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Follow the Leader


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.

Your turn: How can we tell the difference between healthy and manipulative use of spiritual authority?

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?

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  • Jeff Taylor

    The New Tribes swamp is very discouraging. Where do the predators live today? Why should their street address be a mystery?

    • Cameron E. Brooks

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff! I’m not clear about the legalities involved in the New Tribes abuse situation, but my guess is that the alleged abusers need to be found guilty in a court of law before their identities can be released to the public. (I’m just guessing here.) And from what I understand, the statute of limitations also presents a challenge. But whatever the challenges, G.R.A.C.E. is informing the Fanda MKs about their legal options, so I’ll be looking for updates on the MKs’ website,

  • Jenny

    This is what happens when leaders care more about the good of the movement than the good of each individual. But in the end, the cover-up is far more embarrassing to Christians and damaging to our reputations.

    • Cameron E. Brooks

      Exactly, Jenny. When we Christians join corrupt corporations or politicians in covering up wrongdoing by our leaders/employees, we prove we have no more integrity than the rest of the world, and we lose what’s left of our relevance in a society that’s already disillusioned with the Church.


  • Immanuel ben Nachum

    How did the prophets raise awareness? How did Jesus? How did his disciples?

  • Immanuel ben Nachum

    Unfortunately this mentality also permeates the “church” in another terrifying way: doctrinally. Instead of obeying the words of Jesus, we go with the flow; we allow teachers to be the final authority on the Bible instead of going to the source, as though it will be okay in the end for us to say, ‘but everyone told me it was okay to sin.’

  • Cameron E. Brooks

    You’re absolutely right, Immanuel. My main concern is how to raise awareness about this in the evangelical church. We see the problem, but the solution still seems elusive.

  • bishopswife

    Okay, I just put up a post linking to this entry as well. I want as many people as possible to see these. Again, thank you for posting this!! :)

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  • bishopswife

    This post left me speechless! I’m going to put this up on my fan page so that people can watch these videos and read your insight. You have provided an excellent resource…THANK YOU!!!!!!

  • Cameron E. Brooks

    Wow, Jana, thank you! I sure hope this helps more believers realize how vulnerable we are to subtle manipulation, especially from our spiritual leaders or others we may want to impress within our Christian circles, as well as how we are ultimately responsible for our own actions. It’s definitely a sobering lesson for us all.

  • gene long

    One of the frightening things about Dr. Milgram’s experiment was that, even among the minority who refused to participate after a certain point, including those who walked out, NO ONE reported (what they understood to be) the abusive experiment to the authorities. No one.

    So, not only are we likely to submit to evil people, we are even more unlikely to be whistle blowers. I applaud your eloquent voice in a needy cause.

  • Cameron E. Brooks

    Very true, Gene. Thanks for your comment!

  • Cameron E. Brooks

    Heather, author of Promised Land Ministries, made a fabulous post about the way Christian leaders deflect questions about their teaching by wrongly invoking I Chronicles 16:22 which says, “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.”

    She goes on to describe people in spiritually abusive churches:

    They are either not encouraged to study the Word of God (believing only what they’re taught), or to study it through a pre-determined lens, with the criteria mapped out by a particular belief. Their leaders refuse to be challenged to any degree, and will not allow open discussion on any question that might go against the belief of the pastor or church.

    – This is a nasty bit of twisted theology. As I mention elsewhere on this blog, I’ve seen this in a lot of evangelical circles, including major mission organizations that use this tactic to cover up years of child physical and sexual abuse at their boarding schools for missionary kids.

    Heather goes on to write:

    I truly believe we should give honor where honor is due. Honor the man and woman of God for their office, and the responsibility God has placed on them. However, a true man or woman of God knows and realizes what their position is…that of a servant, not a lord over God’s people…

    If you are often discouraged from questioning a teaching in an appropriate manner (not for malicious intent) by use of the phrase ‘touch not God’s anointed’ or something similar, give much thought and prayer to your association with the person who uses this against you, because they are stifling your spiritual growth.

    I recommend you hop over to Heather’s website to read the whole post. It’s a good one. :)

  • Cameron E. Brooks

    This quote describes the mindset of someone caught in a cult, but it sounds similar to the mindset behind the spiritual abuse in many evangelical groups as well:

    My leader was closer to God than I was and he could more perfectly discern the will of God. It was safe to submit. I did not have to think or take responsibility for my life. I surrendered my will so that someone else could take care of me, make my decisions, dictate my life doctrine, and make me safe.

    I found this quote here.

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