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.