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Friday, January 24, 2014

Who Is Corrupting Whom Between Church And Society

Gregory Reynolds, from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), recently wrote a couple of articles for the OPC about the effects which egalitarianism has on church offices and their functioning (click here for the online article). He has written these articles from an OPC perspective. We should note that the OPC, which is the denomination I belong to, is a strongly conservative, fundamentalist denomination that adheres to a presbyterian form of church government. This form of government relies on the teaching and leadership of elders (known as presbyters) and service from deacons. Elders are elected by the congregation and can be divided into two groups: ruling elders and teaching elders. A preacher would be considered to be a teaching elder. And just a side note here, I went to seminary with Reynolds but either I didn't know him or I forgot who he was.

Reynolds wrote this article to warn us about the corrosive effect that egalitarianism, which is the word he uses to describe the "destructive aspect of the democratic mindset," has on the Church. And though he explicitly states that he doesn't want to put down democracy whether it's kind espoused by our Founding Fathers or how it is currently thought of, one cannot help but notice how he, and possibly Christians like him, looks down on some vital parts of democracy.

That Reynolds sees egalitarianism as a threat to church life should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the OPC. The OPC, like most conservative, reformed denominations, is authoritarian in both spirit and structure. And in a church context, that is not always bad. In fact, the Scriptures describe a number of authoritarian relationships for believers to live in. There are authoritarian relationships in the family. The wife is to submit to the husband and the children are to submit to the parents. Then, as mentioned before, there are authoritarian relationships in any church. The ruling elders help make decisions and apply discipline. The preacher is a teaching elder who interprets the Word of God to the people. There is also a certain level of submission to the confessions and catechisms that is expected. In addition, every church is to submit to the presbytery and its decisions. And finally we are told to submit to the government. 

However, there is one problem with living life in a denomination in which authoritarianism is its middle name, one sometimes loses the ability to turn the authoritarian switch off. This ability is necessary once one leaves church on Sunday and lives in a democratic, pluralistic society. And so it should come as no surprise that Reynolds rejects the influence that egalitarianism has on Church. He sees is as destructive to both society and the Church because it interferes with people submitting to the authorities and institutions which God has placed over us. And in threatening these authorities and institutions, egalitarianism puts at risk that which made this country "great." This is because egalitarianism plants ideas in people's heads that give them the confidence and conviction to question authority.

So Reynolds challenges egalitarianism in a number of ways. The first of which is to label egalitarian notions as narcissistic. The ideas which he is targeting are: “I have rights; my opinion is as important as anyone’s; I am equal to others in every way; I have a right to education, peace, prosperity, healthcare, and recreation; and I may believe and say what I like; and I may do what I like as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” In calling such beliefs, 'narcissistic,' Reynolds is making one of two mistakes. He is either confusing increased self-awareness and a demand for dignity with narcissism or, as in the conviction that one's opinion is as good as another, he doesn't understand what people are saying here. For some who believe that their opinion is as good as another's will listen to the opinions of others while some will not. 

What we should note here is the ease with which the narcissism label is used by Reynolds and also others. Anthony Bradley has claimed that people from a number of Christian groups that revolve around Millenials (click hereare prone to suffer from narcissism. The narcissistic signs Bradley uses includes when people look for special ways of living out their Christian faith (such as the Missional Church, see here), insisting that internships should be paid (click here), and leaving the Church with nowhere else to go (see here). The characteristics that tell Bradley that narcissism is involved includes the search for something special and a sense of entitlement. But those characteristics by themselves do not imply narcissism.

Then what is narcissism? There are a number of sources we can consult to answer this question. Each source tells us that it takes a number personal traits to confirm narcissism with its chief characteristic being the belief in one's own superiority or the superiority of the group(s) with which one is associated. Thus feeling entitled by itself is not evidence of narcissism. But believing that one deserves more than one's peers could be--note this is only an indicator--because narcissism involves a combination of more than two signs. So wanting something out of the ordinary is not a sign of narcissism, but wanting to be special so that one is above others just might be.

When we return to the egalitarian notions, we see that narcissism is not involved. Elevating oneself so that one is considered to be an equal with others cannot be narcissistic unless the others make up a elite group of people and it is done for the purpose of looking down on the masses. And insisting on one's rights is not the same as when one feels entitled to more because one believes that they are superior to others. 

Thus, when we compare the traits of narcissism (see here and there) with those of egalitarianism (listed earlier), we find that the two are disjoint. The former describes those who feel superior, who feel entitled to more than others, and who are overly sensitive while the latter is looking for equality, and we could add basic human dignity.

But there is an ism group that one should be leery of with regard to narcissism. That group consists of those who favor authoritarianism (click here). It is not that narcissism and authoritarianism are the same. But if we note how both respond to the lack of submission to or criticism of those who are superior or accepted authority figures, the two seem to dovetail each other and are quite compatible. Thus, we might say that power and authority are narcissists magnets while narcissism could be the raison d'etre for many authoritarians (click here for an additional source supporting the connection between authoritarianism and narcissism). 

The ties between authoritarianism and narcissism does not exonerate all who reject authority. There is a rejection of authority where those involved never recognize the need to even consider what those in authority say or have said. In contrast to that, there are egalitarians who believe that they are qualified to reasonably disagree with those in authority. The former group could be embracing narcissism while the latter group is not regardless of any mistakes made or even rebellion engaged in. The point to be made here is that Reynolds's comment that democracy du jour, which is largely based on egalitarianism, latches on to "narcissistic notions" is not only wrong, it could possibly be an example of projection. In fact, all of us Conservative Christians must beware of falling into the narcissism trap because not only do we tend to be authoritarian, our faith teaches us a certain exclusivity and we believe in the superior status of certain heros of the faith along with believing in the deity of Christ.

So while Reynolds is fearful of egalitarianism and how it might lead people to reject the authority of those who hold certain church offices, should those who value democracy worry about Conservative Christians such as Reynolds? After all, Reynolds laments over how today's democratic mindset is different from that of our Founding Fathers' and their republicanism. In addition, Reynolds sees this egalitarian-based democratic spirit as interfering with the institutions that made our country 'great.' But one has to ask, when was our country great? We have to ask this because we can derive what qualities Reynolds uses to measure the greatness of a nation from the time period(s) he picks. But more importantly, non Christians have to ask how much of a risk to democracy do Conservative Christians, like Reynolds, pose because of their emphasis on authority. This is especially true with Reynolds's view of our nation's Founding Fathers.  

In his article, Reynolds seems to liken the "federalist idea," which he cites from Rev John Thompson, of the relationship between the ruling elders and the congregation to the relationship between our elected officials and the citizens as according to the Constitution. But at the same time, he describes the Constitution as having limited the power of the federal government. This is somewhat contradictory and incorrect because elected elders are meant to rule over the congregation, though they are also considered to be the congregation's representatives while the Constitution expanded the power of the Federal government rather having limited it. 

Though the Constitution itself may not appear to be advocating more federal powers and government control, the context of the writing of the Constitution tells us that such was the case. The writing and promotion of the Constitution was in response to rebellion, popular unrest, and a particular faction of people whose objectives would have upset the status quo and weakened the ruling class--who were the landed interest. This is all evident in, Shay's Rebellion,  Henry Knox's letter to George Washington, the Constitutional debates especially in the discussions regarding the Senate, and Madison's Federalist Paper #10. Thus, the Constitution brought into play a stronger federal government. And this was done for the sake of the "minority of the opulent," as Madison said.

As Reynolds classifies egalitarianism as an attempt to be equal with God, which has some merit but only in a religious/spiritual setting, we must wonder how such thinking can lead Conservative Christians to not only limit democracy outside of the Church, but to fall in line with the age-old criticism of the Church. That criticism says that the Church is just another institution of indoctrination to maintain the status quo for the benefit of those with wealth and power. The Conservative Church does this by teaching its congregation to submit to authority rather than to challenge it, especially when the Republicans are in charge, and to focus on repenting from personal sins while remaining silent about social sins. We should remember that the Old Testament prophets, such as, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, saw as part of God's call on their lives the duty to preach against the social sins of both God's people and of the surrounding nations.

Now what Reynolds says about the Church's offices is biblically kosher and takes up a good part of the article. But, his fear-led disdain, remember that fear is the path to the Dark Side, for popular democracy, which oozes with egalitarianism, should make those who want more self-rule with their democracy uneasy. For not only will his thinking arrest the Church from performing its prophetic call to preach against all sins, Conservative Christian citizens will politically push for a more authoritarian democracy, somewhat depending on which party is in power, where the measure of what is good for the country is based more on sectarian beliefs than on the voice of the people. And such leads to more elite-centered political and economic systems as well as runs counter to the First Amendment.


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