The title quote comes from an event early in my career. It was an all-school event celebrating the start of school that was supposed to set a vision for the academic year to come. I don’t know what else the president talked about during that address. All I heard was that one line.
It’s hard to believe, I know, but I was less than compliant as a young professor. Naturally, I took the “rock the boat” line personally. There were certainly others who heard the line as I did and thought the president was talking about them. Still others were absolutely certain that he was talking about me and my friends.
I’ve been reflecting on that line the last few days in light of events in the news. Whether it is John MacArthur’s sermon at The Master’s University and Seminary recently covered in The Chronicle, the horrific Fort Worth Star-Telegram story of sexual abuse and coverup in Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches, or the CBS Religion’s “Deconstructing My Faith” story on #exvangelicals, there is a pattern here about the organizational dynamics of conservative religious institutions.
The Chronicle story appeared the end of November. Audio of a September sermon had become available that was addressing the action taken by WASCUC, the regional accrediting body following a March regular review by a visiting team. When I served as an evaluator for WASC, I saw the care they went to in forming the visiting teams. I went almost exclusively to other faith-based institutions. That was also the case with TMUS’ March review — the five member team has three members from faith based institutions and the principal author (who is a friend of mine) has dedicated her career to institutional quality in Christian institutions.
In spite of this, MacArthur blamed secular forces and even Satan for the accreditation situation (in spite of the fact that TMUS was out of compliance on two key eligibility requirements — an independent board and a full time CFO). Much of the challenge came as a result of the significant overlap between the church MacArthur serves, the institution, and its governing structure. As I’ve written before, Christian universities aren’t churches and the more they confuse the two the more the latter takes precedence.
The Chronicle summary of the sermon ends with these warnings MacArthur gave to the community:
“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” he said. “You didn’t have any right to find out about anything. That’s not your responsibility.”
In his remarks he referred to a Bible passage from the Book of Proverbs.
“There are things that God hates, right?” MacArthur said. “One of them is the one who stirs up strife,” he said, urging students to keep their complaints within the university and seminary.
“Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Don’t stir up strife. You don’t know the whole story.”
This combination of authoritarian leadership and dismissal of dissent is also at the heart of the sexual abuse stories arising out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The story is similar to what we’ve seen for years in the Roman Catholic Church — stories of abuse not being believed, perpetrators being transferred to new locations without disclosure, and placing the priority on the church’s mission and reputation. That the story opens with a review of the abuses by one of the key families in the movement only adds to the horror. This wasn’t some isolated pastor somewhere in a remote location. Key figures in the movement were engaged in abuse or involved in minimizing the impact.
When abuse was acknowledged, it was expected to stay in the church under the authority of the leadership.
“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”
The insularity of a “we know best” philosophy becomes an impossible situation for those who have been victimized. It provides no place for them to remain within the fellowship in good faith. Either they will be seen as suspect or they have to live with a cognitive compartmentalization that is harmful to a healthy Christian life.
The subjects of the CBS program on #exvangelicals showed some of the same patterns. The churches they were part of provided little space for their questions or concerns. At first marginalized, they eventually leave the evangelical church because the pain of staying is too great. Even though they have left for their own well-being, they seem still to be processing considerable harm dealt them by the very group that was central to their upbringing.
When I was at the Evolving Faith conference in October, I heard testimony from speakers and attendees about the levels of pain they had experienced within what was supposed to be “the Family of God.” That sense of lingering pain and betrayal is worth serious examination if we are to understand faith in contemporary America. Maybe my next book.
What happens to those who might “find themselves on the rocks?” We see those implicit threats as real. We recognize that remaining in that environment will bring pain. Of course, so will leaving. By leaving at least we find ourselves able to manage our own situation.
When the voices of dissent are silenced, whether through threat or departure, the institution itself suffers. It becomes less able to deal with the critical issues confronting it. It can choose to continue as it has for decades, assuming that by holding to the prior visions of authority and mission it is being successful. In reality, if finds people less interested in volunteering to be a part of such an environment.
Avoiding the rocks requires leaders to acknowledge that the rocks actually exist. Those who “rock the boat” aren’t just playing around. They are acknowledging the boulders in the stream and trying to find the path through the rapids.