The Myth of “Institutional Authority”

Thirty years ago this summer I was finally finishing my dissertation. I had been working for several years considering a little examined phenomenon: the attending non-member.

At the time, most of the research in the sociology of religion was conducted 1) by examining denominational differences present in national surveys or 2) by sampling the official membership lists of a local congregation. I was interested in examining those who regularly attend church (at least once on month), had done so for a substantial period of time (at least six months), and yet who were not members. My hypothesis was that people would feel significant pressure to join or leave, so their transitional status would be worth examining.

Along the way, I struggled with two critical questions that have remained with me for three decades:

Which was more significant to the life of faith, attendance or membership? Several pastors, when asked if they’d participate in my project, wanted to know if I could tell them about people who were on the books but never came. As my post about the Pew Religion Data illustrated, I settled on attendance as being critical.

Why do people feel compelled to abide by organizational expectations? Part of my argument was that attending nonmembers would feel somehow unable to meet the expectations placed upon them and would find a way to negotiate their continuation. But why should they feel compelled at all? What does it mean for a church as a voluntary organization to attempt to maintain uniformity within its membership?

It’s not like the protestant churches I was studying were going to excommunicate those who didn’t fit in. Those folks would leave and find a church where they would feel comfortable. It would be difficult to break ties, especially if friends and family are involved, but it wasn’t impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the second question since the weekend. When Ireland’s voters overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage, the media and commentariate responded with concern about “the authority of the Catholic Church”. This was suggested in spite of the fact that Ireland remains one of the most Catholic countries on the planet (with attendance patterns to prove it).

A series of articles in Religion News Service illustrates how this argument requires much more nuance. Art Farnsley couches the “lessened power” of the Catholic Church as an example of a particular form of secularization, where the individualism predominant within modernity makes religious institutions more peripheral. Kim Hjelmgaard (in a reprint from USA Today) discusses the vote as a shift in relations between the church and the society. He quotes the Irish archbishop saying that the Catholic Church “needs a reality check”. Father Paul Morrissey (in another USA Today reprint) argued that Ireland made this historic vote because of “their faith in God, which is bigger and deeper than the Catholic Church.” Mark Silk goes farther, arguing that elements of Catholic identity actually set the stage for the vote:

Catholicism, understood as a religious culture rather than as a set of official doctrines, is far more amenable to same-sex marriage than is generally thought. Unlike Protestantism, it never valorized the nuclear family as the church in miniature. Catholics have, by contrast, exercised their analogical imaginations in understanding nuns as married to Jesus and bishops to their dioceses.

When I work through all of these articles, I realize that our previous assumptions about the power of the Catholic Church to guarantee compliance have been wildly overstated. Even in Monty Python’s classic “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” skit, nobody was really afraid of the church’s power. Vatican II and other Councils were really about support of faithful individuals over against the dominance of an institutional church. Look at birth control practices among American Catholics to get a sense of how people can be Catholic and exercise individual discretion. It’s no surprise that the percentage of American Catholics who report being in favor of same-sex marriage is 60%; roughly the level of the yes vote in Ireland.

Another illustration of institutional power is seen in recent reactions to a situation at The Village Church, where Matt Chandler is the pastor. You can read more in these posts by Ed Cyzewski, Matthew Paul Turner, and John Pavlovitz. The short version is that the church leadership refused to annul a marriage in which the husband was regularly viewing child pornography. The wife, understandably, was looking for a way to get out of the broken relationship. But the church holds a very high view of institutional authority, relying on “covenant agreements” that feel more like ironclad contracts that protect their views of church and family.

I’m sure I could find people who will defend Chandler and TVC. There are some in the Acts 29 network who see this strong power approach to leadership as being institutionally sound. But the visceral reaction to a situation where the church requires a woman to stay with her husband in order to maintain the institution illustrates what happens with the institutional authority myth is shown to be the fiction that it is.

One of the lasting concepts in my sociological theory class this year was Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. The students regularly returned to this idea throughout the semester. Mechanical solidarity is a form of social organization based on sameness and control of any deviation from expected values. It operates on what Durkheim labeled repressive law. Organic solidarity finds it basis for organization in diversity and interdependence. It’s why he cared about the Division on Labor; if we are interdependent we must find ways of keeping relationships vital. It operates on restitutive law: where the purpose is to restore broken ties.

Last week, Fox debuted their new drama Wayward Pines. I won’t give too much plot away, but it’s enough to say Wayward Pinesthat this is an Idaho town with some strange goings-on. The hero, a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon, has come to find out what happened to two colleagues. Everyone in the town is very much aware of a set of rules by which they must live. Violation of these rules is not only not tolerated, but will result in the dramatic intervention of the local sheriff (played by Terrance Howard, pictured at right looking like a good old boy eating his ever present ice cream cone).

We watch shows like Wayward Pines to root for the Matt Dillon character. We want him to solve the mystery, outwit the power structures, and find a life of freedom with his wife and son. We fear a society where mysterious powers are at work (which is why folks are sure Obama caused Texas flooding to ease the move to martial law).

So it’s curious that in the religious realm we want to celebrate strong institutions that are supposed to control an individual’s every behavior. It’s not just that such images of institutional authority run counter to modernist sensibilities. It’s that somehow we know intuitively that this is not how spirit-filled Christians are supposed to live.

The disciples were certainly a rag-tag bunch who weren’t good at conformity. Yet, when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, Jesus tells him “upon this rock I will build my church”. There is no reference to Peter whipping everyone into shape to protect the witness of the church. Affirmation seems to be the key not conformity to covenant agreements.

Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hell will not prevail against such a church. I don’t think there were asterisks in that verse exempting Christians who ask tough questions. I don’t think Jesus said “the gates of Hell won’t prevail but if Ireland approves same-sex marriage all bets are off”.

Maybe if Christians relied more on trusting the Holy Spirit and being the Body of Christ, we wouldn’t need to make claims of institutional authority and the church would be the prophetic voice is was called to be.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of “Institutional Authority”

  1. I’ve been thinking of related issues lately, inspired by Hirshman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Most institutions value some sort of loyalty, however they might conceive it. Their perception of their own power vis-a-vis competing options (sometimes other institutions, sometimes simply nothing), influence the extent to which they allow constituents to have voice and how that voice might be expressed, as well as the occasions in which exit is possible and how it can be exercised.

    As long as an institution has a clear identity, it will place limits on voice and allow exit. When clarity of identity becomes pathological (through fear and insecurity?), it will likely clamp down on voice, leaving exit as the most attractive option.

    You know more about all this than I do. Do you think I’m anywhere close to the right direction?

    1. Richard: I don’t know the source, but I generally think this is the right track. I’m reading Church Refugees by sociologist Josh Packard, about people who were active in church but are now DONE. I think the denial of authentic voice in the face of institutional expectation/pattern is one of the driving factors. It will be the topic of my next blog post once I’ve finished Josh’s book.

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