Abuse and the fault in our theology

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I remember being asked once whether I’d prefer to pastor a church that was weak/confused in its doctrine but seemed on fire with passion for the Lord and loving or a church that seemed to be ticking all the right boxes doctrinally but wasn’t clicking in terms of love, welcome, enthusiasm. After thinking about the question, I came to the conclusion that in the latter case, it probably wasn’t merely a matter of sound practice but that there were underlying doctrinal issues too.  How we live, behave and interact is a result of what we believe.  So I’m going to suggest that if you show me a church lacking a culture of grace then I will show you a church that doesn’t really get the doctrines of grace.

I return to these thoughts occasionally, especially in the light of recent abuse scandals and calls to address our church culture. I agree that we need to reform the culture but I suspect that to do so, we will need to address and reform doctrinally too.  The other thing that prompts this is that when an abuse scandal strikes in Reformed churches, then it usually isn’t long before someone blames it on the Doctrine of Penal Substitution which is shortly followed by a robust defence of the doctrine showing how it cannot be the cause of abuse.

I am sympathetic with the defence yet, it is obvious that in several cases we are seeing an erroneous understanding of the atonement at work.  For example, we saw in our look at the John Smyth case the other day, that the author of the original report, Mark Rushton identified a number of serious questions about the way that Scripture was interpreted and applied to justify the abuse.  At point 17 of MR’s report, he notes that Smyth (this would apply strongly to the Jonathan Fletcher case too) by his actions and arguments had taken away believers’ direct access to the Lord (Hebrews 10:19).  Yet, our direct access is based on the mediatorial work of Christ on the Cross. We cannot on the one hand believe that his atoning work on the Cross was sufficient and then think that someone else needs to step in to that role similar to the Catholic priest at confession.

I want to suggest three ways in which we can have a deficient view of the atonement which will play into the hands of abusers and also fail to challenge and prevent abusive cultures.

The first is when we see the atonement in terms of an angry father  lashing out at his son in order to find someone to take his anger out on and be appeased. This reflects a human view of what causes us to get angry and to lash out. If God is like that, then our own, similar behaviour patterns are justified.  You may remember that early on in the century, there was a lot of controversy when Steve Chalke talked about such beliefs as being akin to cosmic child abuse.  Whilst Chalke was wrong to specifically associate that view with Penal Substitution as was robustly pointed out in responses such as Pierced For our Transgressions, it is also sadly true, as acknowledged in that book that many people have been presented with a poor caricature of that doctrine.

Later on, I remember Mike Ovey, one of the authors of PFOT teaching on the Doctrine of Justification. He commented that he had been deeply struck that it was not only the teaching that Christ took our place and bore our sin that needed defending and proclaiming but exactly wht it meant to have faith union with Christ and to be justified, receiving his imputed righteousness through faith. Ovey would memorably say that we sometimes talk about Justification meaning “Just as if I’d never sinned” but it is better than that, God treats us “just as if I’d always kept his law perfectly.”  His main thesis being that if we get the doctrine wrong then we may still end up with the distant angry God who takes things out on his son and as a result lets us have a second chance but after that it is back over to us to see how we get on. 

If that’s our understanding of the Gospel, an angry God who takes it out on his son to give us a second chance then when we stumble, fall and fail, then we are more likely to be embarrassed and apprehensive about going back to him and more likely to look for human ways in which to make amends.

Thirdly, what people did not really pick up at the time was the alarming manner of Chalke’s own approach.  I have said a few times that I personally found the use of abuse as a soundbite to sell books and win arguments something of a trivialisation of the problem. However, it is also worth noting what Chalke was proposing which linked in to a popularised understanding of New Testament Scholar, Tom Wright’s approach to the atonement. 

In that approach, which Wright has suggested is a form of substitutionary atonement, Christ is the one who rather than bearing the Father’s wrath comes into the world to soak up all evil and violence into himself like a sponge.  We see variants of that when the focus of teaching about Calvary is on the physical torture and pain endured by Christ and when people also link that to the idea of him suffering in hell for us.  “Christ went to hell for you so that you can go to heaven.” 

It is one short step away from this, to, when coupled with teaching on Christ as example, seeing buse victims as there to soak up evil and suffering in their context.  This isn’t just about the high level examples of sexual and physical abuse in cases such as Smyth or Zacharias but also the low level stuff that goes on week in, week out where individual leaders allow themselves and are allowed by others to become “the lightening rod” for every complaint, grumble or potential conflict within the church.

It is worth pausing to thing about how the Doctrine of the Atonement is understood, not just in terms of its formal statement but also how it is illustrated, how it is described in 1-1 discipleship and how we picture it in our own minds.

I think that there are some other areas of doctrine “what we believe” that we are going to need to address to see changes in our culture “how we live”.  I plan to return to them shortly.

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