Sunday, January 4, 2009

All About Authority: The Popularity of Submission Doctrine

The social unrest and rebellion of the ‘60s combined with the problems of the Vietnam War soon followed as a great number of those in the “Baby Boomer” generation did their best to cast off the perceived perfection of their parents. A whole generation of very idealistic young adults wanted to be unique and expressly different than their parents and their generation. They didn’t want to lead “Leave it to Beaver” lives, and they did not want their homes to look like the idyllic Nelson home or anything like the “Donna Reed Show.”

From Veinot and Henzel’s
Bill Gothard’s Evangelical Talmud , Part I (pdf download):
Along with a skyrocketing birth rate came mounting fears about a generation that was being raised in a “permissive society” and seemed to be getting out of control. By 1967, fully one-half of the U.S. population was under 21 years of age, and by 1968, it had become frighteningly obvious just how much damage they could do Aside from the Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, and the subsequent riots — none of which could be blamed on Baby-Boomers — 1968 also witnessed the Manson murders and mounting campus unrest over the Viet Nam War which would eventually produce major explosions, both literal and figurative. The vast majority of these young people were among “the best and the brightest” of their time, and would have been so in any generation before or since. But if tomorrow’s leaders were mixing it up on the streets of Chicago with the local fuzz, blowing up college buildings, burning draft cards, inciting to riot, taking drugs, challenging traditional sexual morality, listening to raucous music, and making a general nuisance of themselves, what hope was there for the future?
The church and the up and coming generation of young Christians responded with their own type of counter-culture movement in what could largely be summarized as a desire to return to the original life and culture of the First Century Christian Church as depicted in the Book of Acts. The “Jesus People” movement consisted of young people who had become hippies, and then they seemed to decide that the hippie lifestyle was not so promising. So they formed their own counter culture in reaction to the hippie counter culture movement, attempting to incorporate the relaxed social mores of the ‘60s into Christianity, along with the desire to return to the ideal of the upper room where believers were at peace, of one mind, and of one accord. This generation desperately desired the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, so they sought to reproduce the conditions within the church when that fire first manifested.

Other groups and movements followed this same tendency in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s including those associated with the Charismatic Renewal, Christian Growth Ministries, People of Destiny/Sovereign Grace, the Vineyard, Maranatha, the Great Commission International and Aglow International, etc..

There were also similar aspirations within other established denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Roman Catholic Church, groups that shared this common ideal of peace and cooperation, seeking to fulfill the Great Commission of reaching the whole world for Jesus Christ. Society sought to heal the wounds of the past and the wounds of the nation at war, and the evangelical church responded by holding out different variations of the promise of peace and hope found in the Gospel. Many groups zealously believed that the whole world could be reached for Christ during this generation, and they labored to evangelize. Some groups accomplished their goals by reasonable means, and other groups fell into error by trying to establish a type of “First Century Church utopia.” There was also an intense focus on young people, perhaps fostered by the focus of evangelism on college campuses which Campus Crusade for Christ initiated in the early 1950s. Many of these groups seem to have emulated Bill Bright’s efforts to reach and minister to young people, but we also witnessed the emergence of Teen Challenge, popularized within the media through Dave Wilkerson’s book and Pat Boone’s staring role in “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Jesus Christ belonged to the Baby Boomers in a new and real way.

Another trait that many of these groups shared was a devotion to submission, a sharp contrast to the secular spirit of the day. Because of all of the rebellion in the secular culture, as we human beings so often do, some groups sought to become a type of polar opposite. If rebellion was bad, then submission to and honor of authority was good and the cure for society’s ills. It also sharply distinguished the church from the popular culture, a driving ideal of the generation. Unfortunately, people became less discerning and began to rely upon the decision-making and opinions of others under the guise of wisdom, but many forfeited their own reasonable sense of responsibility and authority in the process. Some groups lost perspective in these teachings, but at the time, the cure did not seem worse than the disease at the time. Veinot and Henzel offer this rationale concerning Bill Gothard who is a classic example of one who taught the virtues of submission to authority:
When your home is on fire, you don’t ask the fireman what denomination he belongs to. And during the ’60s and ’70s, many Americans thought their home was on fire, and it was their children who were burning. So maybe that’s why so many parents and pastors did not get overly critical about, or exercise a great deal of discernment with respect to the actual content of Gothard’s seminars. They seemed satisfied knowing that he professed to be an evangelical Christian, and that he had the confidence and even endorsement of Christian leaders whom they knew. Besides: what they did hear sounded good Obey the authority-figures that God has ordained Follow Biblical principles in making every decision Why should they worry about Gothard when the Timothy Learys and Abbie Hoffmans of the world were advising their kids to drop-out, tune-out, get high and enjoy “free love?”  (Gothard's Evangelical Talmud Part I pdf download)

Though they vary among the different groups that embraced the ideal, submission doctrine can be summarized by a set of core beliefs that start off with sound assumptions but progress into a policy of submission at all costs:

1. Authority structures are given by God for the benefit of all people, including those with authority and those under authority. Social groups generally operate with some type of structure, and there is usually some type of chain of authority or hierarchy within every social group. The Christian should respect and submit to these authorities, observing the chain of command within systems and social structures. Orderly submission and respect of authority glorifies God.

2. The Word of God teaches that we should submit to our delegated authorities so that the Lord might be glorified in a way that shines forth with the love of God. Good works glorify God and minister to others. God manifests virtue through our submission, and it builds character in us. Unjust behavior on the part of an authority figure does not give the Christian liberty to disobey that authority. Self-control and patience reflect the character of Christ to those who observe the life of the believer, thus bringing glory to God and drawing the lost to Christ.

3. Christians have been called to submit to one another and to care for one another. Because the Book of Proverbs teaches in many places that there is safety and wisdom found in many counsel, encouraging the seeking of counsel from a mentor when making decisions. I’ve heard it said that every person should have a mentor, like Timothy had Paul, but each person who was maturing in the faith and not a brand new believer should also have someone that they help to mentor and disciple spiritually, like Paul discipled Timothy. Fathers quite naturally mentor their sons, but older men should take younger men “under their wing” when fathers were not available or not part of the church, particularly concerning matters within the church. This seems to be an encouragement of good stewardship.

Some of these groups EXTENDED these teachings beyond these Biblical basics, creating formulas that offer promises of success and good fortune through submission, thus making this virtue into another work of the law rather than a fruit of the Spirit that comes through the transformation of a person’s character. (Perhaps these groups were emulating Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” which provided a streamlined approach to “cold call” evangelism.) Many groups developed their own logic and now teach that submission offers a type of mystical protection, and they also believed the reciprocal of this: that failure to submit (through a work of the law to avoid a curse) results in a loss of protection from harm, leaving one vulnerable and powerless against spiritual or physical attack. Bill Gothard openly promotes this teaching as the “umbrella of protection” teaching, and many of the groups that originated during this same era espouse some similar version of this “umbrella” exemplar which they communicated to their spiritual posterity. Many groups take this understanding to an extreme, and people who suffer under unjust authorities are taught to submit and suffer in silence. In some systems, any questioning authority of any type is forbidden and punished, as anything that is not unquestioned submission is interpreted as rebellion. (If someone is asked to go and water the lawn in the middle of a week of rain, in some groups, asking for a rationale or checking to make sure the authority knew that it was raining amounts to a challenge of authority rather than good stewardship or rational problem-solving. Questioning authority, either to honor that authority or to learn, would be noted as a lack of submissiveness and a type of rebellion.)

Submission also becomes a type of meritorious work under this mindset, a means of earning grace, allowing us to withstand greater levels of temptation and accomplish more good works with greater effectiveness. This teaching is supported by the idea that people have no personal rights and that we must be of no reputation, just as Christ was described in Philippians 2. We are to have the attitude and mind that was in Christ Jesus when he emptied Himself for His incarnation, something requiring that all personal rights be yielded, a process that merits grace that is needful for effective Christian living. For example, Bill Gothard defines grace not defined as “unmerited favor” wherein God is well disposed towards us, but he interprets grace as a type of power that is merited through humility. The more humility through unquestioned submission that one demonstrates, the more grace that one accumulates in one’s life by “growing in grace,” based on the Scriptures that teach that “God gives grace to the humble.” Submission then becomes a means to an end in some sense, a quest for accumulating grace which helps us facilitate our processes of sanctification through these meritorious works. Salvation and purity then become a type of works of the flesh.

Some groups squelch critical thinking and the development of discernment, because followers were taught that authorities should be responsible for decision-making, or that some decision-making should always be approved one’s personal mentor or, in some cases, the church leadership. Some groups delegate these responsibilities for individual group members to “middle managers” in the form of cell group leaders that fall within a well-developed church hierarchy. Submission doctrine infers the idea that authorities had a special knowledge granted by God that others do not have, a special wisdom granted only to authorities that normal people require to survive. Followers who are at the bottom of the hierarchy become dependent upon their spiritual authorities in order to survive and so that they can properly honor God. Some take this idea further by suggesting that one’s authority (or authorities) have greater wisdom and insight into an adult individual’s life and circumstances than the individuals possess themselves; therefore, decisions must be approved first and acted upon only with the blessing of the authority figure. Disobeying one of these authorities amounts to spiritual insubordination.

Another group explained submission along these same lines, declaring that Christian leaders within the church and within parachurch organizations actually lead the flock like Moses and Joshua. (Somehow, they missed Chapter 23 in the Book of Matthew, or did not see that it applied to them as a usurping the seat of Moses which Jesus denounced.) Those who disobeyed the directives of their spiritual leadership rejected God’s very own directives, just as if the Church were still under the Old Covenant rule of Moses. If a leader’s decisions did not make sense and were actually not Christian in nature, the follower under authority had no recourse but to submit. Groups actually punished the follower’s failure to submit through well-developed systems of negative reinforcement, as they rewarded model behavior with positive reinforcement. This control under the direction of church leaders often extended into deeply personal and private areas of their follower’s lives.

Rick Branch quotes the teachings of another submission-focused group:
"Let us begin our discussion of submission by talking about what it is not. (1) Submission is not agreeing. When one agrees with the decision that he is called to submit to, he does not really have to submit in any way. By definition, submission is doing something one has been asked to do that he would not do if he had his own way. (2) Submission is not just outward obedience. It includes that, but also involves obedience from the heart. It is a wholehearted giving-up of one's own desires. (3) Submission is not conditional. We submit to authority, not because the one in authority deserves it, but because the authority comes from God; therefore, we are in reality submitting to God."
So what started out as a greater good with a virtuous end that followed Biblical language and principle became a trap for many of these groups that allowed idealistic ends to justify the means they pursued to achieve their desired goals. But it is interesting to note how pervasive the zeitgeist of the day proved to be, for it saturated nearly all evangelical Christianity with the desire to
  • distinguish their faith as somewhat unique from to the work of God within previous eras within the Church
  • realize the unity demonstrated by the Church as described in the Book of Acts
  • reach the whole world for Christ within just one generation
  • take dominion over the earth to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus
  • promote the virtue of submission to distinguish the church from the secular culture.
I believe that 40 years later, we are coming to terms with the fruit of these zealous efforts and often misdirected foci that the previous generation developed as our legacy. Unfortunately, the previous generation often failed to recognize the skewed nature of some of their ideals, leaving the inconsistencies for *our generation* to reconcile (*whatever generations have followed the after the era of the first wave of Baby Boomers who came of age in the mid-sixties).