Is the church founded on fear?

I was recently asked why people in churches would feel fearful in a community that is supposed to be about love.

I can only speak from my own experiences of church, and for the most part these have been positive. I have experienced much love and acceptance in the church and have tried to return this. John the Evangelist wrote, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment’. I think it is true that where love is complete there is no fear; of rejection, of not coming up to the standard, of being different etc. When someone loves you to this extent it really is liberating. Ultimately this is what I believe about God and also about what faith communities should embody: love and acceptance of all, valuing and nurturing the divine in everyone, no matter where they are in their understanding of faith, and irrespective of gender, race, sexuality etc.

So why is there often an underlying fear to faith?

I think within any community there is a natural fear of ‘difference’ and an inclination over time for communities to become more conservative i.e. preserving the community becomes more and more important. We naturally feel safer with those who agree with us and I think it would be very difficult to eliminate this from the church completely. However there does seem to be an issue with fear especially in more fundamentalist and evangelical contexts. I suspect this is down to a belief in a literal hell, and the understanding of ‘salvation’ as an acceptance of (or submission to) a set of beliefs. This leads to ultimate authority given to those who can correctly interpret the Bible and mediate the ‘correct’ truth, and a suspicion of those who question or doubt these interpretations. In this understanding, those who challenge the ‘correct’ truth are to be feared because they are literally jeopardising the eternal future of others in the community.

However I feel this is more of a justification rather than the actual reason. Belief in hell is a little too abstract for most people for it to govern their everyday behaviour. A less abstract proxy is that questioning of ‘correct’ beliefs is threatening to the power structures within the organisation. Leaders have been assigned the responsibility and accountability for correct belief and practice; for the rest their responsibility is to submit to this authority. If belonging is based on believing the right things, and the right things are determined by the leaders; then questioning these beliefs questions those in authority and therefore threatens their legitimacy, and the stability of the organisation.

At the very least this can lead to a wariness to explore questions and doubts, and sometimes to outright hostility and shaming. Ironically this can lead to a situation I have witnessed, where visitors and enquirers are welcomed and accepted with open arms, but those who have been part of the community for a long time are discouraged from questioning practices or expressing doubts, and those with the courage to do so are treated as dangerous. Many are unaffected by this and are happy to conform, secure that their leaders are doing the hard work in working out what to believe. For others who cannot help but question, their doubts can be accompanied by a deep-seated anxiety or fear. What will others think? What will the leaders think? Will I lose my friends? What if I am wrong? What if I am risking hell and damnation? For those who have experienced and been burned by a fundamentalist community it can be hard to go back and try again for fear of being hurt all over again.

I believe that an authentic faith must leave room for doubt, that authentic community is based on acceptance not conformity, and that a church that truly incarnates the presence of Jesus will be inclusive to all. I haven’t got space here to expand on this but I believe there are strong theological and biblical justifications for this conviction.

Ultimately I am hopeful. I do believe that faith communities can thrive without conformity. There are countless congregations in churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, and a myriad other faith communities which are actively trying to build inclusive communities based on love not conformity. However if a community itself is founded on conformity then its existence and growth will be at the cost of excluding those who threaten or undermine that conformity. This does seem to be quite a successful strategy numerically (evangelical churches are the ones which are growing) but is hardly ‘thriving’ when it is ultimately harmful for the well-being of many of the members, and for the reputation (or ‘witness’) of the organisation.

If you are part of a community based on conformity but find yourself with doubts and questions, I pray that you find others with whom you can explore your beliefs without fear of shame or rejection. If you are in this situation but feel you have no-one to talk to, have a look at another of my posts where I listed a few suggestions of where you might find such a community online.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback on these ramblings.

When someone tells you they have changed their beliefs

cartoon of speech bubbles showing what people say when you question your beliefs
When you start questioning your beliefs

I recently reposted the cartoon above by the nakedpastor with the caption ‘What people say when you change your beliefs’. It prompted some interesting comments and one in particular got me thinking. How would we want people to respond? How should you respond if someone tells you this? Here are some of my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.

  • Remember your friend has made themselves vulnerable to you. It has probably taken them considerable courage to speak up on the topic. Please be sensitive to that.
  • Responding with shock, disbelief, or disapproval will almost certainly shut down the conversation and possibly jeopardise your relationship. Again, remember your friend has made themselves vulnerable to you.
  • Asking about the way they arrived at their new belief is probably a good thing. In most cases I am sure they would appreciate being listened to and taken seriously. But asking them ‘WHY!!!??’ is maybe not so good.
  • Bear in mind you don’t have to agree with them but neither do they have to agree with you. Don’t try to convince them they are wrong. I am sure it won’t work and by pushing them away you will probably lose a friend at a time when they need you.
  • Don’t use fear to try to manipulate your friend. You may believe that their new views are dangerous and will lead them to ‘ship wreak their faith’. But this says more about your own fears and your own faith than your friend’s. You may be sure they have already tortured themselves with these fears before they spoke to you. Right now they need to feel listened to and valued. Full stop.
  • Don’t pull away from the relationship. You may find the conversation awkward, and it might even unsettle you in your own beliefs. But your relationship is more important. Your friend needs you and you need them, and you can find a way to be their friend even if you believe different things.
  • Finally it goes without saying you should not go and repeat what you discussed with a third party. This is simply gossip and a certain way to lose your friend and hurt them into the bargain.

What do you think? How have people responded when you have told them you have changed your beliefs? How do you wish they had responded?

If you are going through a process of questioning your beliefs and feel you have no-one to talk to, there are a number of online spaces where you can discuss issues of faith and doubt without getting censured:

Living at the edge of faith

Many of us find ourselves living at the edge of faith. We have moved consciously or unconsciously away from the centre towards the margins, from certainty to uncertainty, from black-and-white to shadows of grey. We have left behind the safety of the crowd, the security of looking to others for the answers, the identity of the exclusive tribe. Instinctively we know that we can only truly exist in a place where doubt, questioning, wrestling, and change are not only permitted but valued.

For some this has been almost effortless, a liberating journey, a burden dropping from our shoulders with every step. For many more this journey has been a gargantuan endeavour. Living with uncertainty can be exhausting especially when we have been conditioned to believe that it is harmful and ultimately sinful. Many of us would return to certainty if we could, but once you have seen you cannot unsee, once you have tasted you cannot untaste.

Some of us have found like-minded people to journey with either in physical communities, or online via blogs, podcasts, and social media. Many more have found that the margins can be a lonely place. We may not have been shunned or ostracised – although many are – but nevertheless find ourselves without a community. We may still attend a church or faith community but even so have no-one to journey with. Without another with whom to talk through our questions, doubts, hopes, and fears, we can become bogged down, unable to go back to our former life but unable to move forwards to a more healthy place.

That’s why I am creating a new Facebook group ‘Undogmatics: living at the edge of faith’. It will be a safe place to share, question, discuss, and connect with others who are living at the margins. It will be a closed group so contributions will only be visible to other group members. Honesty will be valued but respect for one another will be paramount. If you have learned to thrive on the margins you may be able to encourage others. If you are just trying to survive you may find sustenance along the way. If this sounds like it may be for you, please get in touch in the comments or at undogmatics@gmail.com and I will send you an invitation.

Undivided – the story of Vicky Beeching

cover-mobileA church I was once part of was very keen on Christians ‘telling their story’. People might argue about theology, we were told, but they cannot argue with your story. When you tell your story clearly and from the heart, its authenticity will ring true to even the most hardened skeptic.

‘Undivided’ is the story of Vicky Beeching. Vicky was a Christian worship leader and songwriter. Throughout the 00’s her songs were sung and she led worship in some of the largest evangelical and charismatic churches in the USA. She had known she was gay from her early teens but believed these attractions were deeply sinful and so struggled with inner turmoil for 20 years. Aged 34, and realising this struggle was crippling her physical and mental health, she came out as gay. She had never so much as kissed a woman, but coming out cost her career anyway, as record contracts and bookings were cancelled, and she was shunned and vilified both privately and publicly. In ‘Undivided’ Vicky tells her story from early teens, through her time at Oxford studying theology, her years in the Christian music industry, her agonies at coming out, her struggles with chronic illness, and her new career as an equality and inclusion activist who lives very much in the public eye.  She also tells how far from abandoning her Christian faith, she has found a faith which is stronger, more authentic, and more meaningful than ever before.

Part of Vicky’s story is realising that what the Bible ‘clearly says’ about same-sex relationships isn’t really that clear after all. Many of the so-called ‘clobber passages’ can be easily addressed but fundamental is Romans chapter 1 which appears to condemn both male and female homosexual relations. However we know that in Greco-Roman culture, same-sex behaviour was primarily seen in terms of a power-play, between men and adolescent boys (masters and servants), via prostitution, and by men who were also married to women. This is worlds away from loving, committed same-sex relationships. ‘Undivided’ is not however a theological treatise, and readers who are interested are referred to a number of other resources, for example, those from Matthew Vines (1).

When I was 21 I went to stay with a Christian friend and his family for a few days before we moved into a shared house for our final year at uni. One day as he was driving me up the M6 motorway he turned to me and said,”There’s something I want to to know about me – I’m gay”. I’d been brought up in a very conservative evangelical church setting and don’t think I’d ever met anyone openly gay before. I’d never even considered challenging the assumptions about being gay that I’d grown up with. Fortunately however I found myself replying before I’d had time to think, “This doesn’t change the way I think about you. You are still one of my closest friends. Thank you for telling me”. Things took an interesting development later that month when we moved into our student house and the third friend sharing with us disclosed that he too was gay. My two friends, both evangelical christians, had different perspectives on being gay. The first felt that he had always been gay, always would be gay, and resigned himself to a life of celibacy. The second felt that through much prayer and humble obedience he would stop being attracted to men and eventually be able to have a fulfilled hetrosexual marriage. Like many gay christians he took this path but after 2 children and 15 years his marriage could not stand the strain. His story continues on a happier path and he has been in a stable relationship with a man for over ten years.

Everyone we meet has a story. Although it is important we understand our own story, perhaps it more important to listen to the stories of others. Too long has the church projected an ideal story upon the lives of its members while those for whom it does not fit are forced to suffer in silence or be shamed and ostracised. The consequences of this can be tragic; the high profile case of Lizzie Lowe (2) is  just one of countless stories that should make all of us who call ourselves Christians deeply uncomfortable.

But Vicky’s story is also a story of hope. Hope that we can all live lives that are not torn between who we are and what others want us to be. Hope that we can all live lives that are full of grace not shame. Hope that the church will one day not be divided by prejudice but united in love.

It is high time we, the church, listened to the stories of LGBTQ+ persons,whether Christians, former Christians, or those who would never seek God in the church. Only by listening to others will we hear the voice of God, challenging our own attitudes and idols, calling us to journey further into grace and mercy. We have much to learn and little to teach to those who we have forced to carry this burden of shame, and for whom we have closed the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

So I highly recommend you read Vicky Beeching’s story, either in the book or on her website (3). And I strongly encourage all of us to take every opportunity to listen to the story of others, to really listen, humbly and attentively. We might just hear the voice of God speaking of a story more beautiful than we had ever dared were possible.

Resources

  1. Matthew Vine’s website
  2. Report in The Telegraph on Lizzie Lowe
  3. Vicky Beeching’s website
  4. Buy ‘Undivided’