When Those in Authority Are Wrong

by | Mar 11, 2021

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 
John 3:14-15

The Benedictine nun and spiritual writer Joan Chittister is someone I often turn to when seeking wisdom and inspiration. I’ve been part of a number of soul-searching conversations lately across profound differences of life experience, and I find myself thinking of a pivotal moment in Chittister’s young life that she often refers to in her writings. 

Chittister was raised by an Irish-Catholic mother and Presbyterian step-father. They married in the 1940s, long before, Chittister writes, “ecumenism was even a word, let alone a virtue.” One day, when Joan was in second grade, she rushed home from school in order to speak with her mother before her step-father returned from work. The nun who taught her class had said that only Catholics go to heaven. When Joan shared this astonishing news, her mother quietly asked, “What do you think about that Joan?” Joan took a deep breath. “I think Sister is wrong.” “And why do you think Sister would say something that’s wrong?” her mother gently probed. Joan replied, “Because Sister doesn’t know Daddy.” Joan’s mother smiled. “That’s right, darling. Sister doesn’t know Daddy.”1

Chittister learned at a young age that those who speak with spiritual authority can be wrong. She discovered a locus of truth within her at odds with what her teacher told her. She was blessed with a mother who encouraged her to claim her truth, while at the same time not rejecting everything her teacher said. Neither Joan nor her mother thought that Sister was wrong about everything. She simply didn’t have all the evidence Joan had about her step-father, and therefore, about God.

At the time, neither Joan nor her mother had the power to openly challenge her teacher. Joan lived with the tension inside her until she was in a position to speak openly about what she knew was true. She later felt called to pursue her own vocation as a nun and teacher, and to be a critic of certain teachings of Roman Catholicism from within the Church in order to change it.  

The history of Christianity is full of examples of those in authority speaking on behalf of God in ways later recognized to be false or incompatible with Jesus’ teachings. Only when individuals and groups within the Church dared to challenge that authority did the Church’s teachings change. Such change never comes easily. Those who suffer most are the ones whose life experience lies beyond the conventional wisdom that will one day be rejected. 

I first hit that place of tension when I was 17. Because of a change in my family situation, I needed to leave the church community in which I had first come to know and accept Christ. Its leaders taught that only those who believed in Jesus in the precise way that we did were destined for salvation. They warned that for me to worship in the Episcopal Church that my mother attended, as I was about to do, was to put my soul in danger. That never made sense to me, but I wasn’t in a position to openly challenge what I was taught. Like Joan Chittister, I was blessed to have someone–in my case, an Episcopal priest–who helped me find a path of integrity. He said, “Mariann, if you wouldn’t condemn others for not walking the same path you do, rest assured that God wouldn’t, either.” I hear echoes of his words in our Presiding Bishop’s statement that if any teaching isn’t about love, it’s not about God. 

We’re living in a time when more and more people are simply unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the altar of church teachings that deny their full humanity. 

Some are rejecting the faith entirely that is rejecting them. Others remain and choose to speak their truth, while staying in relationship with an imperfect, evolving tradition of faith, allowing for genuine exchange and mutual transformation. It is a costly, often sacrificial path, for the sake of love, so that others coming up behind them might be spared the suffering they have endured. 

As a teenager, I was relieved to leave the rigid views of the church that raised me without having to take a public stand within it. Yet the Episcopal Church I joined is also far from perfect, and we need the prophetic challenge of those who dare to be themselves and claim their rightful place as beloved children of God. 

I give thanks for those of you who are willing to speak your truth so that this imperfect church of ours might move closer toward God’s dream for all humankind. We are a better church because of you. 


 1Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph Press, 1999), 12.