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:

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’

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 2 The Bible

It is my conviction that to treat the Bible as inerrant and infallible is un-Christian in that it is both dishonest, and dishonouring to the the Bible itself and to the God Christians believe inspired it.

Image of a fragment of a dead sea scroll, from the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab
From the Dead Sea Scrolls; a portion of the second discovered copy of the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls)

As an evangelical I was taught that the Bible is inerrant (contains no mistakes about anything) and infallible (absolutely trustworthy). Some evangelicals temper this with ‘as originally written’. The second statement is a matter of faith, since no original manuscripts exist. But for practical purposes it makes no difference, since it is the Bible we have which is used as the basis for faith and life.

The reason inerrancy and infallibility matter so much for evangelicals is their understanding of inspiration. Since ‘All scripture is inspired [literally ‘breathed out’] by God’ (1 Timothy 3.16), the argument goes that it must be inerrant and infallible, since God does not make mistakes and always tells the truth. Any suggestion that there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the Bible must be strongly refuted, for two reasons. Firstly it would be blasphemous to suggest God would make mistakes, and secondly, to accept an error in the Bible would be undermine and negate its entirety, and the whole of Christianity into the bargain.  

Many make the case against against Christianity based on the Bible: ‘it can be proved there are errors in the Bible therefore the whole of Christianity is false’. Ironically evangelicals adhere to the same belief, that Christianity stands or falls on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Historically both views are extremely modern. Inerrancy and infallibility simply were not an issue for Christians before the enlightenment. It was a given that the Bible was written by ancient writers and reflected their varying understanding, worldviews, particular agendas and reasons for writing.

By way of three questions let me provide examples that illustrate why this view of the Bible is dishonest.

  • In the creation accounts, in what order were animals and man were created? (see Genesis chapters 1 and 2)
  • Who incited King David to take a census of Israel – God or the Satan? (see 1 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1)
  • When did Jesus carry out the ‘cleansing of the temple’ – near the start or the end of his ministry? (see Matthew 21.12 and John 2.13)

These are just three of literally hundreds of ways the Bible shows us it is not one book with one overriding message. It was written by dozens of authors over many centuries. It reflects the particular agenda, understanding and worldview of its authors. In many places it attempts to correct or revise earlier instances of history or theology, and in other places flat contradicts itself. (The writers of Chronicles seem especially keen to ‘correct’ or ‘revise’ the accounts of Samuel and Kings.) Just consider for a minute that some words attributed to God are outright contradicted in other places, again supposedly by God.  Attempting to iron out and resolve these differences into one ‘flat’ narrative is simply not possible and insisting on this has let many people to reject the faith altogether. In my view is misses the point about what the Bible actually is.

One further example: why do we have four gospels, not one? If historical and theological consistency is the aim, then one definitive gospel would be far preferable. However the church fathers rejected early attempts to consolidate the gospels into one definitive account, regarding retaining the differing accounts as preferable.

Let us be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not. Let’s be honest about what ‘inspiration’ actually means. To do so is not ‘liberal’ or a sign of weak faith. To be really honest about the Bible honours it for what it is: a collection of different genres of writing, written over many hundreds of years for many different reasons. I would go further: the Biblical writers obviously thought it was legitimate to challenge, re-interpret and re-purpose earlier writings and to be faithful to the Bible one must be free to engage in this today.

If you are interesting in exploring this subject further a good place to start is Peter Enns’ blog and podcasts at https://peteenns.com/blog/ and https://peteenns.com/podcast/.

You Are Not Alone

I have had some mixed responses to my last post.

Thankfully most have been positive. Those of you that write will know how incredibly vulnerable it can feel to write honestly about something that has been painful to you, and then to hit the ‘Publish’ button. So it is gratifying when people can say positive things about a post even when they don’t agree with everything in it.

A few responses have been less positive. Some have spoken of alarm bells (presumably about some ‘dangerous’ opinion), others have questioned whether it is helpful or necessary to write about such things. It is this second point want to address today.

My response it that it is not only necessary, it is essential. That is, essential for me to say it, and essential for others to hear it.

When one has been through a significant experience it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened. Speaking things out, writing them down, listening to others, discussing with others; these are all ways of processing life experiences and are all the more important when these have involved a measure of pain. These have been an essential in dealing with my life journey over the last decade. Very few people would begrudge me doing these things. But the question is (and it is a good question): ‘why do you need to publish this stuff online?’ Behind the question is the implication that it is uncharitable to some people and unhelpful to others.

I readily concede that it is difficult to write about experiences of church without being seen criticise others, especially church leaders. I have struggled with this and one reason I have not written about these things sooner is that I have needed to be sure in myself that I am not writing out of hurt or resentment. For the record, I did not leave my former church because of some disagreement or falling out with anyone. The church is a good church and the people are good people, many of whom I still count as friends. My posts are not directed at individuals but at a belief system and culture, which was my home for many decades and helped me in many ways, but ultimately become something I could not stay in any longer.

So why say these things publicly? Why publish them in a blog and then promote them on Facebook and Twitter. Why not quietly and privately grieve the passing of one season of life, and then move onto a new chapter without hurting anyone’s feelings or challenging their comfortable beliefs? The answer is: I know I am not alone. There are many people who are right now going through the same unsettling, bewildering, questioning of faith, of what they have been taught, of God. This might even be you. And because of the culture of your church, you find it impossible to express these thoughts without disapproval, condemnation, or worse, pity. You do not need to have verses quoted at you, exhortations to have more faith, to pray more. You do not need treating like a sick person, whose contagious disease could fatally infect others. You need to know that it is okay to think, to question, to grow. You need to know it is okay to not have all the answers, to challenge certainties, to embrace mystery. You need to know it is okay to be disturbed, to be angry, or just plain tired of struggling with it all. You need to hear this stuff, and hear it from me.

And that is why a write this stuff. It is not for the certain, the faithful, the sure. It is not for the confident, the zealous, the radical. It is for the nervous, the shaken, the bewildered. It is for the hurting, the wounded, the reeling. It is for the doubters, the unstable, the exhausted. You are not alone.

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 1 Leaving

It has been 18 months since I left the evangelical church. I should probably define what I mean by ‘evangelical’ but that would take a whole article at least. So I’ll simply say that I’m talking about the kind of church where being ‘evangelical’ is important.

If you are reading this you probably either wish you could leave the evangelical church, or think I am crazy or heretical.  This article is aimed mainly at those of you in the first group. I want to reassure you that although you may feel a bit crazy at times, you are in fact completely normal, and almost certainly not heretical (whatever that means…).

Can I leave?

Yes of course you can. It will be hard. You will feel guilty. You will lose friends – but not all your friends. And you will probably be maligned and slandered – but not very often. But you are not alone. Many have left before you, and many will leave after you. You have permission to leave. It is not a mortal sin.

Why do I want to leave?

Of course only you can answer this. But perhaps I can articulate some reasons. Perhaps there are negative factors pushing you away:

  • You are upset about the exclusive ‘them and us’ theology you hear every week.
  • You are angry about a sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic culture.
  • You cringe when you hear about creationism and hostility towards science.
  • You understand that insisting the Bible is inerrant and infallible is untenable, and can be a cause of many toxic thought patterns and behaviours.
  • You are becoming scared of a culture in which agreement and submission are a condition of belonging.
  • You are distressed by the god who needs to be placated by a bloody sacrifice.
  • You are disturbed that this religion condemns 99.99% of humanity to eternal conscious torment.

You may simply have a growing feeling of uneasiness or alienation, but can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

Perhaps your reasons are more positive:

  • You have a seen a more inclusive, expansive gospel that unites rather than divides.
  • You are beginning to see the image of God in every person which is changing the way you view people following different faiths and lifestyles to your own.
  • You are believe that a life of faith does not mean being anti-scientific or anti-academic study.
  • You are becoming convinced that if the gospel is good news for anyone then it must be good news for everyone.

Or perhaps you’re just not sure any more. Not sure that everything you have been told is true. Not sure whether God exists. Not sure what any of this means.

Are these people wrong?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. In my 50+ years in the evangelical church I have rarely met people who were wilfully manipulative or self-seeking. Almost all were people of integrity, well-meaning and sincere. Maybe Spirit is just leading you along a different path.

What should I do?

One thing is sure – once you have seen a glimpse of something different, you cannot un-see it. You may supress it or try to ignore it but ultimately it will not go away. I am not an authority but these suggestions might be helpful.

  • Know that you are not alone. There are many other good, faithful, sane Christians who have gone through and are going through the same as you.
  • Confront the reasons you are uneasy with the evangelical church. It is more comfortable to ignore the niggling doubts, but in the long run this will almost certainly be unhelpful.
  • If you are seeing something new, acknowledge it, and acknowledge it is good. There is a more beautiful gospel. Once you have seen you cannot un-see.
  • Talk about it. If you have friends who are open to talk about your concerns, then great. But if not, find someone to who is. If you don’t know anyone contact me. I would consider it a privilege and an honour to give you a safe and confidential space to talk things through.
  • Realise you may go through a period of months or even years where faith is very hard or impossible for you. This is a normal and positive part of the journey.
  • Be open to different expressions of faith. This evangelical now venerates icons and is the better for it.
  • Follow your instincts. He who is in you will lead you into all truth.

What do you think?

In my faith journey I have had to work through a number of issues. I plan to write about some of these in future. But please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to address in future articles. I would welcome your feedback in the comments below. Or you can use Twitter to message me directly.