Revised August 13, 2013
Are Christians inherently good at heart? Are we stable enough to resist intense pressure to act against our conscience, even the pressure to harm a fellow human being?
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale researcher whose family had survived the Holocaust, wanted to know why the German people–ordinary citizens–willingly submitted to Hitler’s leadership and supported policies that brought untold suffering.
What Milgram found was downright terrifying.
His famous study, known as the Milgram Experiment, revealed that the average person, even though we might have misgivings, will end up bowing to an authority figure to the point of harming (even killing) someone else.
In a similar experiment by British researchers, volunteers delivered what they thought were lethal electric shocks to a fellow volunteer, and they did so despite it being against their better judgment.
This clip comes from a documentary about the British experiment:
So how does this study affect Christians?
We believe that God, in His grace, gives us the moral strength to follow Jesus and walk in obedience to Him. Furthermore, while many of us haven’t been tested, we also believe He can help us withstand pressure to act against our conscience. And theologically, we’d be right to believe this.
The Milgram experiment, however, pulls back the curtain on a particularly dark and vulnerable place in the human heart. As the study shows, when exposed to intimidation from an authority figure, the majority of us are too easily bent away from everything we know to be right and decent.
Neither Milgram’s study, nor the British study, show us specifically how Christians would respond under these conditions, and whether we’d make different choices when compared to unbelievers. But we don’t have to look far for examples of our vulnerability to authoritative influence.
Take, for example, the problem of sexual abuse in evangelical missions. Several well-known Christian denominations and missions agencies have faced accusations of cover-ups related to sexual abuse of missionary kids by adult missionaries in positions of trust. A common thread among these stories is that leaders shamed and intimidated the MKs, their missionary parents, and other mission employees out of reporting the abuse. The abusers, and their supporters, often warned that to question their authority was to question God himself.
This twisted and toxic use of spiritual authority has, time and again, helped keep horrific abuse under wraps in various evangelical Christian denominations, missions, and institutions. It’s a major reason many alleged abusers have lived protected, comfortably unaccountable lives for years after the alleged incidents.
While many of us don’t structure our evangelical churches as strict authoritarian hierarchies, we’re still generally taught to respect our elders and other authority figures. In and of itself, this is a biblical principle, yet Milgram’s experiment and the example of abuse in missions show us how easily such authority can be misused.
It’s worth taking a moment to examine the role of power and influence in our Christian communities. How willingly do we heed the advice of spiritual leaders at our church, Christian employer, or Christian school? Are we free to raise concerns about their teachings and policies, or to disagree with their choices? Are we ever frowned upon, shamed, or even disciplined for speaking up?
Let’s take another look at why the research participants carried on with the experiment in spite of their misgivings. As a scientist in the video explains,
The influence is ideological. It’s about what they believe science to be. Science is a positive product, it produces beneficial findings and knowledge for society that are helpful to society, so that sense of science is providing some kind of system for good.
When we substitute ‘science’ with ‘faith’ in the above quote, it sheds light on the reason Christians might be especially vulnerable to the phenomenon discovered in Milgram’s study.
Think about it this way: Our lives are fundamentally determined by our belief in the truth of the Christian worldview. We share in the Church’s central mission and believe it to be a “system for good.” We place ourselves under the teaching and influence of specific churches, institutions and leaders, those with whom we’ve built community, history, and relationships over the years. We trust them implicitly. Is it any wonder we’re vulnerable to manipulation from spiritual authorities–even to the unthinkable extreme of violating our conscience?
Are Christians inherently good at heart? Perhaps. Do we try to love our neighbours and generally wish them well? Absolutely.
But are we stable enough to resist intense pressure to act against our conscience, even if our actions might cause someone harm? Not often enough, I’m afraid.
So what are we supposed to do about this? Well, a few ideas come to mind for starters, which I’ll follow up with new posts in the coming months.
1) If a spiritual leader casts doubt on a matter of conscience, look to Scripture for guidance. If you don’t know the Bible deeply, now’s as good a time as any to start studying. Read widely. Read different viewpoints. Talk with believers inside and outside of your community/institution to gain context on the issues at hand.
2) Be open with your spiritual leaders about your concerns, graciously of course. If you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall or an angry pit bull, that’ll probably raise a red flag. If you repeatedly feel this way, it may be time for change.
3) Keep your relationship with God strong. It’s truly a blessing that His authority trumps anyone else who tries to speak on His behalf.
How do we equip ourselves and each other to resist pressure tactics from spiritual leaders, especially when the manipulation is subtle and cloaked in Biblical language, when it seems contrary to God’s word and yet comes from someone we’ve always trusted implicitly?