#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Yesterday we explored this idea:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Today I want to briefly explore one of the most treasured (and misused!) elements of our ecclesiology: Congregational Autonomy.

For brevity, allow me to simply caricature what happens in our tradition when it comes to congregational autonomy.

First the elements of congregational autonomy that we celebrate...

  • Each congregation is run by its own elders. An eldership cannot exercise authority over other congregations or the members of those congregations.
  • Each congregation is enabled to make its own decisions about its life and doctrine without needing the pre-approval of some larger governing body.

Now, the more functional and dangerous components of this idea...

  • Lacking the authority structure to impose theological conformity, Churches of Christ result to social pressure, rhetoric, and a string of publications and outlets aligned with others of a similar orientation and practice.
  • Potentially embarrassing events (such as sexual abuse) can be addressed at the local level with nothing else done because it's not our problem and/or we don't have any authority or "right" to say something.
  • Autonomy typically means functional isolation, as if each church lives within a vacuum, although in dialogue with other equally self-contained congregations. This means that churches who do have resources to deal with things like sex abuse prevention are isolated from churches that need the same help.

In Churches of Christ, our "autonomy" has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity.

In the last week since posting the introductory post in this series I have been contacted by four individuals who have stories of abuse being covered up (some in the distant past, and some in the last month!) and the perpetrator being asked to no longer attend that congregation, but to attend at a different Church of Christ! What the hell?!?!

Remember this excerpt from the outstanding article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Congregational autonomy as it currently functions in Churches of Christ is at the very least problematic, and increases the risk that sexual predators are able to move within our tradition with impunity. It's time for the sake of our children and our witness in the world to think about how our functional isolation endangers the most precious and vulnerable members of our church family. 

Increased cooperation, communication, and commitment to protecting our children is the only faithful way forward.