Truth, Authority and Roles
“He who begins by loving Christianity, better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection)
Consider this little essay background explanation of why I am against complementarianism and hierarchy in general. Hierarchy, including complementarianism, emphasizes roles and “authority over” and “submission to” based on them. In other words, to put it bluntly, hierarchy is the manner of organization of a social unit (especially the family) so that assigned (or assumed) roles matter more than truth.
Hierarchy is more than an organizational flow chart. Hierarchy exists where a person’s authority over others is independent of truth. A social unit, organization, can have leadership without hierarchy. Hierarchy is when the leadership’s power over those led is independent of accountability to truth. Hierarchy naturally inclines toward abuse because of our fallen nature. Its social structure encourages abuse and subjects truth to power-over.
Christians claim to be concerned with and committed to truth. And yet we betray that concern and commitment when we insist on hierarchy. Hierarchical Christians, like all hierarchical people, show by their organizational theory and behavior a preference for power and control over truth.
Let me illustrate. In 1633 Galileo, a faithful son of the Catholic Church, was brought before the Inquisition and found guilty of being “vehemently suspect of heresy” and was put under house arrest and forbidden to publish. The church hierarchy knew that Galileo was right about the heliocentric solar system. (Technically, they knew Copernicus was right and Galileo was right about agreeing with it!) What Galileo was really punished for was disobeying the church that had ordered him in 1616 to abandon all attempts to demonstrate the Copernican system publicly. (He was allowed to write about it as a mathematical fiction only.) This is a clear case of truth being trumped by power, i.e., hierarchy.
The second illustration is Luther. In this case, the church did not know that Luther was right about justification, but Luther stood up to role power and refused to bow to the authority of those above him in the hierarchy of church and empire. At Worms he clearly believed, however temporarily, that truth mattered more than roles. As a lowly monk he faced off against the pope and the emperor on the ground that truth was on his side.
The irony is that many people who consider Luther a great hero nevertheless talk about hierarchy as if Luther was wrong. During his controversy with the pope and the emperor some of Luther’s counselors strongly advised him to bow to their (the pope’s and emperor’s) authority even if he knew them to be wrong.
This is all very personal to me. Over my years of involvement in Christian organizations I have observed (and been involved in) many situations where truth was put second to role-power (or ignored altogether for the sake of sustaining hierarchy). I taught theology at Oral Roberts University for two years. It was my first full time teaching position. There I observed and heard of many examples of this. (ORU is now under entirely new management and I trust [and hear that] nothing like that is happening now.)
My point in all this is a simple one. When a person in a position of authority is manifestly wrong and a person under his or her authority is manifestly right, true authority belongs, in that instance, with the “underling.” For a Christian, especially, to assert the “rightness” of the authority of the person in the wrong just because he or she holds a position, is a betrayal of truth. It is the job of all lovers of truth to hold others, including those higher in the “chain of command,” accountable to truth. And it is the job of all lovers of truth to bow to it even when it is being communicated by someone lower in the “chain of command.”
When my daughters were children I followed this policy with them. When we disagreed, if they were right and I was wrong, I admitted it and allowed their truth (the truth) to prevail.
This is one reason I am a Baptist; true Baptists have no chain of command. We have leadership, but no hierarchy. There is no Baptist person who has authority over other Baptists simply by virtue of his or her role. There are Baptist persons who are recognized as leaders because of their spiritual depth, higher knowledge and wisdom, education and training, etc. However, only God is considered infallible and always to be obeyed. And just because a person holds a certain position or role in the church or convention does not make him or her automatically “right.” (Note: I am not saying only Baptists have this polity.)
A good biblical example is Peter and Paul at Antioch. Peter was over Paul in the early Christian “flow chart.” And yet Paul stood up to him and criticized him when he refused to eat with gentile converts. The truth was on Paul’s side. In a hierarchy Peter would have been considered functionally right even if truth was on Paul’s side. Another biblical example is from the Old Testament—David and Nathan. The prophet Nathan confronted the king about his sin; truth was on Nathan’s side even though David was most definitely above him in the hierarchy. At that moment, hierarchy was suspended for the sake of truth.
I suspect that many people, including many Christians, prefer hierarchy to truth because hierarchy makes things more orderly, controlled and predictable. Authority-as-truth can be messy. But anything else is a form of idolatry (or at least an opening to idolatry) because God and truth are inseparable. To prefer power to truth is always wrong.
Questions such as “But how do we know the truth?” are irrelevant to the case I’m making unless one denies truth altogether. Then, of course, all we have is power. Whether anyone can know truth as God knows it (completely and perfectly) is not the issue. The issue is simply this: When I believe someone has the truth, I should follow that person in that instance even if it means going against authority. (Of course a person has to take prudence into account.) But even more importantly, the issue is: This holds true even and especially when I am the person “officially” over the person with truth in the organizational flow chart. If I believe he or she is speaking truth, I should bend to that truth even if the person discovering it and presenting it is the lowliest person on the organizational flow chart. To do otherwise is a form of idolatry.
When I was growing up in certain Pentecostal circles, a favorite biblical verse quoted often by my parents and mentors was 1 Chronicles 16:22 (echoed in Psalm 105:15): “Touch not mine anointed.” To them it meant “Never criticize or question those ‘in authority’ over you—especially in the church and denomination.” People who dared to criticize or question those “in authority” were labeled “negative” and ostracized. It wasn’t just a matter of how one did it; simply doing it was considered unspiritual. This mentality led to all kinds of abuses in our church and denomination and movement.
This is why I am adamantly opposed to so-called “complementarianism.” No matter how much they say that the husband should love his wife as Christ loves the church, they (the leading complementarian preachers and scholars) are handing husbands the right to ignore truth when it is his wife who has it and he doesn’t—that is, when his wife is right and he is wrong. I am waiting to read or hear a complementarian say to Christian husbands: “When your wife is right, she is right and you must obey the truth.” (I don’t expect them to say “You must obey her;” that would be expecting too much!)
Nothing in the New Testament contradicts this. In fact, I think it is everywhere assumed there. I cannot imagine Paul or any other apostle saying to anyone “I’m right and you’re wrong even though you’re right and I’m wrong.” To Timothy, a young apostle-in-training, he said “Do not let anyone despise your youth.” (1 Timothy 4:12) Clearly what he meant was “Don’t let anyone ignore or oppose your truth, when you are right, just because you’re young.”
In my opinion, “complementarianism” is an open door to abuse and idolatry. (I am not saying it is abuse or idolatry.) At the very least I insist that complementarians admit and teach that truth matters more than role—even outside spiritual matters pertaining to salvation and morality. If the husband believes his wife is right about something, that is, truth is on her side in a disagreement, he ought to let her decide. It shouldn’t even be a matter of “letting her decide.” A mature Christian person should automatically follow the truth wherever it may be found. But when I say “let her decide” I am talking to complementarians in their language (even though to egalitarian ears it sounds patriarchal).
I began this essay with a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I would very much like to see it displayed on church marquees and carved into the marble above the entrances to Christian organizations. The point it is making is one of the most important points ever made. Truth matters more than anything else—even love. Ephesians 4:15 does not say “Let love over ride truth.” It says “speaking the truth in love….” This does not mean license to hate! It means that love should never allow truth to be denied. Love may hide the truth for a while, depending on how important the truth is. But truth that matters to the well-being of people, whether individuals or communities, must not be set aside but communicated in a spirit of love.
I’m afraid that “complementarians” love authority and roles more than truth. If so, they may end up by loving themselves “better than all.”