Questioning authoritative claims with scripture

Dr. Todd Lewis discusses the need to recognize when authority claims are scripturally based.

The 1960s bumper sticker emblazoned on automobiles called for a nondescript response to “question authority.” That bumper sticker still functions operationally for many college students in the new century too, but it becomes problematic for believers in Christ because we worship the Ultimate Authority: God Almighty. In his book “Influence: Science and Practice,” social psychologist Robert Cialdini identifies the authority as one of the most influential persuasive devices available to any and all who attempt to persuade others or are capable of being persuaded.

Authoritative claims can deceive many

It is particularly frightening to discover that many evangelical Christians fall prey to authoritative-sounding religious figures who sound orthodox at first, then over time lead people who should know better into cultic servitude.

In the 1970s, Jim Jones began as a pastor in a Disciples of Christ church, leading a Bible study that eventually morphed into a zombie-like group of followers who died by dosage of cyanide-laced Kool Aid in the jungles of Guyana. The decision to follow this “anti-Christ” was made possible by the authoritative sound to his message. What began as “I have discovered what God wants to say,” moving to “I now know what God wants,” ended with “I am God and you need to do what I say.”

The charismatic prey on the insecure

The research reveals that the most susceptible groups of people to follow an authority figure to involvement in a cult are: One, seniors in high school; two, freshmen in college; and three, seniors in college. Every one of these groups shares the common insecurities of not knowing what to do in the immediate context or with future plans for a life ahead. Each of these groups is especially prone to the influence of an authoritative figure that seems to offer the solution to deeply felt insecurities.

These groups, especially the ones who claim to know Christ, are not dumb or incapable of making rational judgments. But, they can be susceptible to the allure of the charismatic figure that seems to speak for God with the imbued voice of authority. Sometimes the tensions are even more acute when the authoritative message comes, not from a cultic leader, but from a local pastor, Christian college professor, or revered Christian friend –– especially when the persuasive attempt is couched with the epithet, “I know what God’s will is for your life.”

Using scripture as a measuring tool

Sometimes, the persuasive advice is genuinely on-target and time reveals it to be insightful. But, how do you know when and how to question an authority that claims to be a conduit to God? We are not left without resources, and the apostle Paul provides the absolute best response. He commends a particular church for practicing a defensive maneuver, even when it was used to verify Paul’s own persuasive authority. That church was the church at Berea and Paul applauds their practice in Acts 17:11: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Comparing the rhetoric of an authority figure who claims to speak for the Ultimate Authority with scriptural truth will clearly reveal the agenda, the manipulations, or the truth of what has been communicated. The practice first modeled by the believers at Berea will serve all of us well as we confront even more attractive, yet sometimes misguided authority figures today.

And we will also have our faith strengthened when we know for sure that those we follow are consistent with the investigated and believed claims of scriptural authority. Surely the Lord God Almighty wants us to recognize when authority claims are best followed and when they are best ignored.

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