Saturday, April 24, 2010

Moral authority?

In a bygone era, churches often claimed moral authority over their members. There existed a God before whom all were accountable. Beginning in the 1960s, religion became increasingly therapeutic, and God became a friend who was viewed as bringing us the good life on our own terms. Some churches claim that God wants you to be rich, i.e. the prosperity Gospel.

The post that follows this one, about the environmental effects of raising livestock, includes my comment about whether the church has the authority to challenge its members to eat less meat, or become vegetarians, as a moral issue. Can the church also challenge members in other areas, especially in countercultural views of the prevailing consumer culture? In other words, if the good life is all about going shopping, should the church be supportive, challenge this view, or is this none of the church's business?


  1. It seems to me that by definition, faiths that believe in the ethical application of religion must help guide their members and the rest of society.

    But, “Can the church also challenge members …” implies a dichotomy that tends to make your question misleading, at least for Unitarian Universalism.

    In my congregation, our minister reminds us from time to time that our ministry goes beyond her – that all of us are a part of it. I think that is the prevailing view.

    In last November’s UU World, Peter Morales had this to say about ministry:

    “If this [Unitarian Universalist] movement we love is going to thrive, we absolutely must help all our people find their ministries. This is not about doing something out of a grim sense of duty. This is about helping each other get in touch with what we truly love, what truly moves us.”

  2. At least within English-speaking Protestantism, what theologian Ed Farley terms the "house of authority" began seriously to weaken in the nineteenth century and has been in various states of decline ever since. And the metaphorical moving of the church to the periphery of the town square, i.e., the decline of institutional authority, has never, it seems to be, affected what I would term "the authority of the gospel," which can still have a powerful appeal or "intuitive moral authority" to boldly confront or gently persuade consciences. I think of Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit in the 1920s publicly challenging Henry Ford's treatment of workers, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing and working for the overthrow of the Nazis, or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s powerful suasion in the 1950s and 1960s that did so much to bring a greater degree of racial justice to the United States. The authority wielded by these figures was not institutional, but it was real and powerful.

  3. Thanks to the learned Dr. Boone for his enlightening posts. I was only off by a century regarding the decline of the church.

    I find the Morales quote disingenuous, and unhelpful in defining the ministry of a congregation. People may love playing the clarinet, but what does that have to do with creating a more humane world, a congregation's true calling?

    Here's the true test of what a congregation of any faith loves. What is your church's budget line item for mission beyond your own four walls? How often does your congregation give away the Sunday offering to community needs?

    If the answers to these questions are, respectively, zero and rarely if ever, then that congregation is the proverbial country club with candles. It's the old question that what you love is reflected in your checkbook, and wherefore lies your treasure lies your heart.