherwise the recipients of his provision and protection.

Some advocates of Biblical Patriarchy teach that women are “part of a chain of command. God is at the top, then Jesus, after that the husband, then the wife, and finally the children.” (above is taken from Vision Forum , The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy)

Authoritarian churches spend significant time reminding church members that they are to submit to those God has placed in authority. Those who refuse or are unable to obey are often publicly exposed as being worldly, disobedient, carnal, or backslidden. Often pastors preach sermons about these people, not naming names, but leaving no doubt who the pastor is talking about.

If the disobedient church members doesn’t repent, they are likely to find themselves ostracized, under church discipline, or asked to leave the church. Authoritarian churches demand conformity to the church’s teachings. Free spirits with a difference of opinion rarely last long in an authoritarian church. They are viewed as a challenge to God ordained authority and such challenges are never allowed lest church members begin to think they are free to believe whatever they want to believe.

baptist preacherAuthoritarian pastors often preach sermons on pastoral authority (obey me, I am God’s chosen man), male authority in the home (obey me, I am God’s chosen man), obedience to the Word of God (obey what God’s chosen man says God says in the Bible), and self-denial (self, who you really are is sinful and wicked and must be put to death).

Authoritarian pastors preach a demanding God who demands continual spiritual improvement, and in some cases, perfection. Church members regularly hear sermons on the importance of spiritual disciplines like studying the Bible, praying, and family devotions, and are regularly reminded that God expect them to be in church every time the church doors are open. They are also reminded that God owns them, they are his slave. God owns their life, including their money. Church members are expected to tithe, give offerings, and participate in any special offerings the church decides to collect.

Authoritarian churches control almost every aspect of the church member’s life. They are told what they must believe and how their homes should be structured. They are told what they should do with their money and how they are to dress. They are told who to vote for, what to read, what to watch on TV, and what kind of music to listen to. Even in sexual matters, the church prescribes what is proper, God honoring sex.

I am sure what I written above sounds surreal to some of you. Who, in their right mind, would ever submit to such a demanding, controlling, and demeaning religion? Surely, few people attend such churches? Sadly, tens of millions of Americans attend authoritarian churches. Surely, these people are poor, ignorant, uneducated people; no educated person would ever submit themselves to such things?

The next time you watch one of the many Christian TV stations, pay attention to the congregation. What do you see? Well dressed, prosperous people can be seen everywhere. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and college professors. People with degrees from public universities. Yes, many of the people are poor or middle class working people, but most every authoritarian church has upper class, educated members.

Secularists believe that education is the anecdote for religious superstition, yet authoritarian churches have numerous educated members. (and countless educated people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old) How do we explain this?

Authoritarian churches know what they believe and they staunchly hold on to and defend those beliefs. They are certain that their beliefs line up exactly with what God wrote in the Bible. It is this certainty that attracts people to authoritarian churches. People want answers for the big questions of life. They want to know that their life has meaning and purpose and that there is life beyond the grave. In an uncertain world that seems to be changing every day, they want stability and permanence.

Several years ago, I corresponded with a young man who was a member of a church I pastored. He was also a student in our Christian School. I told him I had a lot of guilt over what I preached and how controlling I was. (guilt I still struggle with to this day) He told me it wasn’t all my fault and that many of the people who came to the church wanted someone to tell them what to believe and how to live.

authoritarianismPeople are looking for answers, and authoritarian churches have lots of answers to give. Certainty, coupled with a close-knit, warm, and friendly church community, draws people in. They think they have f-i-n-a-l-l-y found the answer to their heart’s longing. Little do they know the heavy price that will be extracted from them for the privilege of being a member of The Only True Church in Town Baptist Church.

Authoritarian churches rob people of their identity. God, Jesus, and the church are the only things that matter, Church members are expected to crucify the flesh, to die to self. Normal human urges and expressions are deemed sin. God’s demands are constantly preached from the pulpit. Be ye perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect. While no member is perfect, they are expected to strive for perfection. Since Jesus gave his all for them, surely they should want to give their all for Jesus the church.

While authoritarian churches preach up grace, they believe that “true” Christians believe and live according to teachings of the Bible. (actually they believe and live according to the Bible interpretations of the pastor) Most authoritarian churches teach the security of the believer (once saved, always saved, perseverance of the saints). However, if you listen closely to what they teach, you will find they believe “true” Christians believe the right doctrines and live a certain way. While they preach salvation by grace, they are actually preaching a salvation that is a mixture of grace, right beliefs, and right living. (even though they vehemently deny this)

I need to make one thing clear, Authoritarian churches base their beliefs and practices on the Bible. Every belief and practice has a proof-text to prove that a particular belief or practice is ordained by God. Authoritarian churches are Bible literalists and pride themselves in being people of the book. They are God said and I believe it, kind of people.

It should come as no surprise that this kind of religion messes people up emotionally and psychologically. Many people who leave authoritarian religions require years of psychotherapy to gain back what was taken from them. Sadly, in many cases, the damage is so severe that the person remains an emotional and psychological cripple the rest of their lives.

Authoritarian religion robs people of their identity. They gave up self to gain Jesus. People who leave authoritarian churches are often lost, in the sense that they have no idea who they are. They have spent decades living for Jesus and have no idea who they are and what it means to be human.

Often, people who leave authoritarian churches bring a lot of baggage with them. They battle with perfectionist tendencies and black and white thinking. Immersion in authoritarian religion robs a person of the ability to see nuance. They are taught that every question has an answer and that doubt and ambiguity are the tools of Satan.

In their post-authoritarian religion life they see a world filled with nuance and ambiguity. They have lots of questions that seem to have no answers. This is quite unsettling for many people. Their former world was controlled and safe. Their present world is wild and dangerous.

People who leave authoritarian churches often have trouble integrating back into society. They have left the bondage of authoritarianism but authoritarian beliefs and philosophies still live on deep in their psyche. It might take years for them to truly be free from it.

In many cases, the person may never be completely free from their past. The scars are deep and sometimes the damage done is permanently crippling. People who leave authoritarian churches want to get their life back but, in many cases, this is impossible. For many, the best they can hope for is an uneasy peace with their past. I know people want to be FREE, FREE AT LAST but sometimes true, complete freedom is difficult to obtain.

In my own life, I have to live with with the fact that I am both an abuser and a victim. I grew up and was trained in authoritarian churches. I attended an authoritarian college. As I entered the ministry and began pastoring churches, I promoted and practiced authoritarianism. How could I do anything else? It was all that I knew. It was all that was ever modeled to me. When you are in the Evangelical bubble it all makes sense. Only when you are out of the bubble do you look back and say, Wow! I believed and practiced some bat-shit crazy stuff.

Every day, I live with guilt over the harm I did to other people. Yes, they attended the churches I pastored on their own accord. No one forced them to be a church member but I still must own what I taught and the how those teachings played out in the lives of the people who called me preacher or pastor.

In some ways, this blog is an act of penance. I can’t go back and undo the damage done to other people. All I can do is be honest about the past and try to bring to light the pernicious things that go on in Evangelical churches.

I am of the opinion that much of Evangelicalism and movements like the IFB have beliefs and practices that emotionally and psychologically harm people. I know many Evangelical will object to being painted with such a broad brush, but authoritarianism is so widespread within Evangelicalism, that I see “good” Evangelicals as an apple in the midst of a trash can full of garbage. Instead of defending Evangelicalism, they need to wash the rotten filth off and leave. (as those in the emerging, emergent church have done)

When I write posts like this, there is sure to be someone who suggests their church is NOT like this. They are certain that their Evangelical church is different. Perhaps, but not likely.

Recently, one commenter was appalled by what I had written about the the IFB church movement. She pointed me to a website that she thought promoted a kinder, gentler version of Christianity. A Christianity of love and acceptance. A Christianity without “man’s” rules. In her opinion, this was the answer for those caught up in authoritarian fundamentalism.

I checked out the website and I took a look at their doctrinal statement. The Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God. Hell awaits those who reject Jesus as the Lord and Savior. Standard Evangelical beliefs. So, they may be kinder and gentler, but the authority of the Word of God still looms large and people who refuse to repent and believe the gospel go to hell.

As much as Evangelicals might scream and deny it, Evangelicalism is a fundamentalist religion. Some Evangelicals eschew social fundamentalism but ALL Evangelicals embrace theological fundamentalism. IFB churches are social and theological fundamentalists. Evangelicals are Bible literalists, so it should come as no surprise that authoritarianism is so widespread. It is,after all, in the B-i-b-l-e.

People who want to leave authoritarian religions have one of three options:

  • They can try to find a liberal Christian church that allows them to be who they are and makes no demands of them.
  • They can investigate non-Christian religions that allow freedom and self-awareness. (eastern religions, earth religions,spirituality)
  • They can reject religion altogether and embrace a non-theistic, humanist way of life.

For me personally, I had to leave it all to find true deliverance and freedom. In order for me to find out who I really was, I had to disavow and abandon my past. In atheism and humanism, I have found myself and I have found a way of life that best reflects the world I live in. I also found out that my beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Bible are built upon a foundation of contradictions, lies, and distortions. Once I found out the Bible was not an inspired, inerrant text, my Evangelical house of cards came tumbling to the ground.

This is my Promised Land. Like the Israelites of the Bible, there is no turning back. Yes, I still feel the past beckoning to me but, day by day, its pull becomes less and less and I hope, in time, my authoritarian past will no longer be in rearview mirror as I pass over the next mountain. I am not there yet but I am getting closer.

Comments open below

Read everything by Bruce  Gerencser!

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 32 years. They have 6 children, and five grandchildren.

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About Suzanne Calulu
  • Marge

    Having spent three decades in authoritarian evangelical churches, up until a year ago, I would say that your assessment is very accurate, Bruce. I do want to suggest, however, that you seem to have omitted another option for those who want to leave authoritarian churches. That is to leave the institution without leaving the faith. You can still be a Christian without being a member of an organization. There are many people, like my husband and me, who embrace the essentials of faith in Christ but reject what we would consider false or misguided teachings about the church put forth by most evangelicals. We believe that the church is simply all those who follow Christ. We are committed to following Him, not so-called church “leaders.” Our lives are very different now. We are free, and we are very happy!

    • madame

      I agree with you, Marge.
      I walked away from the church nearly 4 years ago. First I had to shake off everything and constantly battled with guilt. My husband kept attending for one more year, but it will be 3 years this Christmas for him.
      We are both a lot more critical of what church demands of Christians. We are more open to listening to people rather than only half-listening while we prepare a Scripture-laden response that is guaranteed to convict them of how wrong they are. We both spend more time with non-Christians these days, and it’s good in many ways.
      I still have a long way to go. I would like to be part of a church again, just not an authoritarian one that doesn’t let me be me.
      I don’t live in the US. I was raised in an independent house-church where my father was the sort-of pastor (he doesn’t like the term), and he considered mainstream Evangelical churches to be “too light”. Of the three churches dh and I attended, the independent non-denominational ones were the most authoritarian and demanding of our time, resources, and energy. Mainstream evangelicalism was like a breath of fresh air in comparison.

  • Jenny Islander

    I’ve been thinking recently about my former understanding of conservative US Christianity, in the days before understanding it became urgent (which happened when I became a homeschool mom and Sunday School director). I knew, well, that Baptist kids weren’t allowed to take Communion with us, that some churches didn’t have Communion every Sunday (shock!), that we sang different hymns, that Baptist pastors tended to be shouty, and that the dress code at Baptist churches was pretty strict. I also knew that there were these people, called the professing people (no capitals), who thought that a long skirt with a walking slit in the back was too sexy and didn’t think that giving a 23-year-old man a curfew was weird. (And wow am I glad my sister didn’t marry him!). And they must have been poor because they didn’t even have a church.

    Your post is an excellent summary of the absolutely fractally bizarre (to my Lutheran-Anglican mind) things I have been digging up over the past few years. And I think I’ll just bookmark it instead of struggling to explain the issues to people. Thanks!

  • Karen

    Having grown up within Evangelicalism and attended Wheaton College, I have to disagree with your assessment of the Evangelical take on Christianity. It seems you’re only taking into account the conservative side as “true” Evangelicalism. In fact, Evangelicalism is an incredibly broad spectrum full of different kinds of people. Of course, in the US, the most common kind of person to run into who will label themselves Evangelical is a conservative. But not all are like that. I’d still call myself an Evangelical, but now I’m Evangelical Catholic rather than Evangelical Protestant. I’m sure most Conservative Evangelicals would deny my ever having been from the same big umbrella as them. Don’t be too quick to write us off! We are a wide and varied group. To narrow down the features of Evangelicalism is to deny its true nature and therefore to deal with a straw man rather than the real thing.

    • http://brucegerencser.net Bruce Gerencser

      When I use the word Evangelicalism I use it in a broad sense. There is the National Association of Evangelicals, along with the plethora of denominations that are Evangelical in doctrine. Then there are countless individual churches that would fall under the Evangelical label.

      All Evangelicals are theological fundamentalists because of their belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. Some Evangelicals are theological and social fundamentalists.

      I do n0t want to offend you in any way, but I have a hard time squaring the word Evangelical being connected to the word Catholic. If you believe in the magisterium and the ecclesiology and the soteriology of the Catholic church, it is hard for me to imagine how you would still be considered an Evangelical.

      The word Evangelical carries a lot of baggage in America, so I am not sure if you are helping your cause by saying you are Evangelical.

      That said, I am indifferent to how you label yourself. :)

      I know you are probably appealing back to a time when Evangelical meant adherence to a small core set of beliefs (and those beliefs would still conflict with official Catholic doctrine) but that kind of Evangelicalism has been swallowed up by the Evangelicalism that I detail in my post.

      Bruce

  • stairway to heaven

    Thank you Bruce for the most ”straight up” explanation of Authoritarian Religion I have ever read.

  • Lisa

    Great article Bruce, I really enjoyed it. After reading and enjoying it so much, part of me cringes at pointing this out but… I think when you said that secularists believe that education is the “anecdote” for religious superstition, what you actually meant was “antidote”.
    That said, keep up the good writing! I look forward to more of it in the future.

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  • Andrea

    Bruce, part of the healing path is forgiving yourself and working on becoming a better person. Its harder for me to forgive myself then it is to forgive others. I place standards on myself and have to face the fact that I dont always measure up. I am my worst critic and it leads to guilt. Its hard to let go of the guilt. I hope that you are able to forgive yourself for what you did in the past one day.

    I think forgiveness is a way of bringing peace to both the person giving it and the person receiving it. It is ok to forgive someone but not allow them to be part of your life due to abuse. In this case, you are forgiving them so you can move on. I think part of the reason Jesus wanted people to forgive was for the effect it has on a persons ability to move on.

    • suzannecalulu

      Very wise words, Andrea..

  • Elizabeth

    I am very glad I found this page. I was a born again worship leader, considered a miracle child and one who was going to do “great things for God”. I struggle every day through nightmares, phobias, self doubt, removal from reality, institutional doubt, massive amounts of guilt, worthlessness and a loss of purpose as a result of leaving the church and attending university. I still am unsure as to my existentialist beliefs and I struggle every day to make some kind of sense of my experiences in the church. I have been struggling on Google to look for someone else who feels that involvement in an authoritarian church can be emotionally devastating and its given me a bit of hope and a confirmation that I am not crazy upon reading your story.

  • Marie

    “They are told who to vote for, what to read, what to watch on TV, and what kind of music to listen to. Even in sexual matters, the church prescribes what is proper, God honoring sex.”

    As a curious outsider, what generally qualifies as “proper, God honoring sex” in Authoritarian churches?

  • Common Sense

    You create a false link between the doctrinal position in the blocked out area with your evaluations and assertions in the rest of the article (‘control almost every area of their life’ for example). Yet though the doctrinal statements you list are normative the conclusions that you come to are almost never the case… you are making a false connection between these beliefs and your conclusions. You should stop it because you are essentially telling lies.