Arguing with authoritarians can be hazardous to your health

Mr. Knowles, former managing editor of The Plain Truth, published by the Worldwide Church of God, makes his living as a writer.

By Brian Knowles

MONROVIA, Calif.--I had a friend who often referred to what he called one-man arguments about nonissues. Another friend liked to echo the cliche about a man who is convinced against his will and is therefore of the same opinion still.

Lao Tzu, a sixth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher, commented about arguers: "A good man does not argue; he who argues is not a good man." There's at least some truth in all of those statements--and some error.

If a person is willing to argue for a given position, it must at least be an issue to him. The person with whom he argues may see it as a nonissue and therefore avoid discussion of it. That reduces it to a one-man argument, which is the conversational equivalent of one hand clapping.

That a man is convinced against his will doesn't mean he is right.

Nor does it mean he is wrong. It simply means that no amount of argument will persuade him to move off the dime.

We all know of people who were wrong about something but refused to change their opinion for reasons of pride or stubbornness.

If a good man doesn't argue, then we must conclude that Peter and Paul were not good men, for they argued with each other.

Yet chronically contentious people are a pain in the rear. Indeed Galatians 5:19-20 includes "dissensions" as one of the works of the flesh.

As is the case with other pastimes, there is an appropriate time to argue and a time to shut up.

The politics of arguing

The process of arguing within the culture of the Churches of God is freighted with an unusual kind of authoritarian politics. As a typical argument progresses, the issue seldom remains the issue; it becomes who has the right to have and to express an opinion.

A person's correctness or incorrectness in an argument is often perceived to relate to his position in the church hierarchy--or his former position.

An evangelist (or former evangelist) is perceived to be more likely correct than is a pastor or a preaching elder, and a preaching elder's opinion carries more weight than that of a local elder.

I can even remember employees refusing to follow orders from low-ranking ministers because the employees had been told that they were, though unordained, the "equivalent" of an evangelist.

In this kind of arguing, the content of the argument is lost in the shuffle of positional posturing.

In a male-dominated authoritarian church culture, a man's opinions are frequently perceived to be more valid than a woman's arguments. Yet how many wives do you know who believe that their husband's opinions are more often correct than their own?

In other words, in authoritarian cultures one's perceived correctness is based on position in a hierarchy rather than on facts, evidence and strength of reason.

All of this illustrates an intrinsic weakness of authoritarian cultures. In such environments true objectivity is all but impossible. All arguments carry authoritarian baggage. The facts or the logic cannot, in such circumstances, speak for themselves or prevail in their own right. In such circumstances arguments, no matter how well framed, carry weight only if authority sanctions them.

The old attitude ploy

Another factor that interferes with objectivity in authoritarian cultures is attitude. Those who argue against the sacred status quo are almost always viewed as being in a bad attitude. Otherwise, why would they argue against the position taken by those in authority?

A good attitude is defined as obedience, compliance and subservience. Ironically, the frustration of arguing with people who insist on authoritarian posturing and attitudinal judgment is often the very thing that gets the arguer into a bad attitude.

Once that happens, the discussion itself shifts focus to the person's attitude, and again the substance of the argument is lost in the inevitable maelstrom of posturing about attitude. (The same thing happens when husbands and wives argue. The content of the argument is often lost in the more emotional discussion about who's shouting or yelling.)

Authoritarian epistemology

Authoritarian cultures are designed to spike the process of arguing. Their epistemology--their theory of knowledge--is not based primarily on reason or sound evidence, but on external authority. One "knows" because the person or persons in authority say it is so.

For centuries this mentality kept Europe from progressing scientifically. If the magisterium of the Catholic Church had said the earth was flat, it was flat, no matter the evidence to the contrary. For arguing against that idea, Galileo almost paid with his life.

Adolf Hitler injected his ideological poison into the minds of Germans on authoritarian grounds. His Mein Kampf is full of illogical, specious, insupportable, even idiotic, notions, yet people came to believe them because he asserted them with unbending authority.

One such idiocy was that "mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace" (Mein Kampf, chapter 3). How's that for a devilish thought? Hitler convinced millions that it was true.

China's Chairman Mao wrote a Little Red Book that for years was China's Bible. It was full of communist drivel. Yet people had no choice but to read and believe it. Those who challenged it were viewed as subversives and punished accordingly.

Authoritarianism is weakening and sickening. It holds back progress. It spikes constructive discussion. It has no rightful place within the Churches of God (Matthew 20:25-28). Authoritarianism is a clear case of when we should not do as the Romans do.

Yet authoritarianism persists, and many love it. Those who do have been weakened to the point where they can't take responsibility for working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). They have to have someone tell them what to believe, what to do and where to go to do it.

When one of the spin-off Churches of God first formed, a man who joined himself to it was asked, "Well, what do you believe about such-and-such?"

He responded: "I don't know. They haven't told us what we believe on that yet."

This perfectly illustrates the point. Too many still check their brains at the door when they go to church services. They rely on someone in authority to tell them what they believe.

Unencouraging words

Contrary to what some may think, I am not here encouraging a spirit of contention. Rather, I am saying that anyone, at any level in the church, ought to be able at any time to challenge any given doctrine, position or status quo without fear of reprisals.

As long as the challenge is made "decently and in order," respecting whatever "dignities" are involved, there is no reason not to proceed.

If a doctrine is defensible, it will emerge intact. The issue is not who's mounting the argument or what are the implications of the argument if correct, but whether the argument is sound on its own merits.

Truth as turf

Truth is truth. It is what it is, and no one has exclusive rights to it. Each of us has the right to discover it, embrace it, live it and teach it. A protective hierarchy of ecclesiastical leaders has no right to dole it out piecemeal or suppress it for political reasons.

Truth should not be politicized. It is the heritage of all of us. If we follow truth wherever it leads, we can never end up in the wrong place.

At the same time, within an authoritarian environment, argument--even constructive argument--is largely an exercise in futility. So why bother with it? The only arguments that will be welcomed will be those that support the status quo.

As long as leaders of the Churches of God take an authoritarian approach to issues that concern the entire membership, the Body will continue to split. It can be no other way.

Why? Because there is no clearinghouse for processing dissenting opinions. There is no way of addressing alternative approaches to anything. It's a hierarchical our-way-or-the-highway situation, a closed shop. New and better understanding is required to run an impossible gauntlet.

Is there any solution to this impasse? Realistically, there probably is not. Hierarchies, like individuals, change only when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of changing. For a new approach to be adopted, a felt need will have to emerge.

To get a hearing for an argument, one would first have to suggest a benefit to hearing it. If there is no perceived benefit to accepting the argument, it will be rejected.

For example, consider the issue of tithing as it is commonly taught in the Churches of God.

The tithing dilemma

To suggest, as have many in these pages, that tithing is not biblically obligatory on Christians is, exegetically speaking, a valid argument.

Yet in certain circles the validity of it will not be considered, let alone accepted, simply because too much is at stake. Many church and organizational structures would unravel completely were it not for compulsory tithing. (Look what happened to the Ambassador Colleges when tithe moneys could no longer be used to subsidize them.)

Consequently, the tithing doctrine is endlessly reinforced, shored up and authoritatively preached, no matter what the Bible actually says and means on the subject.

Other arguments, if accepted as valid, have similar consequences. If someone stands to lose power, status or wealth by embracing the truth of a given argument, it is unlikely he will even consider it.

Put simply, if you want to understand why your argument will or will not be given a hearing, consider the consequences to the person you want to accept it. Where we stand on issues is usually determined by where we sit in relation to them. (Where you stand is where you sit.)

The problem with inspiration

Once a leader has been characterized by somebody (perhaps himself) as "inspired," he is in a bind. When the leader buys into the idea, he comes to view himself as infallible. Once infallible, he cannot make mistakes. If what he says, declares or pontificates is inspired and infallible, it can't be wrong.

If, in light of new circumstances or expediencies, he wishes to change his statement on an issue, he is faced with explaining how he can change an inspired truth.

If an inspired or infallible leader sets a doctrine on something, he'd better be sure it's defensible.

Truth disintegrated

For example, which day is the correct day on which to observe Pentecost: Monday or Sunday? Either one or the other, or perhaps neither, is correct. Both cannot be correct. If he is right about one, he is wrong about the other.

It is illegitimate to suggest that he was right in both cases. This idea disintegrates the concept of truth into gibberish. As Beckwith and Koukl explain: "If a thing cannot be distinguished from its opposite, then the distinction between the two is meaningless" (Relativism, by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Baker, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998, p. 30).

Of course, turning the Pentecost discussion into a Sunday-vs.-Monday issue limits the range of it.

Other questions could be asked. Can it be demonstrated from Scripture that non-Jews are required to observe Pentecost (Shavu'ot) at all? If not, could not its observance by the gentile church be optional? If it were optional, then any day the church chooses would suffice. It would become a matter of tradition rather than law.

Within the context of the Churches of God a third layer of discussion could be added to the discussion.

Who is Israel? If the citizens of the United States are really Israelites, then it should be clear they should be observing all of the applicable laws of Torah found in the Mosaic covenant.

Of course there are those who will argue that the Mosaic covenant is no longer in force, even for Jews.

Do you see how byzantine this discussion can become? One thing leads to another, and it is only one of a myriad of doctrines that could come under discussion.

Christians have been debating doctrinal issues since the founding of the church. They will probably be debating them the day Christ returns. To the degree that authoritarianism exists within the Body of Christ, these debates will be singularly unproductive. Truth will be defined politically, not objectively.

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