Fixing Evangelicals’ Broken Authoritarianism

Fixing Evangelicals’ Broken Authoritarianism May 26, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Recently, we encountered Ronald J. Sider’s 2005 evangelical classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In it, the author explored what he viewed as evangelicals’ signal failure: their utter unwillingness even to pretend to care about what Jesus told them to do during their finite lifetimes. However, Sider offered a downright galaxy-brained solution to this terrible problem. Indeed, he was completely positive that this solution would totally fix everything. Yes, truly! Today, I’ll show you how Ronald J. Sider totally and permanently solved the problem of evangelical hypocrisy through the simple magic of authoritarianism.

a rusted hammer represents authoritarianism
(Nina Hale, CC.) Our Artor hammer is way better.

(For the most part, the posts in this series apply to Christians who believe in Hell. In these posts, I abbreviate the book’s title to “Scandal.” Quotes come from the 2005 hardback edition of the book. Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the BookMeasuring Evangelical HypocrisyThe Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the Book; Solving Exactly the Wrong Problems in Evangelicalism; How Hell-Belief Leads to Hypocrisy; Biff and the Mormons. Related posts about authoritarianism: Lessons Learned in Authoritarianism; Why Christians Can’t Have Authoritarianism Without Scandals; How Authoritarianism Led to the Toronto Blessing; Authoritarians’ Roadmaps Don’t Work And They Don’t Care.)

Selling a Vision.

Ronald J. Sider, our esteemed author, conforms very well to the role of evangelical huckster. In all ways, his book maintains a sales focus. As is typical of such books, the entire first half of it represents his attempt to sell his audience a problem.

The second half, then, offers the solution to that problem.

Indeed, in Chapter 4 he begins to lay out the solution to evangelical hypocrisy. Interestingly, it takes him way longer to sell the problem than to solve it. Maybe I only noticed that because of the book’s short length.

For that matter, Chapter 5 is only a few pages long. In it, he gatekeeps and redefines the title of “evangelical” to arrive at a category of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that he thinks do follow the rules adequately.

We’ll cover that topic later. For now, we’ll be hanging out in Chapter 4.

A Proper SHOTS FIRED Opening.

Sider begins Chapter 4 thusly (p. 85):

American popular culture is sick, sick unto death. And the illness has swept through the church.

Oh noes! What caused this fatal sickness?

Hollywood’s outrageous sexual values and crazy consumerism are rooted in pervasive, long-standing individualism and materialism that have taken deep root in our culture.

Wild! I’d never have thought that some evil movie-makers in California could wreak so much damage. What on earth did TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do about this sickness?

Tragically, not even the evangelical community has effectively resisted popular culture’s corrosive influence.

Dearie me, that’s just awful! But wait, what happened to their Jesus Auras?

What early generations of evangelicals, whether Calvinists, Methodists, Anabaptists, or Pentecostals, assumed and embraced about mutual responsibility and accountability in the body of Christ has largely been lost. The gospel of individual self-fulfillment now reigns.

Oh.

Probably obviously, Sider might have led with movie-watching and consumerism as sources of this corruption, but ultimately he blames the Enlightenment and the Theory of Evolution for most of it.

Why Christians Behave (Or Don’t), According To King Him.

Now, a lot of Christian hucksters sell solutions based on Jesus-ing harder. Almost all of these these non-solutions hinge on the premise that if Christians could just understand what the Bible says (according to the interpretation offered), then obviously they’d totally accept the product offered alongside that interpretation.

And indeed, Sider does the same thing — to an extent.

Like his peers do, he runs readers through a ponderous Bible study. In it, he seeks to PROVE YES PROVE that Jesus and the earliest Christian leaders super-wanted Christians to adopt what I’ve nicknamed the Jesus lifestyle. (That involves above-and-beyond charity, kindness, generosity, compassion, bridge-building, and utterly idolizing the tribe’s current two most-popular culture wars.) In his roundabout way, Sider even ties eternal safety from Hell to the adoption of the Jesus lifestyle.

However, he doesn’t tell evangelicals that they’ll want to adopt the Jesus lifestyle just by understanding his points about the Bible. Nor does he tell them that their new-and-improved Jesus Auras will lead them to greater obedience to Jesus.

No, he tells them that The Big Problem Here — the root and cause of all their disobedient hypocrisy — is individualism.

That makes the solution, in his opinion, look like way more authoritarianism.

Without Coercion, Christianity Collapses.

Not one single reputable survey house or study group thinks we’re even near a bottoming-out of Christians’ tanking membership numbers. Nor do these reputable groups give Christians a single chance of ever regaining their former dominance.

And it all comes down to coercion.

For a very long time now, I’ve tied evangelical churn to Christians’ growing decline in coercive power. Indeed, over the past few decades they’ve lost much of that power — along with membership numbers, credibility, and unearned deference.

These losses translate to a serious decline in Christians’ ability to retaliate against dissenters and apostates in their midst.

Decades ago, that ability held quite a few people hostage to their demands. The sheer level of control exerted by Christian leaders over people’s everyday lives inspired a great deal of fear. Fear kept people from talking about their Dear Leaders’ scandals or disagreeing too loudly with some wackadoodle claim made from the pulpit. Needless to say, fear of retaliation also kept butts in pews.

To Ronald J. Sider, that fear represents a good thing. In fact, he has a very big sad because Christians no longer feel that fear to that same extent.

Authoritarianism Broken?

ADD MORE AUTHORITARIANISM!

More to the point, Sider thinks if he can get that level of control back into Christian leaders’ hands, then evangelicals’ hypocrisy problems will be ended forever.

Even knowing everything I do about evangelicals, this above sentiment blew my mind. In fact, it ensured this book’s place on our to-do list.

Indeed, Sider shamelessly advocates for a return to the Good Ole Days when Christian leaders ruled over their flocks’ lives like godkings. See, he knows perfectly well that people don’t obey authoritarian demands unless they must. Moreover, they disobey whenever possible. Thus, the only way leaders can lock their followers into obedience is to brutally clamp down on them.

When all someone has is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In this case, the hammer they love so much is authoritarianism. The head’s rusted clean through and the handle is splintering apart. Alas, evangelicals long ago declared that a real live god told them to use this hammer for everything. As a result of that rash declaration, they can’t set this dysfunctional tool down to find something better.

However, Christian leaders have lost the power to use that hammer in the ways they’d prefer. In modern society, the only way for them to extract that level of forced obedience from their flocks is for the flocks to grant that kind of power to their own oppressors.

Selling Authoritarianism.

That’s the whole reason why Sider wrote up that weird, one-sided, cherry-picked Bible study in Chapter 2. He was leading up to a demand that evangelicals once again grant that level of power to their leaders. Really, he performed that lead-up quite well. Evangelicals lacking critical-thinking skills (or unable to bring them to bear in this area) would likely agree with everything he’s said, right down to blaming the same forces he does for their loss of dominance.

Also, I suspect that Sider’s typically-evangelical hatred of the Enlightenment comes from the same control-lust. Of course evangelicals ain’t gonna like a widespread movement emphasizing people’s human rights while cutting the chains of Christian dominance — even if that movement brought with it cultural shifts that made their entire flavor of Christianity possible.

Naturally, his big solution to that cultural shift is to shift things back, as much as possible anyway, to those days when leaders could control their flocks to the uttermost and effectively punish their rulebreakers.

(It’s not like Jesus is going to help them there, am I right?)

The Buzzword: “Accountability.”

Sider dresses his demands for a vast increase in authoritarian control in a trendy buzzword of the time: accountability.

Evangelicals love accountability. Love love love it! They love making accountability partners to keep them accountable and being accountable to their Dear Leaders.

Sider’s twist on the idea comes in his suggestion that pastors form small groups to control individual sheep in the flock. A small group is a sort of small, long-term Bible study and prayer group within a large church. Often, the pastor of the church appoints small group leaders. These groups typically operate under formal rules and bylaws.

And as you can guess, in evangelicalism these groups all too often devolve into abuse and dysfunction.

In fact, it was exactly that kind of abuse and dysfunction that blew the lid off Mark Driscoll’s abusive church, Mars Hill, back in 2012.

How Accountability Becomes Abuse.

In Sider’s vision of small groups, members either choose to belong to their group or are assigned there by their pastors. During their meetings, the groups’ leaders pressure them to share every tiny little flaw and infraction of the rules they commit. Then, the leaders punish them accordingly in various ways. And then, these same leaders fully expect these same members to continue offering up their flaws and infractions for punishment.

This whole sickening process represents, to Ronald J. Sider, an “astonishing new social order.” As he tells us (p. 94):

Six points are crucial. First, Jesus is the source, center, and Lord of the church. Second, the church is holy. Third, it is a community, not a collection of lone rangers. Fourth, precisely because it submits to Jesus’ kingdom norms, the church is a countercultural community living a lifestyle that fundamentally challenges worldly values and practices. Fifth, mutual accountability and responsibility are essential in this astonishing new social order. Sixth, only in the power of the Spirit is it possible for this new community to be the new righteous, countercultural social order that its Lord requires.

Just yikes, all the way around. It’s hard to pack this much error into one bare paragraph. I’m sitting here just marveling at the errors-per-word that Sider managed with this one.

Oh, and as many folks probably expect, he draws upon one of the most abusive passages in the entire New Testament, Matthew 18:15-17, to accomplish his dirty work. People locked in authoritarianism love to borrow authority for its overreach.

Authoritarianism As the Bonus Plan.

Sider thinks that the kind of authoritarianism that’d result from enactment of his vision would look like a quote he likes from John Wesley: “watching over one another with love.” Here’s how his vision operates (p. 112-3):

Small groups can discuss major decisions that individuals and couples are contemplating: significant financial choices, a potential marriage, a career change, and so on. For a time, I was in a small group that used annual IRS tax returns to discuss the way each family spent its money. [. . .]

Wesley insisted on tough love in small groups (he called them “class meetings”). Members asked each participant hard questions every week, including the question, Where did you sin this week? This kind of small group was at the core of Methodism during the decades that it experienced explosive growth in England and America. [. . .]

Ongoing oversight of small group leaders is essential. But when small groups work well, they offer both a powerful answer to the widespread loneliness of isolated individuals today and an effective means of mutual accountability.

This all sounds utterly horrifying to me. I see so much potential for abuse here.

A Very Peculiar Omission.

The problem here, of course, is that once a congregant grants that kind of totalitarian power to a small group leader, very little then protects that person from overreach. Literally nothing except this vague notion of “ongoing oversight” prevents abuse. Christian leaders build and maintain these social systems, along with the “church discipline” stuff Sider also adores, to benefit themselves at their followers’ expense.

Indeed, if anyone’s wondering what happens when small groups don’t work well, though, or how often they don’t work well, keep wondering. Sider never offers any insights there.

Instead, Sider only laments that somewhere around the 1950s, these sorts of groups vanished from the American church scene. He blames their absence for the way Christians now look upon church services as a consumer product. And he ends Chapter 4 with a strong assertion (p. 119):

In the area of money and possessions just as surely as in the area of sex and marriage, Christians today desperately need stronger structures of mutual accountability in order to live like Jesus.

It’s nice that he’s admitting that Christians (as a group) will never follow their own rules of their own free will. In the spirit of helpfulness, then, I’d like to offer a counterpoint:

If evangelicals’ system is this drastically unpleasant to its own members, this utterly unworkable on a voluntary basis, and this incompatible with human rights and Americans’ civil liberties, then maybe, just maybe it’s not actually divine at all.

Testing A False Vision.

When I think of divine plans and divine social structures, I think of stuff that works best for people.

For example, think about how evangelicals reframe their oppressive rules around sex and relationships. Usually, they phrase it as a ruleset that benefits every person who adopts it, not just Christians in their flavor of the religion. In fact, that’s their standard rationalization for trying to force other people to live by this ruleset, even if they themselves don’t even manage that trick most of the time.

I’d think that a truly divine set of rules around sex and relationships would actually work way better than anything else humans could ever come up with. We’d all marvel at how wonderful relationships were when people followed those rules. We’d be astonished at how happy couples were and how long their marriages lasted.

But that’s the opposite of what we find.

In reality, that rulesets found in authoritarianism doesn’t benefit very many people using it at all.

Even when I myself actually believed a god had commanded humans to use my tribe’s ruleset, I knew very few married couples who were really happy together (and I definitely wasn’t among that number myself). The more seriously a couple took our ruleset, the worse they fared as a couple, it seemed. And as Ronald J. Sider himself pointed out back in Chapter 1, evangelicals as a group have discovered exactly what I did about their rules’ utter unworkability.

But Sider doesn’t stop and think that maybe, just maybe his ruleset is actually the problem here, not the disobedience to that ruleset. Instead, his big grand solution involves drilling down harder on the ruleset and finding more reliable ways to punish all the rulebreakers.

The Dealbreaker Flaw in This Authoritarian Vision.

Unfortunately, Ronald J. Sider’s suggestions suffer a dealbreaker flaw:

There’s no Jesus making Christians better people, informing their opinions, or guiding their behavior. Most especially, nothing divine stops Christian leaders from abusing their followers any more than it protects followers from their leaders’ abuse.

I have a strong suspicion that Christians began denying their leaders that kind of power precisely because their leaders kept misusing it. See, people don’t generally drop practices that benefit them. But if they have the ability to drop practices that harm them or aren’t worth maintaining, then they do so with lightning speed. Very obviously, evangelical flocks saw very little return on the resources they invested in this power-grab back when Christian leaders possessed it.

Equally obviously, they still see too little return on that investment today to return that kind of power to their current leaders.

I tell you this, too: if those leaders had the power to force their sheep to comply with their demands, they’d jump on it in a heartbeat.

In summary, the only reason Ronald J. Sider wrote this book to persuade evangelicals to re-grant their leaders their lost power is that he can no longer force them to do so.

NEXT UP: Amazingly, Ronald J. Sider’s suggestions for nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations are just as LOL-worthy as his suggestions for individual Christians! These suggestions came out of absolutely nowhere in Chapter 4, so I wanted to call special attention to them. We’ll do that tomorrow. See you then! <3


Please Support What I Do!

Come join us on FacebookTumblrPinterestTwitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)

Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview

If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is captain_cassidy@yahoo.com (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support, and I appreciate every single bit of it.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives