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Beware of Authoritarian Christians

Photograph Source: Stanislav Traykov – CC BY-SA 3.0

Christianity and authoritarianism are commonly believed to be at opposite ends of the democratic-autocratic continuum. A commonly held belief is that Christians, guided by The Bible, are accepting and caring of each other and others, and are thus democratic. Yes, many Christians do good with-and-for others, inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount’s emphasis on mercy and forgiveness and peacemaking (Matthew 5: 1-10), his teaching that doing to others as you would have then do to you is the bottom line of religion (Matthew 7L 12), and his saying that the greatest commandments are to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matthew 22: 36-40)

However, many other Christians use The Bible to stress belief in the uniqueness of Jesus himself, not in the universal “Blessed are the peacemakers”-ethic of humanness he taught. For these Christians, first and foremost, Christianity is about right biblical belief, not just democratic behavior. Fundamental here is Jesus’ exclusivity as the only Son of God and savior of the world (John 14: 6), not the inclusivity underlying his story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37).

For these Christians, it is not about The Golden Rule of empathy between people, but about using biblically-based beliefs to rule over people. It is about the overriding authority of particular biblical pronouncements and required obedience to them. Such authority and obedience are actually fundamental characteristics of anti-democratic tendencies. Claiming that biblical passages are revelations from God does not make them true, nor demanding obedience to them any less authoritarian.

An understanding of authoritarian tendencies is helpful here. According to Theodor W. Adorno, et al’s classic post-Nazi Germany study of the authoritarian personality, two of the main features of authoritarianism are the demand for submissive “uncritical attitudes toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup,” and the “tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject and punish people who violate conventional values.” Another feature is “anti-intraception,” which, among other things, discourages any psychological knowledge that would put the individual “in touch with large areas of his own inner life.” A fourth feature is “projection,” which involves the individual projecting his/her own “suppressed [unconscious]impulses onto other people who are then blamed out of hand.” A fifth feature is preoccupation with “sex,” i.e., a “strong inclination to punish violators of sex mores (homosexuals, sex offenders) . . . suggesting that the subject’s own sexual desires are suppressed and in danger of getting out of hand.” (Chapter VII, ‘THE MEASUREMENT OF IMPLICIT ANTI-DEMOCRATIC TRENDS,’ pages 222-279, The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor. W. Adorno, et al, Harper & Brothers, New York, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, c. 1950)

With these characteristics of authoritarianism in mind, beware of so-called “traditionalists” in The United Methodist Church. Last February, at The Church’s special General Conference dealing with “human sexuality” (actually with homosexuality) a majority of delegates, by a vote of 461 to 359, approved a “traditionalist plan,” which doubles down on United Methodism’s decades-old policy that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

For traditionalists, God’s unchanging “eternal“ sexual ethic” includes Jesus’ teaching, “ Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh?” (Matthew 19: 4-6) Another “God-breathed” Scripture “authoritative for our lives” is Paul the Apostle’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1: 26-27: “Even their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Thus at the recent General Conference, a majority ruled that, as of January 2020, clergy who perform a same-sex marriage will be suspended for a year without pay, and upon performing a second such marriage, lose his/her credentials. Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry will not be allowed to recommend for ordination “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” whether in a same-sex marriage or any kind of domestic relationship. Bishops will be prohibited from ordaining homosexuals, and those bishops who violate this policy will, themselves, face disciplinary action, including “involuntary” retirement. United Methodist funds will not be used to support homosexual causes. And those churches that oppose the denomination’s tightening of anti-homosexual policies are encouraged to leave the denomination. (For a partial description of the approved “Traditional Plan,” see “Ask the UMC: What did the Judicial Council decide about the Traditionalist Plan?,” www.umc.org)

Who are these “traditional” United Methodists? Compare the above features of authoritarianism with the writings of two of their leaders. The “traditionalist plan” about which they write is reported to be “favored by most evangelicals and traditionalists, including the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News, The Confessing Movement, UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association).” (“What’s in the Traditionalist Plan?,” By Thomas Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, July 19,, 2018).

In an article on “Failure of Leadership,” Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, a pro-“Traditionalist Plan” group, criticized the United Methodist Council of Bishops for pushing a “One Church Plan” that “will create unity by allowing every pastor, every church, and every annual conference to come up with its own sexual ethic,” which “is ludicrous.” Renfroe declares: “It’s a plan that denies the clear and consistent message of the Bible, stands in opposition to 2000 years of Christian teaching.” He takes “progressive and centrists bishops” to task, saying, “they don’t teach the doctrines of the church – which is their charge – and they don’t enforce the discipline of the church – which is their duty.”

Rev. Renfroe then declares: “Let me clarify what we believe. For starters, we honestly believe the Scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ and therefore authoritative for our lives. We don’t believe we get to ignore or need to correct the parts of Scripture that a progressive culture finds hard to accept,” he writes. “Furthermore, we believe in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform human lives. . . . We don’t think the truth is whatever works or whatever sells. We don’t believe,” he says, “that God’s word is a lump of clay that we can fashion into our own image or into the likeness of a fallen and sinful culture.” He adds: “We believe . . . that the Holy Spirit is always doing new things. However we will never be persuaded that ‘the new thing’ the Spirit is doing is repealing the written word of God. Instead,” he declares, “we are utterly convinced that the Spirit never contradicts what the Scriptures teach because the Scriptures were Spirit-inspired.”(Ibid)

A primary issue for Rev. Renfroe: “How can the same God now be revealing a sexual ethic that contradicts what he previously stated to be his will? . . . What needs to be understood,” Renfroe emphasizes, “is that we cannot support a church that denies the full inspiration, truth, and authority of the Scriptures.” He promises that “there will be a traditionalist plan brought to General Conference that will maintain our current position on sexual ethics and that will make it easier to enforce the Discipline when it is broken by a pastor or a bishop.”(Ibid)

Rev. Renfroe concludes: “To those on the Council of Bishops who proposed the ‘one church plan’ and claim to be on the right side of history, let me propose that there’s something more important. And that’s standing on the right side of eternity. And for that,” he says, “we must stand on God’s eternal word and contend for the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints. (Ibid)

According to Rev. Renfroe, the essence of Christianity is submission to “God-breathed” biblically-revealed doctrines, “which are therefore authoritative for our lives.” It is about obedience to “the full inspiration, truth and authority of the Scriptures.” And “the traditionalist plan will make it easier to enforce the Discipline when it is broken by a pastor or a bishop.” (Ibid)

Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the “Traditionalist Plan”-advocating Good News group, is assumed to express a primary feature of authoritarianism in his article, “Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?” He begins: “One aspect of the plan is that it contains strict accountability measures for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and members of boards of ordained ministry, with the expectation that they will ‘support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist Standards’ barring the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the celebration of same-sex marriages, and funding that promotes the acceptance of homosexuality.” And, “Those unwilling to live within our church’s standards are encouraged to withdraw.” (“Is the Traditional Plan Punitive,” Good News Magazine, Oct. 22, 2018)

Rev. Lambrecht is opposed “to changing the rules to allow the divergent practices” regarding homosexuality, which is what “the One Church Plan proposes.” Conversely, “The Traditionalist Plan is based upon the premise that clergy and bishops have promised to live by our church’s standards and should be expected to do so.” But a growing number of clergy in “nine annual conferences and two jurisdictions” have voted “to reject the church’s standards,” creating “the current crisis by engaging in “divergent practices that violate the standards or rules of an organization” – in this case, “The United Methodist Church’s . . . Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority.” (Ibid)

Thus Rev. Lambrecht argues that “for the sake of the church’s unity and integrity, discipline must be emphasized. That is why enhanced accountability measures (italics added) must be an integral part of the Traditionalist Plan.” He believes that “by changing the rules to accommodate disobedience, the One Church Plan creates an expectation that individual conscience trumps the standards of the church . . . sow[ing] the seeds of congregationalism and further disintegrates the unity of the church.” And, “the only way to recover unity is to enhance accountability and request those unwilling to abide by those shared practices to withdraw from the denomination. The plan,” Lambrecht concludes, “balances stricter accountability measures with an open door for annual conferences, congregations, and clergy to leave the denomination without penalty. (Ibid)

For Rev. Lambrecht, “unity” means uniformity. It is about obedience to “rules and standards — especially about “enhanced accountability measures” to enforce conformity and punish any “individual conscience” that dares to challenge the anti-homosexual doctrines and discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Lambrecht wants everyone to believe that along with “preaching the gospel,” traditionalists “are equally compelled to care for the physical needs of our neighbors and work to right injustice.” He then quotes The Bible: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. (Matthew 25: 35)” (“Are Traditionalists Only a Small Group Within the Denomination?,” By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, Feb. 15, 2019

Here is a tip of the hat to the Christian social gospel. Rev. Lambrecht does not specify what he means by “the physical needs of our neighbors,” nor whom he means by “our neighbors,” nor what he means by “injustice,” nor the kind of “work” involved in confronting “injustice.” The best he can do is quote a verse of Scripture that Jesus is recorded as saying.

Then Rev. Lambrecht qualifies evangelicals’ commitment to “our neighbors” and “work to right justice.” He says, “From an evangelical perspective, both focuses are essential. But “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is really the priority, because “if we don’t do this, no one else will.” Besides, “Unless the human heart is transformed, sin and injustice will continue to grow regardless of one’s commitment to social justice. We all need Jesus, first and foremost.” (“Are Traditionalists Only a Small Group Within the Denomination?,” By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, Feb. 15, 2019)

How would Rev. Lambrecht explain the high majority of white evangelical Christians supporting former president George W. Bush’s falsely-based, criminal invasion of Iraq? Obviously to “transform the world” of Muslims by “making” them “disciples of Jesus Christ.” How would Lambrecht explain all the white evangelical Christians leaders surrounding and praying for President Donald Trump? Obviously because he is giving them pro-life-judges and promising them “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons in the market place and in health care services.

The authoritarian features revealed by Rev. Lambrecht include the demand for submission to traditionalists’ selective biblical teachings, and punishing those who violate those teachings. United Methodist traditionalists hypocritically try to disguise their rejection of homosexuals by citing The Book of Discipline’s doctrine that “all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God . . . [and] need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.” But traditionalists rationalize away the glaring contradiction contained in The Discipline’s very next statement: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (“Social Principles: The Nurturing Community,” www.umc.org) Never mind that refusing to ordain LGBTQ persons, or allow same-sex marriages are glaring obstacles to their “human fulfillment.”

Another authoritarian feature of United Methodist traditionalists revealed by Rev. Lambrecht is projection. The traditionalists he’s speaking for are “out of touch with large areas of [their] own inner lives,” which prevents integrated self-awareness. Such self-awareness would allow them to recognize their own subconscious needs and wishes and thus have the nonjudgmental emotional capacity to identify with those who are different – or struggling. Instead, they betray a lack of understanding of the varieties of unconscious human sexual development, which have nothing to do with free will. But they need to believe in free will to maintain power over people, to punish LGBTQ persons and to keep their own unconscious, conflicting sexual impulses at bay.

Sadly, many traditionalist Christians are anti-introspective and thus lack a psychological understanding of personality and sexual development, which would counter a paternalistic need to reconcile others to their beliefs. Psychological insight enables self-understanding, which enables empathy, which enables practicing The Gold Rule of doing to others as you would want them to do you – all of which enable The
United Methodist Church’s slogan, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open doors.” More than traditionalists realize, they are believed to be “fashion[ing” God in the “image” of “large areas of [their] own inner life.”

It is assumed that these traditionalists’ belief in free will may lead them to advocate that homosexual persons enter conversion therapy to change their sexual identity. At stake for Traditionalists is their core belief that Christ can “transform the human heart” — which includes the heart and sexual orientation of a homosexual person. Without free will, traditionalists would lose their selective biblically-based authority and judgmental power over people.

Never mind the American Psychiatric Association reiterating that “no credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.” (“APA Reiterates Strong Opposition to Conversion Therapy,” American Psychiatric Association, Nov. 15, 2018)

United Methodist traditionalists betray their own contradictory behavior in asserting, ”We don’t believe we get to ignore or need to correct the parts of Scripture that a progressive culture finds hard to accept.” Their own incompatible behavior is also seen in their questioning, “How can the same God now be revealing the sexual ethic that contradicts what he previously stated to be his will?”

Actually, United Methodist traditionalists have been “ignoring” patriarchal passages of Scripture that are no longer believed to be “God-breathed.” Such passages of Scripture” are not advocated openly anymore. Evidently “the same God” now “contradicts” what Corinthians 14: 34-35 “revealed to be his will” – that “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” And, “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.”

At a previous count, the United Methodist Church had “16 female bishops and 30 male bishops in the U.S.,” and 2 female bishops and 18 male bishops” outside the U.S. (“United Methodists At-A-Glance,” www.umc.org) Also reported: “As of 2011 . . . women were 25 percent of United Methodist clergy in the U.S.” (“Women now 1 of 4 UMC clergy in U.S.,” www.umc.org, Dec. 4, 2013) However, woman ministers are still struggling with discrimination in a male-dominated United Methodist hierarchy. (See “Women pastors growing in numbers,” By M. Garlinda Burton, United Methodist News Service, March 20, 2014)

“Women should remain silent in the churches?” So much for “God-breathed“ Scripture never being “ignored.”

United Methodist traditionalists also now “ignore” Paul the Apostle’s racist teaching in Ephesians 6: 5-8: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as you obey Christ, not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” Such Scripture provided the inspiration for U.S. Christians to justify the slavery of black persons, and in 1939 for the Methodist Church to segregate black members into a separate Central Jurisdiction, which continued until 1968 when the United Methodist Church was created. (See “50 years on, Central Jurisdictional Shadow looms,“ By Joey Butler, UM News, April 18, 2018)

The racism of United Methodist traditionalists is more subtle today. It consists of certain white bishops and district superintendents preventing creative and prophetic ministers of color from being appointed to prominent white churches. It includes many white delegates to Jurisdictional Conferences making sure that a visionary black minister is not elected a bishop. And it is seen in the large number of United Methodist faith leaders who are chaplains of the status quo, rather than also prophets of the people.

Civil rights leader Rev. Gilbert Caldwell connects the authoritarianism of racism and homophobia in an article on “White Privilege Cloaked in ‘Traditionalism’ Is Harming the UMC.” Caldwell responds to an Anti-Racism statement by a caucus of African American United Methodist Church bishops by writing, “White traditionalists in 1972 realized they could no longer use the Bible to justify the segregation of blacks in the ‘new’ UMC. Thus same-gender loving persons and their ‘practice of homosexuality’ provided them the opportunity to continue to discriminate, not because of race but because of sexual orientation.” Caldwell concludes: “White privilege in all of its manifestations is alive and well in the USA. May the 2019/2020 General Conferences begin to stifle its presence in the UMC.” “White Privilege Cloaked in ‘Traditionalism’ Is Harming the UMC,” by Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, United Methodist Insight, Nov. 19, 2018)

Missing from the theological declarations of United Methodist traditionalists is human love. They are obsessed with “rules” and “standards” and “doctrine” and “discipline” and “obedience” and “enhanced accountability measures” – and their own “authority.” Jesus is recorded as teaching, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 35)

Beware of authoritarian Christians.

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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