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I was having a productive day until a friend of mine sent me the following famous quote from C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, which appeared today (11/1) in the Wall Street Journal on page A17. Now I’m all riled up and I won’t get any more work done.

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Abuse of power in Christian contexts justified on the basis of “it’s for your own good” is uncomfortably common. As “tyrannical” as this may be when even “good men” (as Lewis says) engage in such behavior, it is all the worse when guardians herd the masses toward the “right” conclusions under some sort of explicit or veiled threat, claiming “it’s nothing personal,” but only in service of the greater “good.”

I hope it goes without saying that leaders do indeed have the responsibility to lead, and there is often a fine line between leading and coercion. But I am reflecting here, as is Lewis, on the dehumanizing abuse of power that crosses far past that fine line and is, at least as I see it, more common than it should be in the church.

I’m sure many of you can fill in the blanks from your own experience.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.