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The Authority Crisis

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Today at First Things, Matthew Block looks at some recent surveys of Evangelical Christians and analyzes the results to discover why the traditional doctrines of the church are fading so rapidly:

 …the idea that many Christians seem to think saying Sola Scriptura is the ultimate authority somehow means it is my personal “solo” reading of Scripture that is authoritative. They reject the witness of the Church down through the ages in favor of a personal, private understanding of Scripture (which is not at all what the reformers meant by the term “Scripture alone”). Consequently, we see that many Evangelicals deny that the historic Church’s creeds and confessions have any relevance today. In fact, the 2016 report indicates that 23 percent percent of Evangelicals believe “there is little value in studying or reciting historical Christian creeds and confessions,” while a further 9 percent are unsure.

Put succinctly, to the modern eye, history has little or no meaning, placing authority in severe crisis.  There is a bit of a circle here.  History under-girds authority and authority grants history its significance, lose one and you lose them both.  Within Christian circles the reasons behind these shifts are complex, but they can be boiled down to a pretty simple phenomena – those with authority have failed to live up the the requirements of having it.  From the sex scandals of the televangelists, through the great shifts in views of divorce, marriage and sexuality amongst the Protestant denominations, through the mere silliness of much of televangelism itself, to the crisis of pedophile priests suffered by the Roman Catholic church – Christian authority has eroded itself.  The result has been the changes in attitude Block highlights in his post.

We are seeing the same phenomena in this election cycle.  Both of these seriously flawed candidates reflect a cynicism and skepticism about political leadership.  The biggest difference in these candidates is that much of that erosion of authority lies directly at the feet of the husband of one of the candidates.

Nowadays, leadership is thought of as finding out what most people want and running an organization in such a way as to give it to them.  In many ways that is a decent model of leadership. To a point it is the idea that democracy is built on.  It is certainly the way to marketplace dominance, which is in fact a form of leadership.  But sometimes, especially in a crisis, leadership is about taking people where they do not necessarily want to go.  That’s a military model of leadership.  Religious and political leadership are a balance of the two models.  In recent times in our political and religious leadership we have leaned too heavily on the marketplace model of leadership, which means we have made wrong decisions in a crisis, and the very idea of leadership has eroded to insignificance.

There is no better example than the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Clinton was guilty of perjury – no serious person doubts this. That’s a crisis.  Clinton, and the Democrat-controlled Senate, relied on marketplace leadership, aided by their own personal desire, to find Clinton “not guilty” of a crime he was clearly and undeniably guilty of committing.  At that moment, and on that lever, hinged a message to the American populace – personal desire matters more than right or wrong, criminality or innocence.

Most historians believe that had he allowed his impeachment to go to a Senate trial, Richard Nixon would have likely achieved the same result as Clinton.  Nixon exercised military style leadership, and resigned – at enormous personal cost.  Nixon’s numerous and public flaws, and guilt, notwithstanding, he lead this nation far better than Clinton has ever dreamed of.

The nation in both its religious and political expressions seems trapped in a downward spiral of wrong leadership reinforcing the worst in the populace, leading to more deeply flawed leadership and so it descends.

How to break that descending cycle is more than this blog post can address, but one thing should be completely obvious.  Doubling down on a family name that marks a major inflection point in the spiral is a really, really bad idea.


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