authoritarianism at the outset
Reading Time: 7 minutes Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423. The fantasy of every megachurch pastor.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back to Part II of our Megachurch Blowout! Yesterday, I showed you the overall megachurch model. That’s a business-like church model that is intensely focused on effective marketing, church growth, and retention. Many Christians deeply dislike this model and consider it the cause of everything that is wrong with their religion these days. In reality, the success of the megachurch model simply highlights numerous truths about Christianity that these critics don’t like. Many Christians also think that the megachurch model is causing their scandals and overall decline. It isn’t, though. Today, let me show you how megachurches amplify existing dealbreaking flaws in authoritarian Christianity. 

authoritarianism at the outset
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423. The fantasy of every megachurch pastor.

“Megachurches Are Often Scams.”

In the 2020 book High on God, written by James Wellman, Katie Corcoran, and Kate Stockly, we find an interesting chapter online regarding megachurch scandals. Early in this excerpt, they quote a news article that begins with a common opinion regarding these humongous churches and their leaders:

Megachurches are often scams. Their owners and preachers become obscenely wealthy and don’t have to pay taxes.

To the authors’ amazement, though, no studies seem to exist that examine how many megachurches face scandals, what form those scandals take, and what happens to the churches afterward. In the absence of such studies, these authors performed their own investigation.

They discovered what I suspect won’t be news to anybody reading this blog. The vast majority of scandals erupted around off-limits (and often predatory) sexual relationships, with most occurring at either the highest or nearly the highest levels of power in the megachurch. In addition, as long as the sex partners weren’t male or the scandals weren’t beyond nuclear in scope, the megachurches’ pastors generally returned to power relatively quickly and faced few repercussions from their behavior.

As I said: Not too shocking!

That said, our authors don’t think that megachurches face proportionally more scandals than smaller churches do. Their scandals are just vastly more publicized.

Megachurches: An Outgrowth of Soft Patriarchalism.

Interestingly, these authors also link scandals (especially sex scandals) to authoritarianism and what they call soft patriarchalism.

In regular patriarchalism, of course, men very explicitly lead groups and subjugate women. However, in soft patriarchalism, male dominance becomes “rationalized and somewhat covert.” A leader practicing soft patriarchy might make mouth-noises about leading graciously and holding women in high regard. But they create groups dominated by men all the same. The High on God authors write:

[. . . I]t is clear that a patriarchal structure is preferred, reinforced, and expected—and, moreover, it is portrayed as fulfilling a divine plan, even if women’s subjugation and men’s domination is not made explicit. Thus, although we believe this is a form of soft patriarchy, it is a pervasive patriarchy nonetheless.

The authors also convincingly describe the rise of fundagelical Christianity as a reaction to women’s increasing equality to men. As mentioned yesterday, almost every megachurch out there describes itself in deeply conservative ways. Thus, they certainly fit into soft if not outright patriarchalism.

Soft patriarchalism can be tricky to identify, especially for people caught within a generally patriarchal mindset. They may mistakenly perceive a soft group as nicer or less prone to abuse. If they’re women, they may hope to access more leadership opportunities in soft groups.

Then, they join up and get invested. Eventually, they discover that at heart their nice shiny new group operates much like the forthrightly-patriarchal one did.

Ultimately, both kinds of patriarchalism are authoritarian. Authoritarians are in the game for power. Playing nice-nice doesn’t come naturally to them; they HATE it with every cell in their bodies. So they can’t maintain kinder, gentler facades for too long.

Why Patriarchalism Matters.

The patriarchal model grants male leaders a great deal of power no matter how big their churches get. That proves to be these groups’ downfalls.

In patriarchal groups, men get power regardless of their actual competence and skill levels. They’re men, and thus the group considers even the least of them superior to even the most competent, skilled woman in the group. In an age when women are often just as well-educated as men and just as competent in leadership, patriarchal groups are busy slicing away half their potential candidates for leadership positions. By definition, they limit themselves.

Worse, though, these groups often operate as a raised middle finger to progress, social justice, and equality. Indeed, they go overboard in granting men unilateral, unchecked power over group members. Any restraints or checks on the power of male leaders gets seen as a show of disrespect to sacred, almighty men in general.

Such groups also lavishly reward their male leaders. But again, these leaders are not usually the best-qualified candidates for these roles.

In this environment of unchecked power, abusers easily find and exploit victims. Their loyal, adoring groups will only help them every step of the way.

Blaming Megachurches.

Christians themselves certainly don’t lack for reasons why they think megachurches are more inherently scandal-prone than smaller churches. I thought this 2020 thesis paper by Brandon Billings, “Megachurches Can Have Mega Problems,” neatly summarized those reasons. Here they are:

  • Refusal to accept “legitimate” (his word) denominational accountability
  • Too much power concentrated in one person’s hands
  • Church structures (like deacons or elder councils) that lack the desire or the organizational power to check a powerful, charismatic pastor’s excesses
  • Churches’ congregations and lower-level leaders getting invested in protecting the church’s image rather than doing what’s right

I’ve certainly seen these complaints out of many other Christians, notably Scot McKnight. He’s found good success in his evangelical niche by knocking megachurches. In this blog post, he incoherently argues that megachurch leaders don’t automatically display the virtue of “goodness.” That redefined word appears to mean acting in good faith. He argues that non-denominational churches can’t assure that quality in their leaders. Thus, scandals are way more likely in such churches.

We’d just be raining on these Christians’ parade by pointing out reality. For example, according to a 2020 megachurch study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 60% of megachurches belong to a denomination. Oops.

The Actual Problem.

And I suspect they’d get even more pissy if we mentioned that literally any church of literally any size and any denominational structure can face those exact same problems. Some of the most shocking, lurid scandals you’ll ever hear about come straight from tiny little small-town evangelical churches.

Not for nothing did that book we reviewed a while ago, This Present Darkness, revolve around the scandalous dysfunction of a tiny small-town church. Its author, Frank Peretti, was the son of an evangelical pastor who’d worked in such churches most of his life. I bet he’d heard a few interesting things growing up.

But outsiders must learn to read between the lines to get a good picture of dysfunction in those settings. Small towns close ranks anyway around their favored citizens. Churches only magnify that protective shield. So we must seek what is said-without-being-said. And we did that when we reviewed a podcast by Thom Rainer about church revitalization. The picture he painted of church politics could have come straight out of any megachurch.

Megachurches just write those flaws in brighter ink across more pages, that’s all.

Authoritarian Christians just can’t perceive all the warning signs their leaders and flocks display. Their leaders groom them from infancy to perceive authoritarianism as natural and Jesus-flavored. For a lifetime, they’ve absorbed ideas like pastors having absolute power over congregants, not expecting transparency from leadership, followers owing leaders obedience, and most of all, the importance of protecting the group’s image over anything else.

So the commonality in scandals is not size, denominational structure, or even any specific style of Jesus-ing. It’s authoritarianism. Simply put, authoritarianism breeds scandals. When you encounter an authoritarian group of any size, be watching for those red flags — and heed them.

Virtue Signaling, Again.

Once authoritarians describe these Big Problems, of course, their solutions become clear in turn. Amazingly, these solutions usually take the form of churches implementing the exact style of Jesus-ing that the critics happen to like best. Worse, these critics are usually from authoritarian groups themselves. All they demonstrate by their criticism is that their leaders’ marketing worked well on them.

When we hear Christians criticize megachurches, watch for the insistence beneath their words. Often, they’re just virtue signaling. They’re feeling a little challenged by a scandal that’s erupted a bit too close to home for comfort, so they’re asserting that such a thing could never happen in their group. Those bothered by such scandals can safely join their group. Then, these critics could Jesus in perfect safety! It’d never happen there!

But in an environment were power disparities and absolute authority reign, it sure could.

And it sure does.

Christians can virtue signal all they like. The scandals come one after the next regardless. An authoritarian church has no chance in the world of putting functional structures in place to prevent scandals.

It doesn’t matter how big the church is, how “good” its leaders are, or how “accountable” they officially are to any overlords. What matters is authoritarianism. Is it there? If so, then yes: this church will face scandals eventually.

NEXT UP: Christian leaders often market their faith as one that will ease fears of death. But in Tim Keller’s case, this was 100% false advertising — even for him. See you tomorrow!

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Last art history note: In the banner pic, the Renaissance painting, that super-duper-blue paint on Mary and the gold halos were all super-expensive for painters to use. In these paintings, always look for other blue places. You’ll notice that all the other blues in this painting are lighter and less intense. That’s because the artist only wanted to use the super-expensive color on the most important figure, which is Mary here. The gold, obviously, was actual gold. Artists at the time got into constant slanging matches over what they saw as skimping on those pigments. Woe betide the artist who took pre-payment for a certain stated amount of intense blue and gold, but didn’t provide it!

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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,...