That’s quite a serious and disturbing allegation, isn’t it? Yet, one of the subtexts to the John Smyth scandal is an attempt to link what went wrong there with other allegations of abuse and Evangelical Theology. Giles Fraser refers to this as:
“a rather poisonous brew of Evangelical Theology, Public School Religion and the Empire.”
Does the Gospel I preach every Sunday provide the cover needed for violence against vulnerable people?
I’ve been trying to work out exactly what the accusation is. I suspect that it has something to do with perceptions of the Doctrine of Atonement and specifically Penal Substitution. Readers may remember that just over a decade ago, there was great controversy when Steve Chalke referred to this as being like “cosmic child abuse.”
Fraser hasn’t explicitly said this yet although on his twitter feed he refers to Atonement theology. However, another quote elsewhere talks about
“the idea that the world can be saved through violence. A politics or a theology that says we can put the world right through exerting power over others lends itself to abuse and a theology that says Christ suffered and therefore so must you is also liable to create a culture that’s abusive.”
There also seems to be an idea floating around to the effect that an Evangelical Theology of Atonement equates to “Jesus was beaten -so you must be too.”
Why the claim is wrong
I want to suggest a few reasons why this claim is wrong.
- Chalke’s whole idea of cosmic child abuse was wrong and based on a very shallow and faulty engagement with Penal Substitution. This was effectively refuted by Sach, Jeffries and Ovey, Pierced for Our Transgressions and in any case a reading of John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” would have protected Chalke from such a lazy and indeed deeply offensive caricature. At the heart of Chalke’s wrong move was a misunderstanding of the nature of the Trinity. Penal Substitution is about Father, Son and Spirit united in will. The Son is not presented as a weak, choiceless child but as the Eternal sovereign creator who willingly steps into history and takes our place on the Cross.
- All Christian theologies of the Cross have to take account of the violence we see at Calvary. It’s the prophet Isaiah and not a Iwerne Camp pep talk that introduces us to the one who was crushed for our iniquities. Some of those theologies talk about Christ’s death being a demonstration of love but in fact if that is all that Christ was doing then it is that which would make the violence senseless.
- The Cross is never about “Jesus suffered for sin and so you must too.” On the contrary, the point is that Jesus’s sacrifice was sufficient and complete. There is no more price to be paid, no punishment to bear. There is however, an important point in Scripture that because Christ suffered we too can face even unjust suffering. I will come back to that shortly.
Now all of these points about our Doctrine of Atonement come in a context and that context is the Doctrine of God. It comes in the context of a Sovereign God who is love and who pours out his love, grace and mercy upon us. It’s about a God who invites us to share joy with him so that the Puritan ancestors of modern Evangelicalism summed up our chief duty as
“To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Evangelical Theology at its best is never about a harsh God acting like a police man seeking to catch us out and punish us. Nor is it about us just getting a second chance so that we have to start again but then may have to make amends for future sin. Christ’s death was sufficient to cover all my sin and shame, past, present and future.
Evangelical Theology therefore speaks against the suggestion that a victim is making atonement and rebukes those who would use religion to control and abuse.
Caution – Some areas to think around
And yet the suspicion pervades. Now it could be that this is simply liberal society (media and religion) conspiring to pin something nasty on Evangelicalism. I’m sure that there are those around who would delight to do this.
However, I also think that it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how an idea can become so rooted. Note two things
- Here on faithroots.net we often talk about what we believe and how it links to how we live
- For a lot of people, when they are talking about Evangelical Theology, I think they are looking at their whole perception of the thing. This means first of all that they won’t make careful distinctions between Doctrine and Practice and secondly that whether we like it or not their view of it will be as they have experienced it whether through contact with a particular church, event, people or its portrayal in media and literature.
This is important because it links to some of the stuff we’ve been discussing here about culture and particularly what happens if a particularly culture is targeted and when we get what Tim Keller refers to as over-contextualisation.
My point here is this. To some extent, our theology is not just about the Doctrinal propositions that we believe but how we live that out in the world. What this means is that my behaviour can actually be very deeply inconsistent with what I claim theoretically to believe. It also means that my experiences can distort my understanding of a doctrine.
I want to tread very carefully here because it would be very easy to jump in with some stereotypes about Public School Culture. My upbringing was a far cry from that world. My schooling was through the secular comprehensive system which brought its own cruelties and then Red-brick universities. So I can’t claim to know authoritatively how much of the stereotyping is accurate and whether or not anecdotally reported experiences of school life reflect the universal picture.
However, there are some general points we can make about dangers for Evangelicals and these revolve around what we have discussed before about Guilt Driven Church and the dangers of Legalism, Licence and Magic
Let me explain how.
- If we accept a culture that is harsh, unforgiving and admires those who appear strong and seem to fit in then our experience of Christianity will become harsh and legalistic. Conversion may be a grace and faith thing but then there is a disconnect with Sanctification. We act as though conversion is just a second chance and now it is all up to us.
- If we have a “magical” or superstitious understanding of the Gospel, then we risk assuming that bad things could not happen in the context of the Church. This is important because as I mentioned in a previous post and as Robertson and others have pointed out -the church attracts a whole range of people and so that can make for risky situations if we do not have rigorous safe guarding procedures. Christian camps, festivals and local churches are not immune from sin and temptation.
- The third risk is that you get a context where people want to forgive and therefore don’t follow through with the consequences of sin. The New Testament talks both about Church discipline and the proper place of civil authorities.
Having made those points, what is the answer? Well, it is not to run away from Evangelical Theology. These risks happen when we have a shallow understanding of it or we have allowed it to become distorted. As Robertson observes “We need more evangelical theology and more evangelical practice, not less.”
Why we need a deeper Evangelical Theology
I believe it was CS Lewis who pointed out that because there are different types of wine and a wine drinker will have their preferences, this shows that wine drinking is not just about the alcohol. Similarly, that there are different Evangelicals from different cultural contexts and that it is exactly our Evangelical Theology that underpins our evaluation of the wrong in these actions, we can refute the claim that Evangelical Theology causes or excuses violence.
It is, as others have pointed out because we have a God who has confronted evil that those who face suffering can find hope. It is these beliefs that kept me going as a teenager when I experienced bullying at my State Comprehensive school. On a deeper level, it is those beliefs that have kept members of our church family going through hardship and persecution. Liberal philosophy and theology does not have the power to sustain you when you experience violence from those who want to destroy your life and drive you from your home. It will not sustain you when you have to live with the uncertainty of the immigration system and the reality of racism in your new home country. It is only the Gospel that can do this.
That’s why Peter when writing to suffering believers makes the link between Christ’s substitutionary death on their behalf and the encouragement to persevere through suffering (1 Peter 2).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism.
 On this see Mike Reeves, The Good God -or some of our own articles on the Trinity.
 See David Robertson’s very helpful and effective response here https://theweeflea.com/2017/02/07/christian-camps-and-child-abuse-is-evangelical-theology-to-blame/