Estimated reading time: 6 mins.
Did you hear this growing up: “Do as I say!”?
Was asking probing questions seen as “talking back”, “getting smart” or even as “sass”?
Think about your childhood. Was there space to get an explanation when you were asked to do something that you didn’t understand? Or was your only option to “do as you were told” even if you didn’t understand?
Proverbs 4:7 (NKJV) says, “Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.”
Getting an understanding is a biblical mandate. It is the beginning of wisdom. The only way to gain an understanding is by asking questions. But growing up in an environment where questions and curiosity were not encouraged has had some unintended consequences.
Before we examine those consequences, though, I find it necessary to show some grace to our parents. Disallowing discussions and questions were, for most of them, a way of teaching survival skills to their black children. See, our parents were black in this country before we were. They had to navigate racism on their jobs, at their schools, and during encounters with the police (my first blog post was titled “I Am Both a Christian and Mad as Hell (and that’s okay)” *check it out* and this is why…we’re still fighting the same battles that our parents and grandparents fought).
Submission to authority was ingrained in them as the only means of surviving in a country that was built on the subjugation of an entire people. It was almost like training for interactions with white authority figures that our parents passed on to us. Indeed, many of the lessons that our parents taught us were about surviving in spaces that are not welcoming to you. (Did anyone else get the “you have to be twice as good to get half of what they have” speech? My siblings and I certainly did!)
“Do what I told you to do” was our parent’s way of training us for the inevitable encounters with people who may not have our best interest at heart. I truly believe that they were just doing the best they could with the information they had…well, most of them anyway. But having this reinforced constantly at home, at school, during activities had some unforeseen consequences. Mainly, it caused them to raise children who become adults who have a negative relationship with critical thinking.
As a result, we now have a generation of young adults who have issues forming their own opinions. You can see it every day in the discourse on race relations. Can’t you just point to someone who got their talking points about black people from Fox News? There are entire swaths of young people who cannot make a move without the instructions coming from someone else. When this temperament creeps into the church, it becomes dangerous!
We now have pastors and preachers in positions of authority who believe that they are above questioning. We also have people in the pews who have questions and want to get an understanding but have been trained to believe that questioning an authority figure is wrong, so they say nothing. This has raised a generation of pastors whose motives remained unquestioned, and parishioners who are unable to think critically about the things of God.
I don’t believe in humans being above questioning. I wrote a post called “It’s Okay to Question God” (click here to check it out). In it, I discuss the biblical and cultural reasons why “you can’t question God” is wrong. My line of thinking is: if God is okay with being questioned, then there’s not a human being on earth that is above it.
So we have pastors who are basically teaching that they are above being questioned and we have parishioners who have questions that are afraid to ask them and who are waiting to take their “do what I told you to do” instructions from the pastor. This has led to a negative feedback loop that has made the preacher far more powerful than he or she was ever meant to be. The people in the pews are basically being told to stop thinking when they come into the church because the pastor will do the thinking for them. They are tacitly being told to stop using their brain in the church to think critically because it is evidence that they don’t have faith.
Here’s another challenge with this relationship with authority: it has altered our relationship with the Christian authoritative text…the Bible. The Bible was presented as the authoritative word of God, which again put it in a place that was above questioning. But if the Bible is the word of God, and we can question God, can’t we then question the Bible?
I can almost guarantee that there are some people who read that last line and it made them cringe. That’s just how deep the relationship goes: we can’t even ask if it is okay to question the Bible without feeling cringy inside. The “don’t think, just listen and obey” approach to church engagement has created a generation of believers uncomfortable with approaching the scriptures with any sense of scrutiny. It has also made it look like any form of scriptural criticism is a form of unbelief.
But isn’t disallowing questions about the scriptures itself a form of unbelief? If you say that such questions are wrong, aren’t you saying that you don’t believe that the Bible is itself not strong enough to stand up to scrutiny? If I believe that the Bible truly is the word of God, then I also have to believe that it is strong enough to endure any questions that come it’s way, right?
Pastors: we can be critical of the text. We can (and should) ask the text tough questions that require research. Questions like:
Who is the author?
Who was the author’s audience?
When was the author writing?
What was going on in the world at the time of the writing?
Does this apply to what is going on in the world today?
Is this applicable to my audience?