Gospelbound: Authoritarians Think More Control Means Less Churn

Gospelbound: Authoritarians Think More Control Means Less Churn April 27, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Gospelbound, a podcast made by the hard-right evangelical site The Gospel Coalition (TGC). The tagline TGC created for Gospelbound claims it offers listeners “firm faith in an anxious age.” Of course, it does nothing of the sort. Instead, it offers the usual authoritarian blahblah from the most toxic elements in their entire end of Christianity. I’ve saved the most alarming of that blahblah for last: their oh-so-very Calvinist plan for churn reduction. They think more control over congregants means less churn from their churches. Today, I’ll show you what that means — and why it’s such a laughable contradiction of the supernatural claims of authoritarians.

like endless shapes pretending to be human
(Logan Weaver.)

(Previous posts about this podcast thing: Gospelbound Talks Ineptly About Deconversion; Evaluating an Episode of Gospelbound; Why Jesus Aura Evangelism Still Fails. “Churn” is a business term. It means existing customers leaving a business. Obviously, businesses want their churn rate to be as low as possible. Likewise, when I talk about Christian evangelists’ “product,” I mean “active membership in their own religious group.” For a quick rundown of what Calvinism is, check out this post.)

The Good Ole Days of Supreme Rule.

It’s striking to me to consider quotes like this one from the podcast in light of what I know of authoritarian Christians’ love of control. In this quote, Gerald Sittser waxes eloquent about the Good Ole Days when Christianity ruled over American society:

I remember in the ’50s and ’60s what it was like to go to church. Everybody wearing nice suit coats. I was wearing a tie and a coat by the time I was in the sixth grade and then everybody would go to a club to have lunch afterwards and then play golf. There was a kind of… It was a kind of cultural Christianity that reigned supreme and I think we’re going to see that gradually fade and it’s going to allow us as committed Christians to step forward and demonstrate what real discipleship is.

Don’t ask about what Black people’s experiences were during those endless Sundays, nor that of any of the people working at the club and golf range. His gauzy revisionism can’t even remember those nameless people or conceive of anything different than what he experienced! They might as well be mannequins.

Sittser is clearly upset that today’s Christians don’t regard church as the centerpoint of their Sundays anymore. He misses those grand days when Sundays were a huge production for the whole family. Men, in particular, wore their “nice suit coats” to church and then had lunch in clubs and went golfing together.

Those days are gone, but don’t worry! TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can totally show today’s Americans what it was like for church services to matter that much to an upwardly-mobile guy!

He just needs the buy-in of today’s Christians.

Don’t worry there either, though! He’s got a plan.

don't worry!
An ANGLE, in fact.

Authoritarians Get One Thing Half-Right.

A lot of the stuff I’ve written about regarding this Gospelbound podcast was stuff I knew in college, just not to this extent. I already knew my tribe was full of hypocrites and that Jesus Aura evangelism did not work at all, after all. Though we hadn’t become quite the die-hard culture warriors that evangelicals are today, I also knew the culture wars turned potential recruits off to my product.

At least Gerald Sittser (the podcast’s guest) gets that part right, sorta:

If anything, the harder Christians fight for power and privilege, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price.

And yes, that’s true. Through such fighting, evangelicals turn off more and more people. Society just grows more and more aware of how absolutely fake and toxic most of Christianity really is, thanks to the sheer hypocrisy of culture warriors. Those hypocrites have likely done more to cause Christianity’s decline than atheists ever could.

(Remember Kim Davis? Her mind-blowing hypocrisy about marriage, combined with her tribe’s very obviously ginned-up attempt to cause a moral panic about marriage equality, likely led Americans even more toward progress.)

But Sittser has a very funny way of ending the Christian fight for “power and privilege.” Instead of gaining it in the political and general cultural spheres, he plans to regain it in the religious sphere. He still absolutely wants “power and privilege.” He just proposes that evangelicals move the squabble back to churches themselves.

That’s why he inserts the modifier “cultural” into “power and privilege” at the end of the quote cited above. I bet he thought nobody’d notice.

And hilariously, Sittser thinks that if pastors gain ultimate power and privilege over their flocks, that’ll end evangelical churn for sure. 

Going from Half-Right to OH NO WHAT IS YOU DOING Wrong.

Gerald Sittser then offers us an explanation of how he means to bring back that kind of Christianity:

[W]e’re going to need, be prepared to pay a price and lose that privilege and amass our resources and rally the body of Christ to function differently. And I mean as simple and silly as this sounds, I think we just have to make disciples, real disciples, real followers of Jesus.


The rest of the podcast is them rhapsodizing about the awesomeness of enacting Full Metal Indoctrination on new recruits. (We’ll get to that part tomorrow.)

This quote represents pure, unadulterated Christian Right dogwhistles. By “function differently,” I suspect he means that they won’t function voluntarily. He’s disgusted with modern evangelical churches and how poorly evangelicals follow their own rules, after all. He doesn’t think “real followers of Jesus” would ignore those rules. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ wouldn’t ever let Sundays turn into plain old weekend days!

So how do they make TRUE CHRISTIANS™ out of their recruits?

I mean, these guys want recruits to stop drifting away, of course. That’s perfectly reasonable. But iron-grip control, which is what Calvinists mean by discipling, is their grand solution to evangelical churn.

And there’s a reason why.

The Authoritarians’  Dogwhistle of “Disciples.”

When Gerald Sittser talks about “disciples,” he invokes the beloved Calvinist dogwhistle of “discipline.” Church discipline is the absolute pinnacle of authoritarians’ desires, more so than even inerrancy.

Really, inerrancy is just Calvinists’ method of gaining evangelicals’ buy-in for what they really want. Once Calvinists got evangelicals on board with the idea of inerrancy, that belief gave them a very easy way to move from there to what they really wanted.

Inerrancy works on so many evangelicals because they desperately want to Jesus as correctly as they possibly can. They’re terrified of Jesus-ing incorrectly. Thus, all someone has to do to persuade them of anything, then, is to amp up the wingnut arguments.

To do that, authoritarians deploy Bible verses and the most childish possible (mis)interpretations of their magic book. If the resulting argument fits into evangelicals’ existing paradigms decently well, extending their extremism further rather than introducing brand-new wingnut ideas, then the evangelicals hearing that argument will probably accept it.

For decades now, evangelicals have possessed no other approved way to evaluate authoritarians’ arguments.

Authoritarians’ Power-Grabs, in the Wild.

Back in the 1980s, then, Calvinists wanted evangelicals to stop allowing women to be pastors in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches.

As we saw during our recent look at the Conservative Resurgence, what Calvinists really wanted wasn’t inerrancy itself. They really wanted more power for authoritarian pastors. Inerrancy, that ultimate trump card, made their immediate goal easily reached. But it wasn’t their ultimate goal. They wanted power over everyone in the pews, not just women seeking leadership. Denying women leadership roles was just a way to maintain men’s power over women generally. However, the path to that goal also meant gaining a great deal of power in other directions.

(In the same exact way, evangelicals’ culture war against abortion is just their hamfisted attempt to seize more power over Americans in general. A society that gives these authoritarians their desired control over women’s bodies is one that’ll give them way more power in a lot of other places.)

To achieve their goals, Calvinists deliberately started a schism. But they did it very sneakily. First, they convinced evangelicals that inerrancy was the right way to Jesus and that their imaginary friend loved authoritarians best. Once evangelicals believed that load of bollocks, Calvinists used inerrancy to convince them to stop allowing women to be pastors.

Ta-da! It was easy.

That’s how Calvinists sparked the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC, in fact. That schism cost the SBC many of their member churches. Alas for the SBC, the Calvinists at the bottom of that takeover didn’t care at all about the costs. They got what they wanted in the end.

The Calvinist conceptualization of discipleship works the same way. It builds off of inerrancy arguments, so it’s gaining ground in evangelical circles.

The Real Goal for Authoritarians: Discipleship and Discipling.

So now, all they have to do is use inerrancy to sell SBC flocks on church discipline. We saw one of the main Calvinists, Tom Ascol, leak that goal in a post by Peter Lumpkin. In the post, Lumpkin quotes Ascol in a book by Colin Hansen [sic? OMG, wait! Is this the same guy as the Gospelbound host?!? It must be! It is!]. In Hansen’s book, Tom Ascol talks about Calvinists’ takeover of the SBC’s seminaries (source):

“The conservatives have been in charge now for a couple of decades and our convention is no better off on basic issues than when the liberals were running things. That’s because inerrancy isn’t enough. We have to actually understand and apply what the Bible says. The conservatives thump the Bible but are unwilling to just obey the Bible in the most basic ways. How can you be an inerrantist and not practice [church discipline according to] Matthew 18? You might as well be a liberal. What difference does it make?” (p.77).

So Calvinists’ takeover of the SBC wasn’t enough. Now they need the SBC to institute church discipline too. Otherwise, nothing else “conservatives” have done matters to Calvinists.

This podcast, Gospelbound, is made by a Calvinist-leaning evangelical site. It features a Calvinist guest using Calvinist terms. So I don’t think he uses the word “disciples” the way most non-Calvinist evangelicals would understand the term, meaning super-duper-dedicated and fervent Christians.

It is impossible for me to hear “disciples” from a Calvinist and interpret it in any way but the way Calvinists use the word.

So I suspect Sittser uses the term the way Calvinists use the term, meaning Christians who accept church discipline agreements with their churches.

How Discipleship Works.

Church discipline just means pastors having ultimate control over their congregations. Such pastors even force church members to sign actual contracts with them! They call these contracts “covenants,” which means they’re one-sided and irrevocable. Seriously, I’m not kidding at all. And Calvinism really, really likes the concept of covenants. As a Calvinist at Ligonier wrote, “Reformed theology is covenant theology.”

To many evangelicals, marriage vows represent a type of covenant. This reasoning is what officially leads them to oppose no-fault divorce. In a covenant, it doesn’t matter if the other party doesn’t fulfill their end of the agreement. The person signing it is still utterly beholden forever to it, regardless. Therefore, there’ll be no divorces for evangelical gals!

So yes, evangelicals have been made very vulnerable to this kind of language. Call an obviously one-sided and abusive contract a “covenant,” and they’re likely to accept it without a second thought.

In churches practicing church discipline, contract-signers swear obedience to their Dear Leader in a covenant agreement. The agreement dictates what congregants will believe and do in and out of church. It also offers pastors what they think is legal protection against lawsuits from congregants when their overreach gets out of hand.

Pastors claim that church discipline results in lower rates of hypocrisy and — more importantly — less churn (LOL NO). They think it leads to a more committed, hardcore congregation. Here’s 9Marks (a church-starting group started by Calvinist Mark Driscoll) talking about what they think church discipline does for churches. They say that these contracts:

  • represent a promise made to the signers’ god and the church, leading to less hypocrisy
  • mark a tangible sign of members’ commitment to the church’s various rules
  • allow churches to punish the contract-signers in any cases of disobedience

That last part turns out to be the most important part of church discipline. 9Marks tries very hard to Jesus-ify the process, but it’s all too easy to read between Calvinists’ lines. They can find the most innocuous ways ever to describe the barbaric, brutal things they want to do to people.

Disciples, Discipline, and Overreach.

Mostly, church discipline offers authoritarians in leadership a way to “discipline” their “disciples.” If a congregant refuses to follow the pastor’s rules, then the pastor “disciplines” that person. “Discipline” can involve throwing that sheep out of the fold, of course. But it can also mean harassing the sheep’s employer, family members, and significant others. It’s about brute force and retaliation, not grace or kindness.

Years ago, church discipline became one of the early signs we all got that Mark Driscoll’s Calvinist church, Mars Hill, was actually abusive. One of these disciplined sheep leaked the treatment he got when he dared to date someone the church’s authoritarians didn’t like.

Here’s the letter Mars Hill sent that poor guy to “discipline” him. This horrifying letter demanded that he attend various struggle sessions with his elders, that he not date any women at all or volunteer at Mars Hill, and that he write essays about all of his past romantic relationships (and with the forbidden woman in particular) to give to his elders. Mars Hill’s elders also demanded that he submit to them a list of all the people he’d “sinned against.” In turn, they would “develop a plan” to adequately punish his wrongdoing.

When another similarly “disciplined” member defied their rules, they contacted his new girlfriend’s father to try to disrupt his relationship. As with the first guy, that wasn’t even the end of their retaliation.

But it’s par for the course for “church discipline” Christian leaders. None of these authoritarians’ sheep have any idea just how unfair and one-sided church discipline really is — until they violate one of the covenant’s rules. They perceive these contracts as extra-dextra-Jesus-y. Thus, it doesn’t even occur to them to question how their leaders could use these rules against them.

Authoritarians Switch Gears on a Dime.

In this podcast, interestingly enough, I didn’t hear anything about these authoritarians’ imaginary friend Jesus provoking any great personal changes in believers. Instead, I heard dogwhistles about iron control of believers resulting in changes. Like seriously, not once, not ever do these guys actually discuss the notion that their imaginary friend actually does anything in believers’ lives. Instead, they praise simple behavioral modification — as filtered through authoritarians’ minds. Collin Hansen says in the podcast:

What you said earlier that you’re talking with millennials and they say, former students, and they say, I don’t have any reason to believe, and you stop and you want to think, well yeah you do because Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s the resurrection. But that’s not really what they’re getting at there. They might even acknowledge that. There just doesn’t seem to be a desire to live it.

That is the one single reference these two make to the idea that any of their beliefs should do absolutely anything in believers, and once he’s made it, Hansen immediately discounts the notion himself.

It’s hilarious that they switch gears like this and think nobody will notice. I mean, it’s nice to see Christians conceding that right-think belief, in and of itself, doesn’t accomplish anything in believers’ lives and doesn’t change them. But you’d think they’d even once stumble accidentally across the notion that maybe the solution is persuading believers to change, or even talking to their ceilings to get Jesus to bring about changes, instead of practicing rigid behavioral control to bring about their desired behavioral changes.

Don’t you worry, though. Mental control is coming next.

These Christians have got a plan! An ANGLE, even!

NEXT UP: The second prong of the churn-reduction plan, more more more more indoctrination of new recruits. See you tomorrow!

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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.
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