Every once in a while, I will hear someone who is otherwise accurately describing the current plight of the church suggest the problem is that we’ve “replaced Jesus with the Bible” or that we’ve emphasized biblical authority to the point that we’ve tipped over into authoritarianism.
Is Jesus too much eclipsed in evangelical America? Undoubtedly. Do we see authoritarians—from strongmen dictators to exploitative pastors—doing cataclysmic damage? Yes. Does this happen because we know and revere the Bible too much? No, not one bit.
Some would have us oppose authoritarianism with suspicion of authority itself. In the end, they would tell us, everything is just about power and domination, so our choice is, essentially, to whom we will yield power or over whom we will exercise it. But authoritarianism is not an intensification of authority any more than polyamory is an intensification of love or polytheism is an intensification of God. These are altogether different things.
As the sociologist Robert Nisbet demonstrated in the last century, authoritarians of all sorts thrive on an absence of legitimate authority. In so doing, they replace authority—which is grounded in persuasion and allegiance—with power—which Nisbet defined as rooted in coercion.
The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as one who startled the crowds because he was teaching “as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22). This is the sort of authority that, yes, could dispel unclean spirits and calm storms, but it was also an authority that spoke to human hearts, saying, Come and see and Come follow me.
If the Bible is the Word of God breathed out by the Holy Spirit, as we believe it to be, then that Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (1 Pet. 1:11). When we hear the Bible, we hear Jesus. This is how the Good Shepherd leads his sheep: We follow his voice (John 10:3, 14, 27).
When we do not heed that voice, we start listening for other voices, for calls to other pastures. Sometimes these other voices are happy to let us think their voices are that of our Lord. Sometimes they are glad for us to believe that their voices are those of our own independent thinking. In either case, that path leads to tears.
We see the Bible used by many different people today, including would-be authoritarians. Sometimes the Bible is used to make a tradition’s theological interpretation unquestionable; other times it’s used to render a guru’s practical life-tips unquestionable; and sometimes it’s leveraged to make loyalty due to a leader or an ideology unquestionable.
The antidote to this, though, is what it has always been: consciences that know the Word of God well enough that, like Jesus in the wilderness, they can recognize when it is being twisted into something else.
An evangelical emphasis on biblical authority rooted in the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura is easily caricatured. But sola Scriptura was never intended to mean that the Bible is the only authority, rather that the Word of God is the only authority that cannot be judged or usurped by some other authority.
As long as there is a Word from God, no human being or institution can claim to be unquestionable. That’s not because there’s nothing knowable out there, but because there is one true God—and he has spoken.
Today, we have more Bible resources than ever. We have more people who know how to argue from abstractions drawn from Scripture for whatever point of controversy they want to use to devastate their opponents.
What we don’t have is a church made up of people who deeply know the contents of Scripture—who know the story well enough to recognize a Bethel or a Meribah or an Egypt or a Babylon when they find themselves there.
How do we ensure that our children know how to resist those who falsely claim the authority of Christ? We familiarize them with the voice of the real one (Mark 13:14–23). In an era that can’t tell authority from authoritarianism, our most important contribution is to conserve the kind of church that can say, “Thus saith the Lord”—a church for whom that really means something.
Russell Moore is editor in chief of CT.
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