Tough Questions 2008: Should a Christian Question Authority?

Sermon audio: Should a Christian Question Authority? I'll tell you about the time I got sent away for counseling.

When I matriculated at Willamette University in 1989, freshlings were herded through a course on world views. That year, the powers assigned readings from Victorian England -- Mill, Dickens, Marx, et al. -- and we were supposed to discuss them seminar-style. This was intended as a perspective-softener. We would get points of view from other times, other social strata, and other students, and we would come to the breezy but Correct conclusion that the world is not as we assumed.

But what the powers intended as a means of softening my perspective, I took as a means of expressing it. Well, I thought, they said we should discuss. So I did discuss. I discussed what I thought of Darwin's theory, Mill's utilitarianism, and the university's relativistic world view -- all of which I'd had the distinct impression was relevant. But I discussed my perspective without the least intention of softening it, which meant I wasn't really obeying the powers.

My professor took me aside after about two weeks and said, "I want you to go talk to Charlie." She meant Charles Wallace, the university chaplain. She was nice about it, but she'd clearly had enough. You're a Christian, she seemed to say. Maybe Charlie the Christian will know what to do with you.

2008 is the third year I've collected questions from the community about spiritual and moral issues for a sermon series. (The link to the two previous years is on my blogroll.) The first question that jumped out at me from this year's batch was, "Should Christians question authority?"

I have to admit my bias.

I have a contentious personality. For me, arguing is fun, and arguing with authority figures is even better. Winning those arguments is so much fun that it's probably immoral.

So I chose to address the question about authority because it appealed to my baser instincts.

In addition, trouble-making is part of my heritage. My grandfather, my great aunts and uncles, my dad and his sister, have all been contrarian and stubborn. On vacation, I took my family to visit Aunt Jan, who has used her genetic sonar for absurdity well and often. Over breakfast (french toast battered with eggs and whiskey), we sounded off against Mel Gibson's Passion, the evangelical mania over it, and its theology. We also shared precious moments of confrontation with the film's devotees.

In the end, however, we had to agree that the underlying reason we hated it was that everybody loved it. Tell me the last time everybody was right.

But personal and familial biases aside, I also chose to address the question about authority because of the questioner's sensitivity. The woman asked specifically about the virtue of meekness. Can a Christian habitually criticize those in authority without becoming arrogant? Don't we owe submission to those over us?

I have learned valuable truths by over-exercising my critical faculties. I've learned, for example, that the vast majority of people hate arguing. Contention fills them with dread, and they will not voice their opinion if they fear that someone will debate them. This has led me to nurture discussion by shutting my mouth. I've also seen that the process of learning must go deeper than mere questioning. If I am really going to learn a subject or a skill, I have do things contrary to my experience and instinct. That means, again, shutting my mouth so that I can submit to my teacher.

These are good arguments for meekness.

But I have learned something else. While critical questioning is a terrible way to discover whether an authority is speaking the truth, it is a great way to discover whether the authority is interested in nourishing, imparting, engaging, and being understood, or whether he is merely interested in conformity. The authority figures I've known who nurture life in their students have all embraced criticism as a sign of a living mind.

What we face today is not the authority of a few. We face the authority of the masses, the despotism of the People. We face the unrelenting tyranny of everybody's opinion. We used to wear what displayed our place in our culture. Now we wear the latest fad. The legacy of ethics used to teach us how to make decisions. Now, our decisions are dictated by fashion, and our ethics are retrofitted rationalizations.

I think that churches, in this environment, need to focus less on controlling people's behavior than on educating their consciences. This means using the authority of parents and elders to earn submission and to empower people to question. I believe that the church where this is achieved will continue to make new Christians, generation after generation. That is the theme I will preach on Sunday morning.

At Willamette, I went to the appointment my professor had already scheduled with Charlie. I don't remember much about our session, except that we ended up trading favorite scenes from Monty Python, and that I continued in class as usual. Charlie the Christian did indeed know what to do with me.

But I wouldn't have known what to do at Willamette if I hadn't been given a trained conscience.