What is listening, anyway?

So in my previous post, I asked why you should listen to me or anyone else. In this post, I want to cover a similar topic: what it means to listen and why it is so important. This post intends to dive into the implications of listening to one person or another and how that translates into real world consequences, not just differences in opinion or theology.

Tied up in listening is the notion of authority. If you are listening to others, you are not merely hearing them; you are incorporating what they say into who you are as a person and what you believe to be true. I don’t mean that you are accepting everything they have to say, but you are at the very least giving their ideas some consideration. When you do this, you grant someone a degree of authority. How closely you adhere to what they say determines how much authority you grant.

This is not bad. We need people of authority, because we live in such a complicated world that no one can be an expert of everything. If I had to know quantum physics, microbiology, economic theory, and advanced theology in order to be a productive and Christian member of society, then I would have a long way to go, and so would we all. Thankfully, that’s not the case. We grant authority to people who are experts in their fields. Division of labor is great.

But here’s the issue, and I will be frank: we, as evangelicals, have granted authority to a wide variety of abusive people, many of whom I will call out in later posts. I previously mentioned Westboro, but they are sort of a creature to themselves. There are far more mainstream examples of abusive pastors and leaders, and they take a variety of different forms. More on them in the future.

No one has authority unless someone should grant it to them, so if we are upset with the authorities, we should look to those who put and keep them in power. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, our authorities, aside from God, have power because we grant it to them. We choose our pastors and leaders with our church attendance, our time commitments, our money, and maybe our pastor search committees if our churches do that sort of thing.

Now that means that we are responsible for putting abusers into power. Don’t get me wrong, though; I am not pointing the finger at all of us and saying, “You idiots! How could you?!” What I am suggesting instead is that many of us are not adequately equipped to know the differences between good and abusive pastors and theologians.

And any good abuser will do his or her best to make sure that you stay ignorant of the abuse.

These people will scare you into giving them authority. If you step out of line, they will try to bully you into their beliefs. If that doesn’t work, they will cast you out and label you as “other” — not part of the tribe. They will belittle you to others and convince them that you are crazy. But, of course, these things have different names. The initial phase of abuse sometimes goes by the name of “church discipline.” Other times, they try to corner you into having “open and honest conversation.” You’ll hear, “Now, I love you, but…” But if they can’t corner you, they’ll label/suggest that you are a heretic, or maybe they’ll fire you.

Church discipline, open conversation, etc. — all of these things can be good things, which makes it hard to identify abuse. It is good to have church discipline when necessary, and sometimes you have to tell a someone a harsh truth even though you love them. Additionally, sometimes churches need to fire a pastor if he has a change of belief. It wouldn’t make much sense to keep an atheist as a pastor, so somewhere between atheism and orthodoxy is a line past which it’s necessary to fire someone in a theological role.

So the key to discernment is going to be very much the same as identifying abusers elsewhere in society. When you are listening to a pastor or reading an author’s work, what kinds of claims does he make? What is he/she trying to accomplish?

To identify abuse, we need to understand that the abuser wants you to love him/her and fear not accepting what he/she says. They will ask leading questions, like, “What happens when we let gays marry?” And then they won’t answer the question. Instead, they’ll either leave it alone as a rhetorical question, or they’ll pose something more ridiculous for you to associate with it, like gay steamrollers or a threat to the foundations of marriage. You don’t even have to think that gay marriage is ethical (as I do) to realize that gay marriage is (a) not going to crush everyone with a mighty Gayroller and (b) not going to keep you from honoring God in your marriage. Such assertions are nothing but fearmongering to keep people from exercising their free will in choosing how to live.

If we truly value compassion over abuse and individual freedom over manipulation and control, then we will be more careful how we listen and to whom we grant authority, because I think it’s safe to say that we don’t want people abusing others. Again, keep in touch with this blog as we continue to explore these topics in greater detail.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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