I recently came across the phrase “authoritarian church” on the blog of a Scottish clergyman, the Rev. David Robertson of Dundee. We libertarians often decry authoritarianism, so my eye was arrested. By happy co-incidence, both the city of Dundee and the name Robertson are strongly associated with marmalade, so I felt obliged to investigate further.
Mr. Robertson spoke of the General Assembly of the Church becoming “the Magisterium - a court which may use the Bible but which in reality tells the rest of us what God says,” and continued “This is a recipe for an authoritarian church that limits the freedom of the believer to follow the Word of God, which IS synonymous with the Bible.” His point is that if a church is not committed to believing what the Bible says, then the final authority in that church will not be the Bible, but the leadership of that church, and that the beliefs and pronouncements of that leadership will become effectively the word of God for members of that church.
Mr. Robertson’s use of the word “authoritarian” is interesting. He clearly sees authoritarianism as something that limits freedom, and in particular he sees authoritarianism in the church as a situation in which the leadership of the church limits the freedom of the individual member. In all this, libertarians would agree. Furthermore, for Mr. Robertson, freedom is freedom to do what the Bible tells them to do. And libertarians would strongly agree that the state should permit such religious freedom.
The interesting thing about this is that Mr. Robertson appears to assume that a church that does believe what the Bible says is less likely to become authoritarian than one that does not. Many would say “But surely if the church believes what the Bible says, the church would expect that individual believers will do what the Bible says. Would that not be authoritarian?” And the answer to this is that it depends on one’s view of the Bible. For some people, doing what the Bible says is effectively slavery. But for Christians, there is a long tradition of believing that doing what the Bible says is freedom - it is a way of life that leads to freedom.
To put it another way, the word gives freedom: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it - he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25)
Does the written word give freedom? And here, in the sphere of politics, would say yes. We believe in the rule of law, and in having a written constitution. Authoritarianism, by contrast, is characterised by the rule of leaders who are not constrained by laws or constitution. For libertarians, a written code is a good thing (provided that it says the right things) and the absence of written codes is positively dangerous. We hold that written codes that are firmly held to are necessary to protect freedom, because they restrict the power of rulers to use their power in arbitrary ways. (Which is why, in America, Ron Paul, is such a strong champion of the Constitution.)
If this is true in the sphere of politics, could it be true in the spiritual sphere as well - i.e. that Mr. Robertson is right in thinking that churches which do not hold strongly to a written code (such as the Bible) are likely, in the end, to become authoritarian?