Reading Time: 7 minutes (Wes Hicks.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hey, y’all! Welcome back. Last time we met up, we talked about the Cult of Family’s vague, nebulous instructions for achieving family happiness. Indeed, much of the advice that these authoritarian Christian leaders offer their flocks sounds absolutely useless–that is, when it isn’t disastrous! Today, I’ll show you why these leaders’ advice isn’t changing anytime soon.

(Wes Hicks.)

What Makes Task-Oriented People Short-Circuit.

Authoritarian followers, such as the folks who fall into the Cult of Family and authoritarian flavors of Christianity in general, tend to be really task-oriented. Literature describes them as suffering from “intolerance of ambiguity” and “rigidity.”

That means they need expectations and procedures spelled out to the letter, step by step, from start to finish, or else they get totally balky and freeze like deer in the headlights. They need to know exactly how they will be evaluated and exactly how to pass or fail that evaluation. And they need to know exactly what the penalties are for failure, to the third decimal place.

And all of that is normal, to an extent. Given important enough stakes, any of us would want to know this stuff. No, we speak here of the degree to which authoritarian followers need that information, how detailed they need it to be, and the extent to which they completely freeze up until they have it.

For example, imagine we stay the night with a new friend. In the morning, our new friend asks us, “Could you please make breakfast for us? I’m exhausted!”

And most people could wander into that strange kitchen and figure something out.

By contrast, authoritarian followers would wander into that same kitchen and just stop right there in stupefaction. They’d do nothing at all for fear of doing something incorrectly.

The Great Danger of Making Mistakes.

Here’s why.

In authoritarian Christian groups, members who commit mistakes open themselves up to ridicule, over-the-top punishment, and unending emotional torment. Indeed, those above them (like their parents) will gleefully hurl a minor mistake made in childhood into their faces for decades afterward.

But the penalties go even further than that. You know that cringeworthy Christian platitude, “God doesn’t make any junk?” Well, many Christians also believe that their god would never give his followers faulty instructions or tell them to tackle projects that are doomed to failure. So if these Christians make a mistake or fail at a task, that indicates a certain–shall we delicately put it–lack of divine power filling them right then.

In earthly terms, they might be acting in the flesh, or they might even be in rebellion. Either state means they have stepped outside their god’s protective arms. In their suddenly-powerless and vulnerable state, they suddenly face the “Christian love” of their entire tribe–even their entire part of the religion.

Thus, it feels safer to do nothing than to do something wrong. Before taking any action, these Christians want to be on completely safe ground.

Enter the Parade of Bad Christian Advice.

Many years ago, Christian leaders taught their flocks not to care about whether or not their plans accomplished their stated goals. They pared results from behaviors.

Instead, the flocks learned to care only about how well their leaders’ suggested plans conformed to their expectations–or expanded upon those expectations without moving outside of them.

Once the flocks learned to expect certain instructions for certain tasks and goals, they rejected as invalid any other instructions for those tasks and goals.

In seeking advice for running a happy family, authoritarian Christians already have a basic idea of what to expect. They expect to be told that only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can have happy families. Of course they expect to be told to hold family devotions and attend church together. They might even expect to be told to spend time together or talk about their problems, even if specifics never get mentioned.

The Cult of Family’s leaders have, over many years, built up a collection of largely-circular beliefs about what the perfect family looks like and how it operates. And they’ve done so from within an impermeable cultural bubble.

The Ignorant Leading the Ignorant.

The Christian leaders pushing all this bad advice have never conducted reliable studies to know if their advice works. Instead, they and their flocks have a few tribe-accepted ways of testing advice.

They ask their imaginary invisible friend in the sky if it’s good advice. And remarkably, via a voice in their heads that only they can hear, he always confirms their cultural beliefs.

They sift through the many thousands of verses in an ancient book that they idolize. Whatever they think it says, it overrides all contradictions–even objective measurements from reality itself. However, the completely-anonymous men who wrote this oft-edited book’s original texts did so in languages that almost no Christians can understand anymore. Often, even Christians who do understand those languages have no real idea what many verses mean. They’ve been arguing about some of these verses for as long as the religion’s existed.

Nonetheless, if they see a verse that sorta-kinda fits their situation, they consider it binding advice for all time unless the advice gained in this manner turns out to be really hard to do or strips away some of their imagined authority over others.

And of course, they check to make sure that their advice doesn’t conflict with anything they already believe and accept as true. The proposed advice can intensify their beliefs to an alarmingly extremist degree, but it can’t soften or change beliefs until they’re good and ready to change.

Authoritarian Christians consider these three methods of testing advice to be more than sufficient. They rarely go further.

What They Don’t Do.

Back when I was Christian, we informally called one kind of sorta-reality-based testing fruit inspection.

Matthew 7:15-23 lays out how to figure out if a Christian is a true or false prophet. But authoritarian Christians never perform fruit inspection for prophecy. Nor do they perform it on anything else they do. Instead, authoritarian Christians use the idea to bludgeon people they think are Jesus-ing wrong–like this hilarious fundagelical pearl-clutcher who appears to have gotten completely confused about what the text says.

In similar fashion, Christian leaders do not tolerate audits of their advice. Thus completely freed from the burden of accountability, they create advice addressing any number of problems.

For example, check out this ridiculous set of suggestions. In 2013, a task force with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) created a listicle seeking to reverse the denomination’s tanking baptism numbers. And Southern Baptists loved it! The listicle felt familiar and soothing to them. It confirmed all of their beliefs. It asked nothing of them that they were unwilling to do. Best of all, it promised huge results.

A few years later, nobody even talks about it anymore. The SBC appears to have forgotten the report even existed. Of course, the baptism drought continues to this day.

The system works–if the hucksters work the system.

A Foregone Conclusion.

These leaders leave nothing whatsoever to chance. Following their advice, there’s next to no way at all for a family to be happy–except with a lot of luck. And that’s if that advice can even be translated to real-world behaviors in the first place.

When I survey the utter lack of solid, real-world advice in this religion–and even more than that, the total lack of concern about whether or not Christian advice accomplishes any of its stated goals–it’s hard to escape one impression above all.

The real goal of Christian advice sure looks like producing certain failure.

And why would that truth even surprise anybody?

The Christians clamoring for that advice learned long ago that their system is perfect. That includes advice that fits perfectly into their ideology. It cannot be questioned. If they follow that advice and fail to reap the results promised, they know they must blame themselves for doing something wrong.

This self-blame keeps Christian advice-givers in business. It pays for their private jets and mansions. And it keeps countless sheep dancing themselves to exhaustion, confused and off-balance–and thus vulnerable to authoritarian control.

The Importance of Cruelty.

Remember, however, that something else happens when Christians fail to achieve the promised goals of all the advice their leaders offer.

When authoritarian Christians find out that someone in the tribe faces a big problem or has suffered a catastrophic failure, they consider that situation a permission slip they can use to rain down “Christian love” on those poor sorry bastards. 

As Christianity continues to polarize and grow ever-more-extremist, the more moderate and compassionate folks still in the religion get winnowed out–or chased out. The Christians who remain turn up their cruelty more with each passing year. They are the authoritarians in the religion. And they turn on each other like hyenas, at the drop of a hat.

Cruelty confirms their superiority over those they abuse. It confirms their perceived entitlement to power over their victims. Authoritarian Christians think of their ability to inflict misery on others as a divine sign of approval for how much their god likes them. They relish this kind of drama.

So this constant onslaught of terrible advice serves these Christians’ interests very well. It gives them a ready supply of victims to hurt–like this young woman’s family.

Even when totally sincere leaders offer tribe-approved advice, even when they have only the very best of intentions and feel heartbroken by the constant, unending failures that advice produces, it’s all too easy for the hypocrites around them to turn those failures to their own benefit. The system itself, broken as it is, penalizes leaders who display too much sincerity and compassion. And those sincere leaders do not often pursue their concerns about those failures to their logical ends. No. They just keep breaking themselves against the wall of dogma.

Eventually their flocks fire them, if they sincerely preach compassion for too long. Or they burn out.

The Importance of Shame.

Even worse, a Christian facing really big family problems knows that those problems undercut evangelism efforts. They know that happy families are part of their religion’s marketing hype. So they feel extra shame about their unhappy family, and hide it even more carefully.

Just imagine, in these Calvinist megachurches like Mars Hill used to be, all these families hiding their deep dysfunction out of shame–and fear. All these Christians lie to themselves and the people they should love and trust most, all because they know quite well what would happen if they were honest. (We’ll talk more soon about the facades Christians build to hide their truths about their families. It’s just heart-wrenching.)

When I look at how easy it is to offer terrible advice in Christianity, and how many terrible benefits come to authoritarians as a result of all the failures this advice produces, I’ve got to say:

From the point of view of the religion’s hucksters, the Christian Cult of Family must look, well, Heaven-sent!

NEXT UP: We examine some reality-based ways to foster a happy, harmonious family life–and why the Cult of Family fights this knowledge every step of the way. See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...