Don’t Question Those In Authority

I attended my sister’s graduation from South Carolina School of Leadership a few months ago, and took away some real zingers of examples of what the religious world I grew up in is still like.  The pastor of the church that hosts SCSL, Stephen Chitty, took the opportunity of speaking as the “pastoral address” at the graduation ceremony – in place of a commencement address.  He made some of the most outrageous statements I’ve heard from a Christian minister in a long time.

Not that I’m in a position to hear a lot of what ministers say when they’ve got a friendly audience these days, so I’m not saying he was particularly egregious, only that I noticed it especially.

In any case, he said: “Don’t question those in authority because you don’t know until you’ve been in these shoes.”  Whew.  I have heard this all my life but never quite so baldly put.  I’ve heard that those god places in authority have to be shown respect (c.f. David, later to be King David, wouldn’t kill then King Saul because he “couldn’t lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed, see 1 Sam.26:9,11,23).  I have heard that you don’t always understand what they are going through until you’ve been where they are (naturally, empathy takes work), etc.  But with his sweeping statement he wiped out all respectful dissent, all revolution, all personal accountability, all checks and balances, everything.  It was one of the most self-aggrandizing power justifications I have ever heard in my life, and I know he didn’t mean it about anyone he felt needed questioning. If you asked him about whatever politicians he happens to disagree with, he would feel questioning those in authority was part of his Christian duty as a citizen.

Then later he said that as a father he has learned the art of sitting back, watching his children succeed, and then claiming credit by saying “I made that.” After talking a bit about how he worked to have SCSL founded, he said he wanted to be able to say of an entire generation of Christian young people “I made that” so that he would take credit for their success – which he claimed could include hastening the return of Christ to Earth.  Er…refer back to self-aggrandizing.

Sitting in a large southern church in South Carolina, my mind immediately went to civil rights for minorities, and as my mother nodded her head and amened the preacher’s words, I couldn’t help but think how such an attitude prolonged oppression for people of color – not could have, but did.

And sitting there, I realized this attitude is still used as a bludgeon for women in the church.  We are told that we have to be “under the covering” of the “men of God” who have the ear of the Almighty and we just don’t have the equipment (supposedly spiritual) to understand why or how it’s different for them.  We can lead – women.  We can work, oh yes, we can work of course, under the direction of male authority.  And we can obey and submit and thereby please god – and I think that’s the hardest part to buck.  If it was just men saying these things, it would be hard enough, because often they are men we respect and love – or used to respect and love, feel we ought to respect and love – but they are supposed to speak for god in our lives.

And some of them, maybe very many of them, are quite happily, quite intentionally, using the situation to amass power and security and wealth for themselves. Someone said to me recently, it’s really easy to lead and make decisions when you don’t care what happens to the individuals following your lead.


  1. M.C. says

    My parents were somewhat catholic, but we live in a secular European country, so I never heard anyone (priest or civilian) say that ‘men speak for god’. Maybe it’s a thing protestant priests say, I wouldn’t know because there aren’t many protestants in my country…

    So I read up on the link you posted with Bible quotes and Roman law and let me tell you something: I’m a law student, I was thaught Roman law, and I know that in Rome women were supposed to have some kind of legal guardian to do their buisness transactions, but in reality that was just for show. In reality Roman women did very much take care of their own legal affairs, even if they had a guardian, and everybody knew that.
    Alas I have no idea what Corinthians 14:34 is getting at. Does it mean ‘In Rome women officially aren’t allowed to do anything, so we’ll keep that in our brand new church’? I thought early Christians were some kind of terrorists, who opposed the Roman Empire…

    PS: I don’t mean to diss any Christians on this site. I’m sure this religion is full of good ideas like Islam, Buddhism, Wicca… But too many people are using religion as a bad excuse for committing crimes against humanity, which is why I’m very much against theocracy (not sure if the USA actually count as one).

    • The Other Anne says

      Living in the US makes me think of it as a theocracy. Especially recently. My FOX News obsessed stepfather, in the last ten years, switched from atheist to agnostic. If you knew this guy, you’d know that’s a major deal. I get told on a regular basis by the media, gov’t officials (including Obama, to some extent), and my family that I am a lesser person because of my own atheism. Much of that isn’t overt, but the sentiment is there. It’s more overt in my family because I’ve only “come out” as atheist to my parents and siblings–both of my siblings are also atheist, though, so that was never an issue, and neither of my parents are practicing Catholics anymore. My dad got fed up when our pastor guy tried to impose a dress code–my dad started wearing shorts and sandals after that, before giving up the ghost altogether.

      My grandparents o my mom’s side though..well, my grandpa, anyway, often talks down about atheists, and sends anti-atheist emails all the time. Eh. I just feel like Kurt from Glee all the time. He’s my favorite. But his atheism episode, to me, is really telling about the state of atheism in the US. Because at the end the two atheists in the show relent to the religious. It’s maddening.

      • Casey says

        I recall reading a review of that atheist-centric episode of Glee on Pandagon and how it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back for the reviewer and made them say FUCK THIS SHOW…and people wonder why I’m not a Glee fan?

        • The Other Anne says

          I can definitely see why that would do it.

          URGH. And I didn’t really get WHY Kurt was the ONLY atheist and none of the other kids were even agnostic or doubting! Most kids I knew in highschool were agnostic or didn’t care. And atheists in Glee are just…less acceptable to the Glee kids than gay people, and atheists wishes are not heeded, and at the end atheists have to pander to the religious. Yep, definitely get why the reviewer quit after that. But, well, I can’t stop watching. Usually when I like characters on a show they die but since I don’t think the characters on the show I like will die I don’t want to stop watching until I know what happens. URGH.

    • Firebird says

      I don’t know what life was like in ancient Rome. I’ve been told women had less status than slaves, horses, or dogs, and no motive power and considered to not have a separate soul or religion than their husband or father. But I was told this by people whose point was to convince that Paul in the New Testament was espousing radical ideas for his time and the famous passages that seem to restrict women’s liberty actually elevate it in historical context. I have heard other conflicting stories about what it was like.

      The main reason for linking that site was merely to show the general idea of the interpretation I grew up with because while it was standard for the conservative fundamentalist type of protestant Christianity, and is prevalent in the religious right today, not all versions of Christianity use it and not everyone is familiar with any version of Christianity.

      As far as what the passages really mean, from what I have read, Paul is rather vague in his language generally; a lawyer he was not. His attitude seems to have been bitter toward women; one idea that resonated with me was that a man his age would have been married by the time of his conversion and his later comments stating his singleness likely indicate being divorced or widowed. His seeming bitterness tends to mitigate toward the idea his wife left him when he converted (he discusses this possibility and that the believing spouse should let the unbelieving go if they wish). He seems to say in some places women should be seen and not heard, staying silent and learning at home; his only personal rebuke in a church wide letter is to feuding women; he considers young unmarried women busybodies who should get married but says being married distracts one from god. He also lists women as his friends and coworkers and talks about women preaching and prophesying. Personally, I’m glad I don’t have to explain him theologically any more as I am not religious and don’t care what he thought. But my take is he had a lot of privilege going on with assumptions and misogynistic thought patterns and likely some personal rancor toward women in general which could be moderated toward individual women who did whatever it took to prove themselves to him. It’s an attitude we still see today.

      • SunlessNick says

        Even one of his own hagiographies effectively judges him wrong in his judgment of women (specifically the Acts of Paul and Thecla, part of the Acts of Paul, where it’s clear he’s wrong in refusing to baptise St Thecla – eventually she baptises herself,* and a miracle happens, which implies God kinda approved of her action, and by implication not of Paul’s).

        * Which seeing as that was the one thing that even Jesus said he couldn’t do, further implies that St Thecla was made of solid awesome, though that’s drifting from topic.

  2. Jaynie says

    A Christian friend of mine used to dislike Harry Potter because it taught children to ignore authority. I remember thinking that in almost every instance they do so, they, um, save flippin’ lives. There may be instances in which authority has the greater experience and should be listened to, but there are also instances in which authority is blinded by tradition or ego or denial or just plain old lack of access to information you have. Which is the case in real life, too, not just for wizards. :)

    • Firebird says

      But, don’t you know, “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” It’s more important to obey than to get stuff done, cause….well don’t ask questions, dammit! Witchcraft! Stonings!

      I think people who had a problem with Harry Potter encouraging kids to disobey authority would say that the plotline was written to reward coloring outside the lines with solving the problems when (they think) that is not a good message to send and it could have been written differently.

  3. says

    Okay, there is NOTHING Christian about what this guy is saying. M.C. has it right: Christianity has its roots in civil disobedience. And Protestants reject putting even the Pope between a Christian and God, so the idea that we should trust politicians because God obviously put them in office… no, just no.

    But it gets worse. The “self-aggrandizement” doesn’t sound like ordinary asshole self-aggrandizing to me. It sounds like an NPD. While any nice person might (and should!) take pride that they’ve turned out good kids, NPDs see that entirely as an extension of their own ego. Few people but an NPD would even think, “I want to be able to claim a whole generation as my own little pet project.”

    And of course an NPD – whose happiest moments come when he’s abusing his power over somebody – would advocate never questioning those in authority.

    I’m not saying he IS one. But when you sound that much like a textbook psychopath, you really need to reconsider the bullshit that is coming out of your mouth.

    • says

      It really upsets me when I hear Christians espousing this line. I think it is profoundly unChristian. Christians who tell us not to question the authorities ought to reread the parts of the Bible where Jesus interacts with the religious authorities of his day.

      Jesus spent his time on Earth with women, lepers, tax collectors – the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the socially outcast. If he were physically present today, you can bet your boots he would be very vocal about his disgust with religious establishment figures who use their position of authority to perpetuate oppression, ignorance, bigotry, or hipocrisy.

      • Dani says

        It’s upsetting to me too. I really hope that the people who heard him have the presence of mind to realize that what he’s saying is complete crap. Manipulative statements like this are infuriating, all the more so because I’ve seen others spout the same garbage, or at least subtly reinforce it.

        • Firebird says

          I was sitting next to my mother, who nodded, said “Amen,” and raised her hands briefly as she does when overcome with religious sentiment. I don’t know who in the audience may have been quietly horrified like me, but my sister seemed to respect the man, and my dad and stepmom were there and they have only expressed how grateful they are for the church and its ministry. My sister went there to get away from a group of friends that was influencing her to a lot of unsafe activities with drugs and partying so it was a bit like Christian rehab for her, and I’m sure seeing her back on the straight and narrow affected their views more than anything the minister said. In any case, people with this kind of behavior are common in churches, and no one protested in my presence.

  4. M.C. says

    Ack, I totally forgot to mention that this post/discussion reminds me of the Dar Williams song ‘Empire’, especially when she sings the line ‘who’s afraid of the sun, who would question the goodness of the mighty?’

  5. says

    Sigh. Why does it sometimes feel that so many supposed “Christians” have never read their own holy book? That so many people who claim to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus don’t seem to have ever MET the guy?

    Jesus questioned authority. All the damn time. That’s what he DID. It’s what he WAS. He asked questions and told stories that made you question everything you’d ever been told by your parents and your teachers and your politicians and he pissed off authority SO MUCH that they tried, sentenced, tortured and EXECUTED him. With his dying breath he questioned GOD.

    My one hope is that some of those SCSL kids he’s taking credit for making will make their own minds up about the stuff they’re learning, and realize that the answer to “WWJD” is NOT in fact “sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told.” That Long-Haired Radical Socialist Jew would be out stirring SHIT.

    • M.C. says

      That Long-Haired Radical Socialist Jew would be out stirring SHIT.

      My mum keeps calling Jesus ‘the first true hippie’ :)

  6. Robin says

    Gah! I have a really hard time even comprehending this kind of rhetoric. I grew up in a really liberal Protestant church (part of the first American denomination to ordain women, in fact), and all of the teaching they did from the Bible was more literary criticism than anything else. They absolutely encouraged the questioning of authority. Following the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Biblical canon pretty much requires the questioning of authority, as Dani pointed out.

    Justifying the continuation of repressive patriarchies, misogyny, and racism by deliberately misinterpreting the text of one’s own belief system is seriously uncool.

    [Disclaimer: My childhood church was also in New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state, and both of my parents were highly academic. Due to the logical inconsistencies in the Bible and the hypocrisy evident within parts of the greater Christian community, I made my split from all organized religions long ago, and currently fall somewhere between agnoticism and humanism. I attend church about once a year, usually at Christmas, to appease my mother and sing the songs.]

    • Firebird says

      While I applaud your upbringing, I can’t help noticing your childhood church kind of shot itself in the foot, didn’t it? I mean as far as survival as an organization goes. If your result is at all typical, then allowing the questions and encouraging free thinking leads to fewer members, whereas fundamentalism tends to pass down pretty well (at least, of the people I went to Christian school with and have run into and/or friended on Facebook, an entirely unscientific sample, I know, they are all depressingly brainwashed).

      In any case, if I have children and find it necessary to raise them in the church (something that might happen), I would strive for something like what you and others have described. Better to learn critical thinking than specifically which religion or none they get at first, I think.

      • says

        Hmm, how would one actually go about measuring this? By how many former members have rejected the church in question? Because I know a lot of ex-fundamentalists – a LOT. And I know several ex-Mormons (I’d argue Mormonism has the characteristics of fundamentalism) and am aware of many more.

        Meanwhile, you know… yes, I’m an atheist, but I still have respect for SOME of the teachings and views of the more progressive American Baptist church I grew up in. (I know, some of you spat your drinks at seeing the word “Baptist” and “progressive” in the same sentence, but the American Baptists are the church the Southern Baptists split from because the Americans were allowing black folk to join up and the Southerns were pretty sure Jesus would rather have put burning crosses on their lawns. At least some AB churches were pretty decent in terms of loving the sinner and worrying more about the log in one’s own eye than the speck in one’s neighbor’s.)

        I guess I’m thinking: with fundamentalists, you’re either IN or OUT, and there’s no peaceful co-existence from without, and THAT might shoot them in the foot in the long run.

        • Firebird says

          It very well could be. I am after all, out, as the product of such an environment. The fundamentalist one, that is. I was just musing about what makes such organizations tick. I know someone who says they-as organizations-are primarily motivated to indoctrinate the next generation of donors, and she still considers herself a Christian, primarily for the community.

      • Robin says

        It’s not necessarily a self-destroying system. A lot of the other kids I grew up with in that church are still members as adults and starting to have children of their own. My brother (who had a similar parting of ways with religion in his teens) and his wife (a lapsed Catholic) sometimes go to a local church that belongs to our childhood denomination. Our mom attends a church in the same denomination where she lives now every week and still contributes to our old church because it’s where she grew up. In some ways, it’s more about the community than the beliefs.

        Questioning the specific things written in the Bible or looking at them within their historical context doesn’t have to destroy faith. In fact, I’d have to say that it hasn’t destroyed mine, as such. I just don’t feel the need to go to a certain place at a certain time in order to experience it with a large group of people anymore. I prefer to experience my own wonder at the universe in small groups of friends or in midst of nature. My idea of “God” or whatever there might be is a lot less anthropomorphic than portrayed in most organized religions. I don’t begrudge churchgoers their habits and rituals. I just don’t feel the need to participate in them myself most of the time.

  7. Cheryl says

    As a conservative Christian and feminist, the endemic misogyny is something I struggle with regularly. In May, my church did a series called The Acceptable Sins of Christians, with two weeks devoted to lust. The first week focused pretty much on the struggle men have with physical lust. I was disappointed the pastor didn’t address the biggest lusts women struggle with and how those can set up women to fall into sin with infidelity and physical lust, and that the only resources he mentioned were ones aimed at men, even though there was one, ‘Every Woman’s Battle’, available in the church bookstore. Maybe he’d talk to women the next week, I reasoned. He did, but not in the way I expected, but I should have. The title? Immodesty: Women Lust, Too. Here’s the summary from the online sermon library: “Lust takes our God-given desires and perverts them. Lust takes a man’s natural desire for sex and turns it into a priority of personal pursuit for pleasure apart from intimacy with his wife. Lust impacts most women different. Lust takes a woman’s gift of allure and her God-given desire to be pursued by one man (her husband) and turns it into a desire to be pursued by other men – in sight, emotions or physically. Lust for women is often demonstrated in immodesty through flirtatious behavior and immodesty through enticing clothing.” *rage face* Not even twenty minutes into that message, I was so enraged and frustrated I had to leave the sanctuary because I was so upset and crying. A woman I knew followed me outside and asked what was wrong. I told her why, that the pastor wasn’t addressing the lusts women actually struggle with. She said to just listen to the rest because she was sure he’d address what was bothering me. I humored her and went back. She asked me afterward if he had addressed what I was upset about and I told her he hadn’t even come remotely close. I’m still working on polishing up my letter to him about why I was so bloody pissed off by his messages and how disgustingly misogynistic they were and how they do a great job laying the groundwork for victim blaming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *