Church history is replete with examples of power plays and fear tactics to induce people to conform to what some particular authority believes is the will of God. Sadly, these efforts have resulted, at times, in brutal physical, spiritual, and psychological terror. Some people never seem to learn the lesson that one cannot be forced to obey God against his or her will. Perhaps the most famous campaign to terrorize people into correct living and correct believing is the Inquisition, where the church used unspeakable torture or threats of torture to produce conformity. In this blog post, I want to examine the three ways that social psychologists posit that conformity can be stimulated and relate it to the subject of following God’s will in discipleship. I hope to demonstrate that the fear of punishment, still ever so popular in many Christian circles, is not effective in producing life-changing results.
There are three ways to bring about conformity: compliance, identification, and internalization (Aronson, 2008). I will briefly discuss each of these and give an example. Compliance “describes the behavior of a person who is motivated by a desire to gain reward or avoid punishment” (pg. 35). If a mother hopes to convince her teenage son to clean his bedroom, she may promise him use of the family car on the weekend so that he can go out with his friends. On the flip side, she may threaten him with the punishment of grounding for the weekend if he does not clean his room. In either case, the son will be driven to comply with his mother’s request by the desire to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment. This form of social conformity contains an element of power (Aronson). The mother is using her power to inflict pain or grant blessing in order to attain compliance in her son. Identification “describes a response to a social influence brought about by an individual’s desire to be like the influencer” (pg. 35). Aronson notes, “In identification, as in compliance, we do not behave in a particular way because such behavior is intrinsically satisfying; rather, we adopt a particular behavior because it puts us in a satisfying relationship to the person or persons with whom we are identifying” (pp. 35-36). Identification is at work when a daughter admires her mother so much that she wishes to be like her. She then imitates or takes on the behaviors of her mother such as speaking to people a certain way or having a certain manner with children. The motivating factor in this case of conformity is the daughter’s liking for her mother. The daughter most likely has not thought through the beliefs and actions of her mother to determine a reasonable basis for adopting them; she adopts them to resemble someone she likes. The final way to conform, internalization, is when we take inside of us a particular belief or behavior for the purpose of being the right kind of person or simply to be right (Aronson). Returning to the mother-daughter illustration again, if the daughter is convinced that her mother represents the right way of living and the right way of believing, then she will internalize those behaviors and beliefs and “integrate [them] into [her] system of values” (pg. 37). In this instance, the daughter adopts the mother’s behaviors and beliefs not just because she likes her, but because she believes her mother is right in living and believing in such a way.
Identification and Internalization produce behaviors and belief systems that are more enduring than compliance, with internalization being the most durable. In identification, our liking or respect for a person moves us to mimic their behavior or adopt their beliefs because it makes us just like them. The issue is the attractiveness of the person (Aronson). With internalization, we truly make those behaviors and beliefs our own because experience has taught us, either directly or through another person, that those ways of behaving and believing are right or the most beneficial to ourselves and others. Here, the issue is one of credibility (Aronson).
So, what’s wrong with compliance? The problem is that in complying with a demand or request out of fear of punishment or the attainment of a reward “the person’s behavior is only as long-lived as the promise of reward or the threat of punishment” (pg. 35). The issue in compliance is one of a person exerting power over another (Aronson). As long as the punishment is looming or the carrot is dangling at the end of the stick, you can be sure person will conform. However, if the carrot disappears or the threat evaporates, then the person will return to doing what they want and what comes natural to them.
The application of these insights into social conformity to a life of Christian discipleship provides us with a model of what works and what doesn’t. As I said at the beginning of this post, the church has a near obsession with trying to scare people into doing things that they would not otherwise do. Often guilt is used as a form of psychological punishment to those who might transgress a moral law that a preacher or denomination deems to be God’s will. Sometimes, the threat is more overt in that preachers and teachers will warn of God’s retribution and punishment in our lives when we don’t do the things He has (supposedly) commanded. And then, there’s the ultimate admonishment, the threat of all threats, the terror to replace all terrors: “If you do not do what God wants (either through behavior or belief), then when you die, He’ll send you to hell.” This is the supernatural gun to the head threat. “God loves you and desires a relationship with you and invites you to partake of his love, but if you don’t then he’s going to blow your soul’s head off.” Nice, huh?
This is why the conservative church is becoming more of a laughing stock in this country. It is not due to some prophesied apostasy. People are waking up to the manipulative and coercive approaches to getting people to “obey.” The problem is not a populace that is repulsed by the life that Jesus offers, but with a church leadership ensconced in moralism and legalism, that holds to a form of Godliness, but denies its working power (2 Tim 3:5). The power of life change in the gospel is through identification with Jesus Christ, because you’ve come to like who he is and love the God He represents. You have an internalization of the lived experience of God’s love in your own heart. You see the compassion and kindness that Jesus shows to the lost, weak, and marginalized and you identify with his heart and seek to become like him in ministering to these same social outcasts. And, as you experience the love of God poured out in your heart, you are changed and internalize this love to become someone loving yourself (Rom 5:5, 1 Jn 4:8, 16). This is law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2), the royal law of Love (Rom 13:8-10; James 2:12). Transformation happens from the inside out as we build a relationship with Jesus in the Spirit and internalize His love for us.
If we continue to conform out of compliance, then we will never experience the abundant life Jesus promised to those who believe in Him (John 10:10). Furthermore, we will never truly be changed. Once we realize that the threatened punishments aren’t befalling us or that the health and wealth promises of reward are not landing in our bank account, then we will abandon the faith, disillusioned and demoralized, and return back to a life absent an experience of the love of God. It goes to show that a god who flaunts his power to manipulate and force people into doing what he desires is, in the end, unable to bring about the change for which the gospel calls. Any god that would scare you or threaten to harm you if you don’t perform the way he asks is not worthy of worship.
I would encourage you to examine yourself and ask, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” Is it because you love Jesus and want to be like him and trust Him as your teacher and guide? Is it because you’ve had a life-changing and healing experience of God’s love in your heart that you hope to bring to the lives of other people? Or, is it because you are afraid that God’s going to be angry and “get ya” either in this life or in hell afterward if you don’t do it?” This is why I submit that Universalism is the only solution to getting the terror out of our religion once and for all. If we realize that God corrects us when we make mistakes and that He will train us and guide us into a wholesome spirituality throughout this life and the one to come, it removes the fear that paralyzes us and prohibits us from truly changing.
God loves everyone just as much as He loves Jesus (John 17:23b) and he is committed to bringing salvation and the fullness of life to all (Rom 5:18-19; Col 1:16-20). The guilt-mongers and Pharisees in our ranks may continue to try and scare us into obedience, showing it to be a path to avert destruction, but we will continue to promote obedience as a prescription for finding life free of any temporary or eternal divine existential threat. Punishment doesn’t work because it can’t change the heart. Only God’s love can and that’s why we embrace it.
Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal. New York: Worth Publishers.