Choice or coercion?

coercionIn a recent blog post, I looked at the issue of women who find themselves part of families where the dominant Christian teaching around them requires that they, in faith, bear large numbers of children. Some of these women might claim that they are willing participants in this extraordinary experience of family. Others might claim that they had no choice in the matter but that it was forced on them by husbands and church. Clearly there has to be a point along a continuum where free choice gives way to a submission to external pressure. Where exactly that point is will probably be unknown even to the woman concerned. But it is important that the question is asked. It is right also at least to acknowledge that pressure from others could well be a factor for decisions that we make about our actions as well as our beliefs. It would be worrying if the truth were always so ‘clear’ that at no point had doubts or queries been raised in us along the way. Decisions that are made without the experience of looking at all sides of the question would seem to be decisions that are shallow and probably reflect what is known legally as ‘undue influence’ by others.

One of the models I find helpful for my understanding of extreme conservative (toxic) Christianity, is to suggest that it is a perpetuation of the experience of the child who looks up to a parent to discover what are the answers to life’s issues. This may sound like a provocative statement but I cannot find any other way of accounting for the extraordinary way that some people believe that a problem can only be solved by consulting a text or an authoritative person The belief is that this text or other authority can be appealed to without any discussion, argument or appeal. To take the opposite point of view, I would claim that debate, discussion and the development of opinions about the world’s issues are all part of the world of true adult functioning. This is why we have disagreements in society and politics. The world would be infinitely poorer if everyone agreed with everyone else. Sometimes political systems have arisen, as in Nazi Germany and North Korea, where political and social uniformity is compulsory. Everyone is effectively ordered to think in a particular approved way and the penalties of failing to conform are severe. To judge by the readiness of the vast bulk of citizens in totalitarian regimes to think and act in a ‘correct’ way, it is obvious that fascism or dictatorship is able to tap into a universal psychological trait common to us all. My simple explanation is that the dictator or leader presents himself (normally a him) as a benevolent father who knows what is best for his children. Because a take-over by the extreme regime is normally preceded by a time of chaos and confusion, which has caused widespread fear and anxiety, the population are grateful for a ‘daddy’ appearing to sort everything out. I can remember, while growing up, the longing for a parent to come home and put something right in a way that only a grown-up person can do. Dictators are good at reactivating in people these kinds of longings.

The main feature of being an adult is the readiness and ability to make choices and decisions for oneself. We cannot and should not depend on another person to do this for us. The ability to make these choices involves our being ready to live with the consequences of such choices, sometimes for a long time. If we are to make such choices, then it is necessarily to look carefully both sides of the decision, looked at the pros and cons. The important decisions of life, like where we live, our choice of partner, are extremely critical for our happiness and well-being. We are not normally prepared to hand these over to another person or group, nor should we. The only time of life when it is appropriate to hand over decision making to another is when we are children. Hopefully all good parents allow their children to make increasingly complex choices as they get older as this is a rehearsal for the serious business of being grown up.

One question that has to be raised about our individual church experience is whether its culture allows the members to function as adults or children. Obviously there is going to be a continuum. At one end there will be a clustering of churches where the practice of infantilising all the members is the norm. In these churches the message of what to think, how to behave and what books to read will be stated authoritatively. Other churches will oscillate between treating their members as adults some of the time, while making them obey the instructions of the leaders in a parent-child model at other times. Yet other churches may succeed in treating their members as adults all of the time. These churches will probably not be the most popular, or even successful The task of making adult decisions all the time will deliver, not clarity and certainty, which people often crave, but ambiguity and lack of precision. Clearly being adult requires a tolerance for untidiness and uncertainty. Few of us who think for ourselves in religious matters have a tidy belief system.

To summarise this post it has to be said that being adult involves genuine choices. The task of making genuine decisions is hard, uncertain and possibly we can be simply wrong in these decisions. But even the possibility of being wrong or mistaken should not put us off the struggle to make such choices. The alternative, to have someone else making them for us, is dire. And yet this common pattern, whereby church members are allowed to opt out of decision making in important areas of life, seems to be a relatively common pattern across the world. The title of this post ‘choice or coercion’ sets out what seems to be happening in the places where people fear to take grown-up decisions. They often lapse into the kind of group or infantile thinking that is a feature of totalitarian regimes of both past and present. To have something think and decide for you is a form of coercion, even if it may be experienced as benevolent care. A father helping a child make decisions for life is one thing, but for a fully adult person to be told exactly what to believe and what the Bible says, is another. In too many churches we find an endemic coercion caused by leaders telling people what to think and believe. They are locked into immaturity and dependence. Such immaturity is hardly a feature of the kind of life that Jesus wanted us to have, life in all its abundance.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

15 thoughts on “Choice or coercion?

  1. When I first became an adult, I decided the Bible was the word of God, and I have lived my life accordingly. I read it for myself, and form my own view. (Note the lack of coercion from anybody). I think that part of the trouble may be that too many of us who believe it to be the Word of God fail to read and digest it as much as we might. Then we become dependent on other people’s interpretation, opening the door for some of the abuse you identify.

    1. Some of it is a bit obscure. How do you decide what it really means? Don’t you ask for advice? Don’t you go to church and listen to sermons? No Bible study with other like minded people?

      1. EnglishAthena, thanks. In order. Yes, I agree some of the Bible is obscure, thankfully. Makes it more interesting. As to what it means, I find the best way of understanding the phrase “Jesus said I am the Light of the world” is to understand that Jesus said I am the light of the world. I aim to take the text at face value. This point is made succinctly in John 21:23. I have also learned Hebrew and Greek to read it in the original tongue. Yes, I take advice. My preference is to consult books rather than people. I find it good to look in several commentaries rather than one, as then I can compare the views of scholars. I have heard thousands of sermons by now, and my main feeling is one of sadness, to be frank: too many preachers pass on what they have heard from other speakers rather than getting what they say direct from the Lord. They should reflect on Jeremiah 23:30. Preaching a sermon is an act of prophecy to my mind. I am not a member of a Bible study group at the moment for family reasons. Perhaps I should be.

        1. You may think I’m odd, David, but I’ve heard preachers say that when they preach they are speaking God’s word, and it chills me to the bone. How on earth can you be sure? No one individual can be sure that what they get from reading a passage is the bee’s knees. That is why we need other Christians, so we can bounce our thoughts around, and hear other opinions. Even though everyone has prayed sincerely, you can usually count on some differences! And since none of us is infallible, it may be us that’s mistaken this time. One way round the problem of not being able to go to a Bible study is to offer to host one. May not work for you, of course.

        2. Are we not forgetting the most important component – the Holy Spirit? Scripture states that the Holy Spirit teaches us all things we need to know.

  2. Many churches use the same Bible, and give page numbers instead of references. Many times I have had the experience of the powerful meeting together to discuss me, and deciding my fate without speaking to me. There are many ways of starting down this road.

  3. Thanks again Stephen for another helpful post. However, I do feel I tend to be the awkward squad, because even when I’m largely in tune, counter-examples always occur to me. I hope you appreciate this sign of independent thinking :). So, when you write:
    “To have some[one] think and decide for you is a form of coercion, even if it may be experienced as benevolent care.”
    I have to say I can’t agree this is *always* true. You have drawn the broad brush, leaving out factors that can make a difference, for example professional expertise. Now, we know that can be a slippery thing, but from architecture to healthcare and in many other fields, knowledge counts. When I employed people to add an extension to my home, I expected and needed them to think and decide for me on all except the few details where I was able to have a point of view, and it wasn’t coercion. Nor did I feel that I wasn’t an adult person because I wasn’t able to do it all for myself. Another example, when I had cancer, I made a conscious choice to trust my oncologist to advise me. There was no coercion involved. I did not feel that if I made my life miserable researching it as much as possible on the internet I would end up making better decisions than her. There are other times when I have been let down and even abused by health care workers and have taken matters more into my own hands, so I’m aware of the other side of the coin. The point I’m making is that it can be a perfectly valid and successful or even absolutely necessary option to let others make decisions.

    Now I think that these could be considered one way or another more “technical” issues which are more suited to taking the advice of experts, providing you pick someone who is in fact honest and competent. You might say that the kind of things you’re talking about religiously, theologically, making of personal life decisions, are matters that really are essential for individuals to deal with for themselves. That’s probably mainly true, but I’d be interested if you had any thoughts on teasing out where the differences really lie – what makes it ok in one situation to rely on another person’s opinion, knowledge or decision, but not ok in another situation? I think this goes quite close to the heart of what you’re talking about here. It might also be interesting if there’s time to think a little more historically and cross-culturally as well. For example, you say:
    “The important decisions of life, like where we live, our choice of partner, are extremely critical for our happiness and well-being. We are not normally prepared to hand these over to another person or group, nor should we.”
    Well until very recently and still in many cultures, it was/is considered absolutely right, indeed necessary, for parents to choose their children’s spouses. It was immoral for young people to think of not doing as they were told. So much has changed. But I don’t think we can say that in those other eras and cultures, there were no people who were “adult”, just that the way that people grew into the scope of their lives was different, and generally speaking, everyone probably had less latitude in relation to tradition and social norms, men were granted much more scope than women, while rich and powerful people made far more decisions than poor and dependent people. The latter is still true. And this is the problem in the wrong sort of churches isn’t it, that powerful leaders make too many decisions for little people rather than empowering them to grow into their own choices, and this maintains the status quo rather than turning the world upside down.

    1. I have been away until tonight so I cannot answer all the points you make. The problem as I see it about saying anything is that there are always exceptions to any statement. I think over the last point over allowing to choose a partner that it would be right to say that this is a culturally different manifestation of adulthood. Whether right or wrong in practice it is not a path that we would ever seek to introduce in the West even twice as many people remained married. I will try and answer some of your other points in a future post. This is how I think up new topics by responding to old posts.
      Incidentally in the Church Times that was waiting for me on my return there is a big piece of sexual abuse by the Anglican clergy and a report of the work of MACAS, a survivors support group. One point that is made is how inadequate the response to abuse has been in the past by the hiearchy of the church.

  4. David, I note ‘You’ decided that the Bible was the ‘Word of God’? This insistence has led to tremendous confusion and suffering.

    One of its fatal blows has been the destruction of a simple faith in Christ and his teaching.

    The (what some regard as) the dotty old lady, and those that simply follow the Jesus of their Sunday school days, have been totally betrayed by certain ministers who insist that their reading of the “Word of God” is the correct one. In my case the God of the Old Testament disfigured my faith and led to a personality disorder that was ugly and bent out of shape by the pliers of a religious society that I thought to be approved by God. When we talk about “ The Word of God” we need to take a ruthlessly honest view of what it actually says for example:
    Deuteronomy 20: 17 has to be read in light of 1 Corinthians 13:12.

    “We see through a glass darkly, we know in part”

    If, “God is love,” then whatever does not correspond to that love has to be wrong. Jesus said, “By your love will all men know that you are my disciples “ not by your knowledge of scripture. And I would add that the love of God cannot be something less than human love. If we are truly ‘Human’ then we do not kill children!

    Peace, Chris

    1. I have to be totally honest and say that I agree with you Chris, and I don’t regard everything in the bible as “the word of God” in any absolute sense. As far as I’m concerned, the true Word of God is Jesus Christ, which of course does raise many questions about how we know him. Your answer is the best way of putting it in a nutshell, “God is love”. Nevertheless, and without trying to be at all specific right now, I do regard the bible as far, far more than “just another book”.

  5. Thank you haikusinenomine, You have put it in better words than I could. I feel we are at a crossroads with the way the bible is used.
    Yes Jesus is the incarnate ‘Word of God’. If only the bible studies that will take place this week and the weeks and years ahead could grasp that, we would be in with a real chance. Lets focus on the one that lived the life of sacrificial love and said, ‘Follow me’? Peace, Chris

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