The Pressure to Conform in American Religion: Individual Autonomy, Institutional Fallibility, and Christian Identity

Sometimes, I just don’t understand American Catholics.  It is clear that many of them care deeply about their church, but it is also clear that many of them are determined to shape it to suit their own tastes.  They demonstrate this desire by consistently disregarding the Church’s teachings on controversial topics, but sometimes they also do so by publicly repudiating those teachings.

I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised.  All of us struggle to live up to the demands of our faith.  The deeply contextual nature of our existence—to say nothing of our psychological neediness and frailty—often sends us in search of practices that feel more appropriate to our specific situation.

Moreover, there are other forces at work besides the frailty of the human mind. For a society that claims to value freedom as much as we do, Americans put a lot of pressure on the “weird” ones among us to get in line with what everyone else is thinking, feeling, and doing.  Mormons and Muslims have experienced explicit pressure to conform to American social norms, but even Protestants feel the tug-of-war between their culture and their convictions.  There is a little more give in Protestantism than there is (or at least should be) in Catholicism precisely because of how the Protestant tribe of Christianity came into being, but, even so, American Protestants often run aground upon the immovable rock of sola scriptura.

As Protestants, we work our way around such shipwrecks in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, we just create new denominations based on our new convictions.  Sometimes, we send dissenters into the academy, thinking that they can do less harm to the church there than if they were in the practicing clergy.  Sometimes, we take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, especially with our lay people.  Too often, we just do what we have to do in order to keep people coming in the doors without compromising what we think are essentials.

I am not sure that any of these coping mechanisms really work.  I think that they inculcate in ourselves and in the people we lead the idea that the individual is autonomous over her or his own theological convictions and moral life.  Moreover, I think that we too easily lose sight of the radical, inconvenient nature of the gospel.  It has been a persistent theme of this blog that Jesus calls us to divest all of ourselves for the sake of his call, and one corollary to that theme might well be that our faith is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Look, I get it.  The so-called “authorities” on matters of faith are not always right.  I know that because I am one of those supposed authorities, and I discover every day how my teaching—and, more importantly, my life—do not match up with what the Bible teaches.  For that reason, Protestants in general and Baptists in particular have thrown their lot in with the individual, trusting the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to speak.  There are issues about which I disagree with the “authorities” of my own denomination, and I want to have the freedom to teach and to live as I see fit.

Still, I see how the church’s witness is harmed by the disunity among its supposed experts and the lack of commitment among its laity.  We cannot stand together in any meaningful way because we are too busy tearing one another apart about really important matters of faith and life.  African-American Christians criticize white Christians for not being sensitive enough to their concerns about racial inequality, while some white Christians criticize African-American activists for promoting an ideology of blame and ignoring the much good work police and other government officials do on their behalf.  Egalitarians criticize complementarians for subjugating women in an antiquated and unbiblical quest for ecclesiastical control, while complementarians criticize egalitarians for subordinating the clear teachings of the Bible to the selfish and unbiblical concerns of modern feminism.  And while we in the intelligentsia are drawing battle lines, people in the pews are living their lives however they choose.

What does this mean to a watching world?  Two things come to mind.   First, it means that many (both inside and outside the church) will define Christianity in whatever way suits their personal or political agenda.  Obviously, this makes the task of shepherding people within the church much harder, but it also makes it clearer to articulate a clear presentation of what it means to be a Christian to outsiders.  Second, some will define Christianity in terms of the loudest, and most obnoxious, voices.  Without doubt, this makes the task of defending the faith much harder.

And that is why I am rambling on about this.  Ultimately, I do not see this as an issue of authority.  I see it as an issue of identity.  The most thorough and pernicious corruption of the gospel by American culture isn’t the infiltration of rock and roll into our worship.  It isn’t the retreat from a biblical view of creation or the rejection of biblical authority altogether.  It isn’t even the destructive and degrading sexual ethic that has come to dominate many churches.  It is the belief that I can have it my way when it comes to the gospel, that I get to define Christianity on my own terms.

It is precisely this idea (along with the mistrust of traditional sources of authority like the Bible) that prevents church leaders from speaking authoritatively in Christ’s name and prevents laity from hearing “the Word of the Lord.”  And we desperately need to hear “the Word of the Lord” as a nation.  We need its conviction.  We need its correction.  We need its comfort.  But we will not get any of these until we lay down our claims to autonomy and surrender ourselves totally to the truth of the gospel.

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Published: Oct 24, 2017


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