Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More on Authoritarian Christians

I’m still reading Elaine Pagels and her discussion of the conflict in the 2nd century between the orthodox church, which claimed that the church hierarchy derived its authority from God through the apostolic succession and mirrored the heavenly order, and the Gnostic followers of Valentinian, who rejected hierarchy in almost all its forms. I am astonished that so soon in church history, we find orthodox bishops complaining about Christians in their flocks holding “unauthorized” meetings, i.e. not approved by the bishop, and dedicated to authoritarianism. Men outrank women, believers are ranked in terms of seniority, bishops and clergy and deacons outrank the laity. Various individual bishops vie for supremacy. The orthodox model of the church very soon became “One God, one bishop”, and non-authoritarian organizational structures were considered badges of heresy.

The Gnostics recognized the various church offices, but these were chosen by lottery at frequent intervals from among all the believers, male and female, so that no rigid hierarchy might form. Every believer was deemed an equal before God with personal access to the Divine through the Holy Ghost. Every believer might be inspired by the Holy Ghost and might prophesy or teach regardless of station in life.

The authoritarians claimed their authority from the apostles whose teachings were deemed the last word. For them, it seems to me, the church was a completed product, and all that remained was to sell it to the world and perfect its control over believers everywhere. I have to question whether the council that selected the canon did so through the lens of their authoritarianism. Could any text that undermined the church hierarchy or provided for the liberation of individual believers pass muster with such a council? Could any alternative Christian tradition survive the consolidation of power by the authoritarians and their partnership with the state?

Personally, I reject the authoritarian model of church governance and claims by any human but Jesus to particular and exclusive authority from God. I like to imagine what Christianity might have been like if the various traditions that arose in the 1st and 2nd centuries had been permitted to flourish in competition with one another. In our time line, the authoritarians stifled nearly all such competition for 1300 years or so, and even the Protestant Reformers tended to have their own authoritarian streak. Calvin, for example, ruled Geneva with an iron fist and burned folks who disagreed with him at the stake. This moment in history may be the first when Christians are free to teach and worship in an unprecedented variety of ways. Perhaps a pluralistic society is needed to for a liberated Christianity to flourish, and the next centuries may be the golden age of a living church.

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