Evangelicals, Anglicanism and Authoritarian Abuse

I was raised an evangelical. I became an Anglican (yet, I retain my evangelical identity). This, for one fundamental reason: authority. I realized that evangelicals need one feature in their practice that is often missing: authority.

Evangelicals, undoubtedly, have one authority and that is the Bible. But as with so many realities in Scripture, authority is portrayed incarnationally through embodied, flesh and blood peoples and structures. Just think of the covenantal representatives of the Old and New Testaments; the role of the Father and Mother in the Home; the role temples/tabernacles/the ark of the covenant have in re-presenting the Garden of Eden and pointing us to the Temple in Heaven where God resides and so many other embodied sacramental realities that serve as types of redemption. This is where Anglicanism’s strength shines. Not only is Anglicanism’s authority represented in the 39 Articles, the Book of Homilies, and, possibly more important, the Book of Common Prayer (all serving as interpretive authorities), but through the sacramental authority of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops all attested to in the Early Church (see Ignatius early on) and normative in much of Church history. Here we find an ‘incarnational’ or ‘sacramental’ authority signaled in the Bible that transcends much of evangelicalism’s propositional authorities, however important those are.

Here’s the problem: authority often assumes the form, or mal-form, of what is often called authoritarianism.

What I realized as an evangelical: We need authority.

What we don’t need—authoritarianism.

What’s the difference?

I am reminded of the important illustration in the Karate Kid, remember that? “Kreese: [about Daniel’s injured leg] Sweep the leg. [Johnny stares at him in shock] Kreese: Do you have a problem with that? Johnny: No, Sensei. Kreese: No mercy.” This small, but powerful, scene illustrates one truth codified in authoritarianism: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Do as I say, not as I do.” These codify for us what we don’t need: a kind of “dominating authoritarianism,” as I call it. An authoritarianism that defies explanation or moral constraint.

If you’ve been listening to and reading some of the recent discussions about the nature of religious authority, then you’ve heard a couple of common messages. One is that traditional, male-led institutions commonly engender a kind of authoritarianism. The other is that non-denominational (i.e., commonly evangelical), particularly multi-site churches open themselves up to this kind of authoritarianism (or abuse as Michael Bird puts it). In fact, it’s not uncommon to associate this authoritarian stance with the paradigm example—Marc Driscoll. Michael Bird, in his recent, and thoughtful reflection on Driscoll makes just this point. The common implication being that Anglican ecclesial models helpfully guard against just these types of abuses.

And, while I would concur with most of what Bird has argued here, and elsewhere (particularly his emphasis on leadership that highlights ‘truth over tribe,’ ‘character over ability,’ and ‘honesty over loyalty’), it must be pointed out that Anglicanism certainly isn’t immune to ‘dominating authoritarianism.’

While I sympathize with Bird and other Anglicanized evangelicals in their sentiment that we need authority, I am also aware of the common tendency within hierarchical contexts to conflate authority with authoritarianism in practice—as many have experienced. What I got was more than authority (without revealing the position(s) and name(s) involved).

But, don’t hear me the wrong way. I am not advocating for one of the popular narratives given above. I would not endorse an egalitarian model of church governance nor would I disparage the ‘patriarchy’ as an ad-hoc and often corrupt system of old. Perish the thought. I recognize the great good of the patriarchy codified in the Bible and carried along in Church history that gave us the great heritage we have today. It is this authority structure, by Divine design and through the Spirit’s power, that has caused the Church to thrive in history.

No doubt, it has and can go wrong, and one doesn’t have to be a Roman Catholic to experience the abuse of ecclesial power. With that said, I also recognize the benefits of newer forms of organizational leadership that promote honesty, transparency, thoughtful interaction through dialogue, and ongoing testing. Egalitarian models do, it seems, promote these better than older models, but, again, don’t take that as an affirmation of egalitarianism.

Where do authorities mistake their authority? There are some common tell-tale signs that can and do occur in all ecclesiastical structures.

Signs of “dominating authoritarianism”:

1. Failure to receive answers on the nature of authority

The first sign of authoritarianism is that one’s authority is above definition, and this is precisely why one person is considered the highest authority above which there is no higher authority to adjudicate on matters of practice and discipline. But, this occurs not only in Roman contexts where all have seen abuses at the level of the papacy that has a trickle-down effect. It also occurs in non-denominational contexts that include narcissistic leaders running mega-churches (along with small and mid-size churches) and multi-site churches. But it occurs in Anglican contexts as well where there is no papal authority, but a college of Bishops that, theoretically, share the authority over governing parishes, priests, and deacons. What is unique in Anglicanism compared to other contexts is that, at the level of Bishops, there is no higher authority on practical and disciplinary matters. In some contexts, especially smaller Anglican sects, it is quite easy to conceive of authority figures filling in the gappy holes where explanations are lacking. It’s also easy to conceive of Bishop’s functioning, in some ways, as small-scale pope-like figures that wield their authority leaving the unsuspecting parishioner or minister without recourse or without explanation. No ecclesial structure, then, is immune to authoritarianism, the abuse of power. It is debatable that one ecclesial structure does a better job preventing said abuses, but none are really immune to them.

2. When asking questions but receiving ambiguous responses and suggestions that you should simply follow

This follows from the first common sign.

In my own context, I attempted to gain some clarity on the nature and practice of authority. Imagine that—evangelicals who long for order and authority in their life also desire clarity, explanation, and transparency. Instead, I often received deer in the headlight responses along with statements like: “Don’t be such a philosopher.”

Unfortunately, when you receive these kinds of answers, you can be sure of one thing—there’s something wrong. And, something or someone has to fill in the gap where there is a lack of clarity. The problem is that in these contexts there is a lack of careful articulation of order and organization. When there is a failure to articulate that order, then something has to fill the holes. This all too often, in many traditional contexts, is satisfied by the highest reigning authority.

3. Gossip that is excused for some other pet agenda of control

A related and common sign reflected in authoritarianism is political in nature. When gossip is used to serve the purposes of the authorities, and gossip becomes a mechanism for controlling actions and behaviors. There is another concern: in some cases, the authority selectively highlights one set of gossipers (or one tribe) over another. This often means that someone else is pulling the strings—whether it is money or those acting as the feudal lords of the particular parish.

4. Ghosting without clear explanation, honesty, or transparency

Ghosting appears to accompany gossip, and it is not hard to see why. Ghosting is the highest form of rejection because a person, or a group (in this case parishes led by priests and Bishops) will act as if the person, couple, or family simply does not exist by ignoring them. Ghosting is a manipulative strategy to force compliance, but it is rarely motivated by truthful intentions nor does it bear the fruit described in Scriptural portraits of spiritual growth.

5. Shaming through ignoring or some other means

Shaming is another mechanism that is often used by authority figures who lack the character or intention to point their hearers to truth and transformation. Instead of pastorally leading the individual(s) to spiritual restoration and transformation, the goal of authoritarians is different. The goal is compliance through control.

6. Applying Matthew 18 inconsistently, as it suits the authority’s agenda

All the signs listed thus far are common characteristics of an authoritarian that cares less about character, truth, and transformation of gospel-oriented individuals. These common signs characteristically come as a package. In the same way that authoritarian figures selectively choose which sins they will attend to or who they will give a listening ear, they will commonly reference Matthew 18 (the most obvious passage on discipline), but the problem is they will do so selectively—choosing to overlook the sins of some and scrutinize others.

7. Ridiculing one’s spiritual maturity and following up with discipline without isolating the wrong done.

Again, the selective application of Matthew 18 is a sign of authoritarianism, and ridicule of one’s spiritual maturity follows from a lack of clarity on the situation, a motivation that is contrary to gospel transformation or a mixture of both.

Discipline requires clear isolation of wrongs committed. Being able to say this agent did x, y, and z, which is the logical ground for punitive measure’s a, b, and c. Applying the principle of proportionality is important here as well. Giving some clear explanation as to why this behavior deserves this punishment is crucial to the appropriate application of Scripture and the disciplinary action given. Without giving that, what is one to make of the clarity of mind making the declarations? Where does this leave the person when he is met with ambiguous high-handed demands?

If you have been on the receiving end of this kind of authority, then you know full well the damage it can cause. I now understand what people mean when they say: “I need a break from the institution,” whereas before I might have been tempted to say or think: “that seems like a cheap excuse to not go to church.” And, it probably is in some cases.

To be sure, it is precisely the above reasons that have led many away from traditional hierarchical institutions. This I am convinced is a mistake. While I am reticent to argue that Anglicanism along with other hierarchical churches promotes a more fair and balanced ecclesial structure that avoids authoritarian excess, I am inclined to argue, positively, that the kind and nature of authority we desire as evangelicals is reflected more acutely in Anglicanism (or some similar ecclesiology), but, by no means, is it immune to excessive control or abuses of power.

Where does this leave us in the discussion on ecclesial authority? I think there is something instructive in what Sarah Coakley has argued in one of her volumes in systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self. In a short synopsis of her primary thesis where she argues that the social sciences should become the new ‘handmaiden’ to theology, she states: “Trinitarian orthodoxy flourishes more naturally at the boundaries of ‘established’ forms of Christianity than under its protective guardianship.” It is in that dynamic space within sacramental authority that appears to thrive. But all too often authority structures function as protective guardians, but it’s not clear that is their primary role or the space in which the Spirit functions most—in this way they may have misunderstood Matthew 16:18. One is conducive to dynamic growth and the other is an excessive authority that leads to what Sarah Coakley calls “the dead hand of ecclesiastical authoritarianism.” But for those who identify authoritarianism with traditional male-led hierarchical structures, this too would be an excess that fails to take seriously the good healthy structures that have bequeathed to us a dynamic and thriving Christianity. The growing trend among many intellectual evangelicals and evangelical Christians committed to biblical practice to higher church traditions, or at a minimum traditional and ancient practices, is suggestive of the fact that there is something life-giving in higher church traditions where there exists distinctive sacramental authority—or what we might just call, good ole’ religion.



Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris is Professor of Theology of Science at Missional University; Paluch Lecturer, 2019-2020; Mundelein Seminary Visiting Scholar, March 2020; Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.


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