Home > The Real Deal > Questioning Authority, by KarenR

Questioning Authority, by KarenR

5 October 2009

[Elder’s note:  KarenR, a fellow StandFirm commenter and a lay leader within her Mennonite congregation, has kindly accepted my invitation as a guest writer on this blog.  She has written two excellent contributions, “Questioning Authority” and “Conformed to the Image of God,” for which I am very grateful.  Thank you for these, Karen.  And may God continue to bless you in building up Christians.  

Today I am publishing ‘Questioning Authority,’ and will publish ‘Conformed to the Image of God,’ tomorrow.

KarenR qualifies:  “Questioning Authority is my story as it relates to TEC, and Conformed to the Image of God is a revision of my sermon.”]

When I was asked by Elder Oyster to write something for this blog, I asked myself what a Mennonite in central Pennsylvania could say to the Episcopalians of southern Ohio that would be relevant. I concluded that what I have to offer is part of my own history which can stand as a cautionary tale for the dangers of religious progressivism.

Although I have been a Mennonite for 4 years now, my spiritual path has been more varied than most. I was raised Presbyterian, and along the way, I embraced the following traditions in more or less this order: nondenominational evangelical and charismatic, Buddhism, Metropolitan Community Church (a gay church), United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church (including the gay organization Integrity), neo-pagan Wicca, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, non-affiliated New Age beliefs, a brief return to Presbyterian Church USA, nondenominational evangelical, Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist General Conference, Quaker, and Mennonite Church USA. My religious background is sometimes a source of embarrassment to me, demonstrating, I fear, much inconsistency and lack of commitment. However, it has given me quite a varied perspective. I also have a B.A. in religious studies from a secular university, and I have done some graduate work in sociology and religious studies. I am fascinated by the variety of ways that people can be religious, and I am especially interested in the diversity of Christian beliefs and practices in America today. I have practiced religions other than Christianity, and I have been a part of widely divergent Christian traditions. Lest I sound hopelessly flighty and flakey, I need to state that for the last 13 years, I have had a strong evangelical Christian faith that has been the center of my life.

You will notice that tucked in among all of those traditions is the Episcopal Church. In 1978, after graduating from college, I worked for a church-sponsored community center in Philadelphia. I tried out each of the Protestant churches that sponsored it, and I soon found myself quite drawn to the Episcopal Church. I loved the liturgy and the prayer book and what I saw as the exciting progressive changes taking place in the denomination. I was a feminist and a self-identified bisexual, an anti-nuclear activist, a socialist and a pacifist. I was deeply committed to overcoming sexism and homophobia in the churches. I found the Episcopalians that I knew in Philadelphia to be largely sympathetic to my priorities. My rector invited me to accompany him when he spoke to the gay Episcopal group Integrity and soon after I became part of their community. I studied Episcopal catechism and was confirmed. My rector urged me to go to seminary to become a priest, while the assistant priest urged me to join an Episcopal religious order and become a nun. I seriously considered both. In the meantime, I worked with the poor in a low income and racially torn neighborhood, fought against nuclear power, and continued to try to educate people on the evils of sexism and homophobia. However, I soon grew impatient with the Episcopal Church. Despite their progressive views, I found them largely unsympathetic to my personal priority of using inclusive language for both human beings and the divine, and I started to feel that a handful of female priests, a new prayer book, and openness to gay issues did not make the Episcopalians nearly progressive enough for my taste. By 1980, some friends from college had formed a coven back in my college town, and they encouraged me to read radical feminist and neo-pagan writers.  Soon after, I left Philadelphia and returned to the town where I had gone to college and where I have remained. I tried the local Episcopal Church for a while, but they were far less progressive than the folks in Philadelphia and they still used that weird old 1928 prayer book. What was their problem? Before long, I was done with the Episcopal Church, Christianity, and I had joined the coven, a group made up entirely of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.

Over the years, I have kept up with some of the changes in the Episcopal Church, and just recently, I have begun to pay more attention to the details. I am truly shocked by how far it has gone. I have just finished a book called Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity by William Murchison, which has increased my understanding of the changes in the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches in America since the 1960s. In looking back at the vast societal changes that began in the 60s, it is possible to see that they resulted in the questioning of authority on every level, including in religious matters. My own experience confirms this. I was born in 1954 and therefore the 60s occurred at a very formative time of my life. Although I was raised by a conservative family in a small town, the world was rapidly changing and my views were very much shaped by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and its protesters, the hippie counterculture, and the women’s and gay liberation movements. I learned early on to question authority and to challenge the status quo. This became a key component of my personality and my worldview. Whatever religious or political beliefs I held at any particular time were always open to question.

Despite answering an altar call at a Pentecostal revival meeting and accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior at age 16, I did not agree that this had anything to do with submitting to authority and being obedient. I used the word “Lord” in reference to Jesus, but that was more as a form of address. I did not actually allow him to be that to me. So much in the Bible seemed unjust and unfair and just plain wrong. Slavery was allowed, women were property and not allowed to speak in the church, kings were rich while many people were poor, homosexuals and witches were condemned. I didn’t like the Bible very much. I was amazed by the grace offered in the atonement, grateful that Jesus had died for my sins and that I could know him personally, but the Bible and the church were seriously flawed, as I saw it, and so I didn’t take them very seriously. While calling myself a believer, I saw no need to refrain from the partying and immorality common to the college life. Not believing in anything as negative as the devil or hell in my universalist naïveté, I was easily deceived by the great liar and his servants. As Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Because I did not accept the authority of the Bible and I did not put the words of Jesus into practice, much in my spiritual life remained unfruitful and eventually came crashing down.

What really turned things around for me in 1996 was the total acceptance that there is such a thing as evil in the world. After years of Christian universalism and various pagan and New Age ideas about how evil is simply ignorance and all we need is more knowledge, I faced head on that evil is real, and therefore Satan is real and also hell. This changed everything for me spiritually. I finally understood the atonement, of why Jesus had to die for my sins and for the sins of others, and this understanding became central to my faith. I threw away my pagan and New Age books and tools and devoted myself to believing and trying to practice orthodox Christianity. However, I did not become an obedient person over night. It has been a long and difficult journey for me to learn submission, and to change my rebellious lifestyle into one of obedience. I still question authority in many situations. Sometimes that is good. Not all authority can or should be trusted. But I am now a person who believes that overall there is more of value in the old traditions than in the progressive changes.

In 2008, I had what I call my conservative conversion, which is when I finally found a way to make my political views consistent with my theological ones. Only as a pacifist do I hold a view that is not considered conservative by most, although it is to me, and I am able to respect my fellow conservative Christians who interpret the Bible differently than I do on issues of war and peace. I now find myself part of a politically liberal church community that also does not share my theological priorities. Even so, I feel called by God to remain in this community, where I hold positions of leadership and where I have a voice that I use to speak for orthodox Christian beliefs and the political ones that flow from putting Jesus at the center of our lives.

I realize that my own history is an extreme example of progressive views run amok. However, it greatly saddens me to see people in so many churches today falling into some of the same traps that I did starting years ago. When we put our concern for justice and equality before our allegiance to Jesus Christ and his commandments in the Bible, it is so easy to get off track. When we set out to be welcoming and inclusive to all, a positive thing, it can unfortunately turn into a tolerance for sin. When we allow ourselves to be open to new ideas, we can be deceived into straying away from the core of the gospel, and it can even go so far as to embrace the syncretism of allowing the beliefs of other religions to mingle with our Christian faith. Just like Eve so long ago, who thought it was a great idea to eat of the attractive fruit that would give her knowledge of good and evil and allow her to be like God, we continue on with many versions of the same unoriginal sin. We think we have a better idea than God, especially as expressed in that old outdated church tradition.

A verse that I often think of these days in connection to some of the changes going on in the churches is Psalm 11:3. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

Each of us needs to face the challenge of that question and with God’s help, act accordingly.

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Categories: The Real Deal
  1. KarenR
    5 October 2009 at 3:56 PM

    For the record, I am not a pastor. I am part of a Mennonite church community that is very non-hierarchical and which encourages strong lay leadership, and I am occasionally a guest speaker for worship.

  2. Elder Oyster
    5 October 2009 at 11:17 PM

    Oops. Sorry about that. I’ve updated my intro – if that is not quite right, please let me know the verbiage that works.

    I have a lot to learn about other traditions, as you can see. 🙂

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