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Authority in American Culture

Pastor Bayly’s sermon yesterday on authority in America, “In Heaven and on Earth” (MP3 available), was very good. What is below was inspired by it, taking some of the themes and examples and expanding on them. They are notes, with little effort to put things in sequence, to introduce, or to conclude.

A good doctor knows which of his patients are in danger of
heart attacks. When he first meets us for a check-up, he says,
“Strip” and asks us lots of personal questions. We’ll do anything
to try to live a little longer. Or, more accurately, we will at least
listen quietly as he tells us how to behave and say to ourselves,
“It’s his job to tell me all that. He has authority to say it, even if I
don’t intend to listen to his advice. After all, he cares about my
health, even if I care more about other things like eating all the
ice cream I want. I know he’s right, and I knew it before I came
in, but, after all, he wouldn’t be a good doctor if he didn’t bug me
about it. “

A good pastor knows which of his people are in danger of
adultery. But what happens if he tries to care for someone’s soul
as carefully as a doctor cares for the person’s body? Nobody
would ever think of going in to his pastor for a check-up. If he
did, he would be offended if the pastor asked personal questions.
And if the pastor tells him what to do, or warned him of future
dangers, he would say to himself, “That’s none of a pastor’s
business. I haven’t done anything wrong, and I won’t, and he’s
just meddling because he’s a busybody; he must like bossing
people around.” Or, he might add, “Yes, I know I’m skirting on
the edge of temptation, but since that’s obvious, the pastor
doesn’t have to rub it in, and I know how to stay out of real

In our culture we give our doctors lots of authority, but not our
pastors. In fact, pastors are a lot lower on the hierarchy of
authority than dental technicians.

Our culture is similarly deferential to government. Americans
may be a little less deferential than Europeans, but not much less.
If the government says, “Take off your shoes” at the airport, we
do it, and we are happy to be degraded that way, because it
shows the government cares about our safety, even though we
know–or anyone would know if they gave it a moment’s
thought— that taking off shoes doesn’t really help safety at all. I
say this because our government is truly elected, and the foot-
stripping policy is obvious and simple enough that it wouldn’t last
if most people didn’t like it.

Let’s think about a couple of other examples. Suppose the
church elders met 30 years ago and decided to tell the
congregation, “You must all buy child seats for your cars and tie
your children up in them.” We would be outraged. In fact,
suppose a father had told his wife, “We need to take the money
we were going to spend going out on our next two date nights
and buy a car seat, and you must always strap Joey into it, no
matter how late you are or how much he cries.” The wife would
be outraged, and either fight or mutter to herself, “I at least
deserve to be consulted. He doesn’t know how much our date
nights mean to me. And he’s not the one who has to deal with
getting Joey into the car seat just to travel half a mile to the
grocery store.”

But what in fact happened was that the government issued the
command, with absolutely no consideration of our particular
family budget or needs, and no ability to ask about exceptions for
special circumstances, because the government is so distant from
us that there’s nobody to ask about them. And we loved it. Most
of us thanked the elected officials for thus compelling us, by re-
electing them. Others of us didn’t love it. We muttered to
ourselves about how stupid the regulation was in our particular
cases. But few of us objected in principle to the idea that the
government could tell us how to raise our children. We think the
government does have that authority. And we truly think it is
authority. The government does use violence to enforce its will–
in the sense that if you try to thwart it, the government will send
men with guns to put you in jail, and to kill you if you fight them.
But that is not the main reason we obey. Even if there are no
police around, we obey, because we know it is the law, an
authority, and we obey authority even if it is unjust and mistaken.
Or, if we disobey, we do it guiltily, feeling in our hearts that we are
doing something wrong.

A board of elders wouldn’t issue an edict about child seats. But
let’s think about a couple of other examples. What about
smoking? Suppose the elders said that smoking was a vice and
nobody could remain a member in good standing if he smoked
in public. What a legalistic, fundamentalist, church that would be!
Or what if a man told his wife not to smoke when she’s out
shopping. What a tyrant! After all, he’s not even there to be
bothered by the smell of the smoke, so what business is it of his?
But when the city council tells us not to smoke in public, we
meekly obey, even if we grumble. It has authority; the church
and the family do not.

I’ve been driving in the point, but let’s think about one more
example, the one Pastor Bayly used in his sermon. What if a teen-
age girl wears short skirts in church, sitting up front and
displaying plenty of leg so she can enjoy being noticed by men.
The pastor tells the father, “Your daughter is dressing
immodestly. Tell her to cover herself up more.” What will the
father’s response be? He will be ashamed, for sure. In many
many cases he will also be outraged by the pastor’s interference.
After all, his daughter is just wearing the kind of clothes lots of
people wear every day. If the church is one where people dress
up a little for worship, he’d accept the point— for Sunday, at
least. But if it is the typical American church where jeans and
tennis shoes are perfectly acceptable, he’d feel singled out.

Consider the same admonition coming from a real authority:
the government. If the girl’s school sends a note home– a cold,
impersonal note– saying that her skirt must reach down to at
least within 1.5 inches o her knee, the parents will pass along the
note to the girl and tell her to obey. The school secretary, after
all, has authority.

That’s just at school, of course. What if the government issued a
skirt rule for all public places? We don’t know the answer to that.
But I would place my money on public acceptance of the new
rule. A few radicals would object, protest, and be arrested. But
most of us would accept it, especially if the newspapers added
their support to the government.

Let’s go back to the pastor telling the father about his daughter,
though. The pastor’s not the only weak figure in America.
There’s another reason the father would feel ashamed and
outraged, a more subtle one. It’s that he would feel he, too, lacks
authority. He might like to tell his daughter to dress modestly,
but he doesn’t dare. His wife would object. She would say things
like, “You’re so legalistic. You don’t really care. You object to her
short skirt, but you don’t even go to see her play volleyball at her
school. If you really cared, you’d start spending more time with
her. So don’t talk about clothes. You don’t know anything about
how girls dress, anyway.”

His daughter would certainly object. She’s too old to spank, and
she’s buying the clothes herself. All her friends would think her
father was totally unreasonable, or at least would tell her that
when she complained.

The father would rather not tell his daughter to do things. So he
gets angry at the pastor. He is all the more angry because he
agrees with the pastor. He knows what the young men are
imagining doing with his daughter– and the old men, too. He
knows she is enjoying knowing that the boys are thinking those
thoughts. He knows he should be talking to her about it, but he
doesn’t have the guts. And he has the depressing feeling that
even if he did go through that painful process, it wouldn’t work.
He’d end up getting his wife and daughter angry at him, with no
real result. Maybe he’d win on that particular issue– if he fought
hard. But they’d pay him back double on every other issue. So he
feels beaten in advance. Why does the pastor have to rub in his
humiliation? If he, the father, has no authority, how can the
pastor have it?

All these kind of thoughts are going through the mind of the
pastor, too. He’s in an even weaker position, since the angry
church member can leave or can try to get him fired. That’s why
pastors ordinarily give up on specific admonishment. Maybe
they’re even right to do so, at least if they continue with general
admonishment and with discipline for more serious sins. If so,
the problem is even bigger– it’s so big that we have to give up
the most effective form of church discipline entirely, saving up
what little authority the church has for less costly expenditures of
it or for only the most church-destroying sins.

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