Dissidents and the Local Church
A model of how members who disagree with a church's policies might in fact give the church more power, and why that's important.
The city of Economia is ruled by a brutal dictator. Everyone behaves rationally in Economia, so the churches never preach against the dictator -- if St. Fakename's Cathedral did, the people willing to publicly oppose the dictator would come to the cathedral and the rest would leave, and the dictator would be able to identify and kill all the dissidents.
And yet in the real world, churches do publicly rebel: in Moi-era Kenya, in Somoza-era Nicaragua, in the late Trujillo-era Dominican Republic. There is a real question here: what distinguishes these countries and others from Economia? Why do churches seem to have extra leeway to criticize the government without facing (as much) repression?
There are of course many answers to this question, and longstanding cultural factors are perhaps the biggest piece. In this post I want to sketch out another mechanism, via the imaginary priest Father Wilfred, by which the presence of dissenters in church actually directly enables the church to do the very thing they oppose! I think it's a cool idea theoretically, but I'm worried about its implications for the American church.
Wilfred is the priest of St. Oscar's Cathedral in the authoritarian city of Eville. He would like to use his position to speak out against the government, but he knows that if he does he will be immediately arrested and his voice will carry little power. In order to remain free, he needs to make it costly for the government to arrest him.
Wilfred knows that the government dislikes armed rebellions, which always have a risk of succeeding. If Wilfred could compile a list of 1000 people willing to rebel if he were arrested, he could produce an uneasy truce with the dictator in which he could speak freely. But of course, it's difficult to get a credible list of rebels, because who wants to publicly state their intention to oppose a regime known for violence?
But our priest is clever, so he watches carefully, and notices that on an average day arounds 2000 people in Eville wear blue shirts. The authorities agree that this is the case, so Wilfred publicly asks potential rebels to wear blue shirts on a given Tuesday. That day, he and the authorities each count 3000 Evillians wearing blue shirts.
Why is this clever? Wilfred has provided the authorities with credible evidence that around 1000 people in Eville would be willing to rebel if he were arrested, thus acquiring the bargaining power he needs to vocally oppose the city's leadership. Even better, the authorities don't know which 1000 people were willing to rebel. Arresting 3000 people is three times as costly as arresting 1000 people, so the potential rebels feel a bit safer wearing blue than they would be publicly announcing their intentions.
(Better yet, the anonymity grows as Wilfred's power shrinks. If I led a rebellion and only 10 people showed up, those people would be terrified for their lives. But if only 10 people wear blue shirts in Wilfred's plot, they're vastly outnumbered by nonconspirators and get to stay safe. On the contrary, if 9000 people show up, there is very little anonymity, but now they pose a serious threat to the government and may even have enough force to start a full-on rebellion.)
Of course, this plan wouldn't work in real life, because the people who would normally have worn blue on Tuesday would also hear Wilfred's message, and might wear different color, either to undermine his plan or out of fear of being mistaken for a rebel.
This where the church comes in.
In Economia, there are no dissenters in churches, because people join congregations that match their beliefs closely. But in Eville, there can be frictions:
Some people may like a church's musical style, or general vibe, even as they disagree with its politics.
Some people (e.g. Catholics) may feel strong ties to a specific denomination, and prefer to attend a Catholic church they disagree with rather than an Episcopalian church that's otherwise a better fit.
Moving churches is a lot of effort, and people may not be willing to expend it, especially if other things are going on in their lives.
People's beliefs change over time, and one might value the people one has grown to love over the specific views of the church.
Everyone in Eville, including the government, is aware of this fact. Churches are diverse places, and while people may leave when the conflict with their views grows too large, there's a solid chunk of people who will stay at a church no matter what.
So instead of passing out blue shirts, Wilfred is going to preach slightly pro-liberation messages to his congregation of 2000 people. After a few weeks, his audience has grown to 3000 people.
What do he and the government know? 2000 people started out attending the church. His anti-government stance has perhaps driven away a few people, but it's also brought in some sympathetic people. We know that at least 1000 sympathetic people joined, and Wilfred can credibly use their presence as a threat to deter persecution. Unless the government has kept careful track of who attended the church at a given time, they will be unable to identify which people are attending because of their political beliefs and which are attending just because, so they will find the "persecute everybody attending" option to be particularly costly.
What I find scary about the Eville model is the role dissenters have in a church: by staying in their church, they actually enable the church's activities they disagree with. In the case of liberationism I generally support this, but I think most dissenters in American churches find themselves in a different scenario.
The White Evangelical church is the most racist religious group in the United States. It's also famous for explicit cruelty towards LGBT people and immigrants, harmful conspiracy theories, and at best lip service towards Christ's teachings of earthly justice and redistribution for the poor (all held together by the idea that "the gospel" is primarily something about heaven, and not Christly ethics now.) The Southern Baptist Convention recently narrowly avoided electing (52%-48%) Mike Stone to the presidency, a man who personally worked to squash sex abuse investigations and told a survivor that she was "doing harm" to the denomination by speaking publicly about her abuse.
I really, really do not want to support such a system.
To be clear, I don't think this quite describes the churches I've been a part of: there are two separate levels of dissent I'm concerned about. First, does the presence of my church in the nebulous region of "majority-white Evangelicalism" somehow support these other churches? But second, when churches I attend struggle to stay "in the center" of issues like racial justice and the rights of immigrants and the poor, critiquing "both sides" as if racism and antiracism were equally ungodly, does my presence support this twisting of the gospel or work to undermine it?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that staying in any place comes with pros and cons. The biggest pro is that it's easier to change a system from the inside than from the outside, and I've learned so so much from people who stayed to teach me rather than counting me as a lost cause (sometimes in ways that were very frustrating for them.)
The cons I'd thought hardest about before were financial support, which is easy enough to direct towards something like malaria nets, and my own feelings of frustration, which matter but I'm willing to put towards something that matters more. But I think there's a secondary con coming from the Eville model, by which dissenters from a church's teaching can actually enable the teaching. This really worrying to me.
The key ingredient in the Eville model was government repression, but I think a more likely ingredient in the American setting would be general cultural disapproval. The idea of an organization only men can be leaders in is (rightfully) frowned upon, but there isn't much of a social cost to being in a Catholic or hyper-conservative Protestant church because it's well-known that most people who attend such churches (at least in liberal cities like mine) are "dissenters" who disagree with their churches on at least this axis. If all the egalitarian Christians left and joined new churches, then joining a complementarian church would be a signal for sexism.
A similar thing is true for churches that preach cruel or misleading messages about LGBT people, or which claim moral authority while refusing to defend refugees or the homeless or to confront the racism of their congregants or leaders -- the reason it's socially acceptable to be a member of such a group is because so many members of these groups publicly disagree with their churches' stances.
I'm not saying everybody should leave churches they disagree with -- I personally don't intend to, largely because I do still think that "change from within" is possible. You may not change the official structure of the church, but you might change a few of the members (and they might show you your blind spots, too! We definitely shouldn't assume recognizing some systemic flaws means we aren't also participating in and perpetuating a whole bunch of bad stuff.)
And also because I'm not sure what would happen if we suddenly had a bunch of churches that were composed entirely of sexist, racist, LGBT people-hating, etc. people. We've seen over the past year how dangerous the conservative nonsense bubble can be (there are now >600k people dead from COVID, and huge amounts of the country still refuse to be vaccinated!), and I'm concerned that creating even more churches that believe they're doing God's work as they continue to do the devil's would be a problem.
(If anyone has good reading material on what might happen in this last scenario I've sketched out, I'd be super curious! I'm genuinely uncertain what to think/expect.)