A funny-weird (rather than a funny-haha) experience provoked today’s post. It sent me on a wild ride through the profoundly-hypocritical world of authoritarian Christian leaders. Today, let me show you what’s so hypocritical about them–and why that hypocrisy matters so much.
Everyone, Meet Joe.
Back in college, I had a part-time job helping campus groups find and rent movies for their events and meetings. Joe presided over that office like it was his private fiefdom. In a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it was. He enjoyed a great deal of power over his serfs. Initially, I took the job because he expressed fervent Christianity during our interview. (I didn’t yet realize what a red flag that was!) Very rapidly, I discovered myself working for a tin-pot dictator.
For a long time, Joe’s professed fervent faith meshed with his tyranny of that office. All the other managerial types on-campus seemed to think he was the bee’s knees. However, all his direct employees knew better. Half our jobs consisted of shrink-wrapping Joe’s world so he wouldn’t explode into shards of ridiculous commands, bizarre control-grabs, and sneering paternalism.
Eventually, his behavior grew bad enough that I politely but firmly quit out from under him smack in the middle of one of his attempted daddy-daughter lectures. Immediately, he tried spreading rumors that sweet, meek, mild, obedient, hard-working Pentecostal Cas had thrown a tantrum in his office, threatened him, and thrown large, heavy objects at him. YES! Luckily, nobody believed him.
This entire experience confused and concerned me. I really struggled with it. How could a fervent Christian be so mean and dishonest? The hand-waving Christians always offer at such times didn’t help at all, but it’d be 30 more years before I understood why.
Now, let’s fast forward to last week.
An Odd Foreword.
Like most modern Christian books do, this one features a lot of tra-la-la and hoop-de-doo before the book actually begins. Seriously, Christian books love their pregame warmups. This one includes a half-page dedication, a foreword, a preface, an author’s note, and an introduction.
Now, the book cover tells us who wrote the foreword, but I hadn’t paid much attention to that. But once I got into reading the foreword, my ninja whiskers tingled. It begins:
For nearly four decades I’ve been a pastor’s wife and volunteer in a church community that believes the Holy Spirit distributes spiritual gifts irrespective of gender.
The writer of it goes on to describe the glorious egalitarianism she and her husband put in motion when they started Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. Since then, she says, she tends “to avoid jumping into debate because, frankly, it’s not a personal issue for me.”
“Honoring Women’s Stories.”
The foreword writer ended her odd little exercise by establishing her street cred as a fundagelical wife–see? SEE? She attends women’s conferences, supports women in leadership roles, performs those roles herself, and sings lullabies to babies! SEE?–and by thanking the book’s author for being so evolved:
Thank you, Jim, for recognizing Jesus’ revolutionary love for women, for honoring women’s stories, and for encouraging us to offer our full selves to God’s healing, restoring, redemptive work in this world.
It was very easy to append a phrase to this sentence: “… like my husband does.” That was very obviously where she was going.
Then she signed off and the significance of what I was reading hit me smack in the face:
Now I understood why this essay sounded so weird.
Remember Bill Hybels?
Bill Hybels, Lynne Hybels’ husband, found himself enmeshed in a very serious scandal last fall. The story exploded across the New York Times (NYT) in August 2018. This “superstar pastor” turned out to have a habit of groping and sexually harassing his female employees. He’d already stepped down a few months earlier, six months ahead of his planned retirement, when the first accusations began getting noised about.
A few days after the NYT story broke, Hybels’ hand-picked successors retired, along with the church’s entire board of elders, which included women.
During their resignation, the elders apologized profusely to the women Hybels had allegedly abused, particularly for disbelieving the accusations. They said they had pushed those women away in a bid to protect Hybels and his reputation–which, of course, reflected on the church’s own reputation.
(Hybels himself completely and vehemently denies the accusations.)
Mark Galli over at Christianity Today even showed up on a podcast to discuss the scandal. Because of Willow Creek’s megachurch status and its dedication to female leadership and a seeker-sensitive approach, Hybels’ disgrace was huge news to a lot of evangelicals.
Done in the Shadows.
I suddenly got this impression, while refreshing my memory about Bill Hybels, of what an absolutely ghastly employer he was to those women. He used his power over them to devastating effect. I’m betting it wasn’t rainbows and puppies even when he wasn’t allegedly harassing and groping them.
The idyllic snapshot Lynne Hybels painted of her church ran at complete variance to what came out in that scandal’s exposure.
On the heels of that realization, I thought of all the other terrible Christian employers I’ve had and have heard about over the years. Starting with Joe, I ran through my mental list of the overtly-Christian employers I’ve had myself–you know what I mean by overtly? The ones who make a big screaming deal about their affiliation with Christianity? Who showboat and pray and do weirdly-inappropriate stuff to announce that They Are Big Time Faithful Christians Donchaknow? Those folks.
Without exception, these overtly-Christian bosses were awful hypocrites. In fact, all of them eventually got fired for doing stuff they shouldn’t have. (The yes yes, but what does “concern” look like manager was one of them.)
And from there, I branched out to think of all the megapastors I’ve heard of who were terrible bosses. Mark Driscoll famously acted like a huge bully to his elders. James MacDonald turns out to have done much the same–I’ve read accusations that he literally made his male staffers cry with the onslaught of abuse he doled out! Bill Wilson, the uber-Christian founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, committed all manner of hypocrisy upon his employees and followers.
For that matter, who can forget Paige Patterson’s various offenses against the women who found themselves under his thumb? Now he’s getting sued by one of them. Or Bill Gothard, exposed as molesting his employees? Or Doug Phillips preying upon his nanny?
And then I came to the more recent stories in the news as well: that poor sweet young woman who recently broke her story of what it was like to work for Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter theme park. That equally recent scandal exposed by a Liberty University teaching mentor about his experiences with the school’s leaders: in his experience, it was as “shifty, dishonorable, unprincipled, and hypocritical a work environment as could be offered.” They were “fundamentally duplicitous. . . intentionally and with malice aforethought.”
I also can’t forget all the stories I’ve heard through the years about TRUE CHRISTIANS™ with too much power forcing their employees or students to pray or to attend church, even to get baptized (as that last link also attests).
WWJD? Apparently, he’d let it all happen without a word.
They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that sure sounds true. But when already-terrible people gain any kind of power over others, they’re already corrupted by their lust for it–and they almost immediately start doing some gobsmackingly terrible things with it.
That’s why, out here in Reality-Land, we believe in checks and balances upon power. We try not to concentrate too much of it in any one person’s hands without having a way to stop that person from going overboard. Sure, we don’t always meet that ideal. But at least we hold it and work toward it.
In Christian-Land, however, ultimate power represents the goal that all authoritarian Christians work toward. They want to wield power over as many people as possible–and to be subject to the power of the fewest in turn. Once they gain a level of power, they expect it to be absolute and uncontested against everyone below them in the hierarchy. Those above them, in turn, expect to wield that same level of power against them.
It’s always been like that, and by now it all feels very comfortable to the authoritarian-leaning Christians inhabiting it even if it keeps them on a knife’s edge of stress and anxiety. They know where they stand in such a rigid hierarchy.
If someone in this paradigm acts out and refuses to accept the expression of power from a superior, though, that throws them all into a state of higgledy-piggledy chaos. Authoritarians hate uncertainty.
The Missing Checks and Balances.
The problem is that the people achieving power at each level usually aren’t qualified to wield it responsibly. And once they achieve that power, there’s next to no way to remove it from their hands. The people around them feel so invested in preserving and growing their own power that they won’t make too many moves against a hypocrite.
They know that the same measures that lessen or remove power from one hypocrite can also be used against themselves. For that matter, they know that advising Christian flocks to disobey overly-onerous demands from a leader and to noisily decry hypocrisy and cruelty is dangerous. Such advice could lead to them using the same thought processes against other leaders–like themselves!
So the response of Christian leaders tends to be very tentative, self-serving, and half-measured when it comes to hypocrites among them.
Do As They Say, Not As They Do.
Christians long ago evolved hand-waving to deal with the vast number of hypocrites pouring out of their leadership ranks.
Usually it takes the form of stuff like “do what they say, not what they do!” (Yep, Jesus expressed this same sentiment in Matthew 23:1-4.) I heard that exact exhortation many times as a Christian, and hear Christians expressing it even today. It’s their go-to: “This person’s behavior doesn’t change the truth!” Well, that and “But but but Satan tries extra-dextra-hard to tempt our leaders!”
I disagree completely with all of these evasions and attempts to sidestep their glaring problem.
Here’s the reality of their situation:
Christian leaders’ behavior is the truth of their religion.
People’s behavior represents the sum total of what’s most important to us, what we believe about ourselves and the world around us, and what really resides in our hearts–for the best and worst.
Thus, someone claiming power in Christianity should be a shining, sterling example of their moral code and belief system. If one of their leaders can’t even make this religion work, if this person can’t even take their own threats and come-ons seriously, then there’s really no reason for anybody else to do so.
They think they’re selling a totes-for-realsies living god. Generally, their sales pitch involves painting the Bible as a totes-for-realsies document outlining at least some degree of essential true and real information about their god, as well as offering heavily-doctored-up testimonies about their claimed real and true experiences as followers of this real and true god.
And if their god were real, and if their Bible actually was any kind of accurate historical document, and if their testimonies could be trusted, then they’d have a good point about hypocritical behavior not being a dealbreaker!
After all, if a Nobel-prize-receiving physicist turns out to be having a torrid affair, the Nobel committee doesn’t demand their medal back. If an evolutionary biologist murders someone, that doesn’t change the truth of descent with modification. And if Christopher Hitchens himself had completely opposed abortion rights, that doesn’t change the truth of abortion being part of our fundamental human rights. Human behavior doesn’t impact objective reality being what it is.
But none of those conditions are true with Christians or the product they’re really pushing.
The Real Product in Christianity.
In actuality, the product soulwinners sell is membership in their own particular, rather tribal group. The recruitment techniques they use involve persuading unwary or desperate people of various unsupported claims–and, of course, selling them various moral codes, worldviews, and expectations of what to expect as tribe members.
Christian leaders, in particular, sell this package to their followers: a way to get from Point A to Point B, so to speak. By cultivating the tribe’s ideals and following its moral code, followers seek to progress along a poorly-understood axis of improvement in this life. Even more so, they present themselves as having followed this same axis, even to view it as the best possible life-path for all humans.
Oh, sure. They may pay lip service to bein’ jus’ as much a sinner as ever’one else, but the truth is that their followers look up to them as having an inner-circle understanding of the code of conduct and ideals that they bought into to join the group.
(This situation is exactly why Christians fall into a panic when a noted Christian musician or author or pastor falls from grace too completely. Such grand falls cast all of that person’s teachings into doubt. But most leaders don’t ever fall quite so hard.)
Having It Both Ways.
Worse, Christian leaders’ lip-service disavowals, even rejected as they are by their followers, represent an attempt to have something both ways.
Christians want a real and true, objectively-derived ideology. They want ideals that can be cultivated to achieve particular goals. (One example: these leaders sell complementarianism and sexual abstinence to believers with the promise that it leads to strong marriages. HAHA NO.) They claim that their moral code improves life for everyone.
But they also want to write themselves permission slips for blatant hypocrisy.
They want it to be okay that so many of their leaders turn out to be stone-cold hypocrites. They want the exposure of such hypocrisy to have no impact upon what they sell as objectively-true and reality-supported claims.
Holding the Line.
When we refuse to let Christians set such outlandish terms of engagement, and we keep the focus on how dangerously predatory their groups tend to be and how often and how fully Christian leaders abuse the power they achieve, then we accurately see that the behavior of Christians, especially of the powerful people in their groups, tells us everything we need to know about Christianity itself.
And it should tell us exactly that. It should.
Let’s face it: if these hucksters could actually demonstrate the validity of their claims in all the objective ways we need to buy in, almost none of us would actually rush to join their groups. We’d just stop saying that their god doesn’t exist, that’s all. Instead of joining their sick little “hospitals for sinners,” a terrible analogy all its own, we’d join the Operation Pitchfork that would immediately materialize to fight such an evil being, or we’d find some other way to placate its vast and horrific revengelust. Maybe we’d simply create our own groups, run according to Reality-Land-based rules.
But I’ll tell ya what we would not do. We would not join Christian churches, nor put ourselves at the mercy of leaders running unchecked through the halls of power.
That’s Where We Are.
In closing, I say this: a Christian who leans authoritarian, be it as a leader or follower, is someone who puts authority, hierarchy, and power above compassion and goodness. The more authoritarian the Christian, and the more power that Christian holds over others, the worse that person probably behaves in private and the worse that person treats those they view as inferior to themselves.
I offer my Cassandra prediction now: All that stands between the biggest culture warriors of our age and absolute disgrace is the legion of victims they’ve abused and the abuse they’ve covered up. Their continued reign depends completely on how well they can shut those people up and keep them shut up.
And yet the walls they built keep crashing down.
It’s only a matter of time.
NEXT UP: A July Super Special! Then, we explore complementarianism for a bit. See you soon!
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