The fear factor

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One of the issues that emerged from the Jonathan Fletcher review was the prevalence of fear amongst those affected by the case. 

The review comments:

A further factor which is of great importance is fear. As has been explained, the level of fear some participants held was palpable in interviews and email correspondence. Repeated reassurances of anonymity and confidentiality were needed for some. This demonstrates the level of fear associated with speaking out and again can be clearly argued to be linked to the time taken for disclosures to come to light.

The independent advisory group supporting the review  made this comment in their own statement.

…the fear that the Review describes is expressed as current – participants were still afraid. They feared, ‘…others still in positions of authority in the wider CE community.’ (p.38)

That is, people who still lead churches, still preach and still train leaders. This is a profoundly troubling matter and calls for urgent reflection and action. 

It is not acceptable that a movement which claims to represent the gospel possesses within it such an atmosphere of fear.  Equally, what it says about those who wield power, both formally and informally, in our constituency must be carefully examined.

I affirm 100% the comment at the end of that paragraph. There is no place for fear within the church of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that perfect love drives out fear. I would also like to make the following initial observations.

First of all, a lot of people reading those comments who attend reformed evangelical churches will not recognise the statement as something they identify with at all.  Indeed, for people looking on and in, hoping to cause trouble within the church, I think an attempt to present the majority of evangelical, including conservative, churches as hotbeds of fear and intimidation would quickly find that this is not something people would be willing to accept as true.

The risk then, is that we look at the situation and assume that the fear is not real or not justified. I want to challenge that here.  Just because we haven’t experienced such fear does not mean that others haven’t. They will have experienced the fear that their abuser used to coerce and intimidate. The constant message they will have heard throughout that time is about the connections that he has with the implication that he can make life unpleasant for them.  Fear will include the possibility of not being able to find church families where they will be welcome, of being gossiped against and slandered and for those who have gone into church leadership of having opportunities to serve in ministry curtailed including the real possibility of unemployment.

Sadly, we have to recognise that if they’ve experienced physical and sexual violence intended to control and humiliate, and we know that others have used this within the church, then there will be a legitimate fear that others might chose to inflict criminal retribution on them.

If then, their experience over a period of time has been silence from those they saw as in a position to do something to stop the abuse, that will have increased the sense of fear.

This means that there is an impetuous on church leaders to clearly state both that the sin is utterly wrong and that failure to stand up against such sin, to speak against it and to take action to protect victims was wrong too.

Psalm 101 includes these words:

 I will walk with integrity of heart
    within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
    anything that is worthless.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
    it shall not cling to me.
A perverse heart shall be far from me;
    I will know nothing of evil.
Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly
    I will destroy.
Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart
    I will not endure.[1]

Now, the Psalm gives us the words of the king and as well as hearing this as a commitment from David, we are meant to hear it first and foremost on the lips of King Jesus. However, we must also recognise that this is a challenge for us as leaders too.  Are we ready to not just avoid committing the sins mentioned here ourselves but to pro-actively stand up against the bullies who do.

Secondly, whilst most of us won’t have experienced such fear, that’s because we never have ha d a reason to. Indeed, I suspect a lot of people even with the churches and networks immediately involved will not. That’s because most of us will have fairly normal relationships within church and fear will never have needed to be used as a tool against us.  At this stage I also want to acknowledge the risk. Simply being a pastor means that you will have to confront sin from time time, simply being a pastor in a normal church means that there will be times when you will need to talk about Biblical church discipline.  That means that there will be times when you will risk having things said about you, including that people fear you. Indeed it works both ways, there is the fear of false accusation for leaders too. 

But the point is this. Fear should not be used as a tool to coerce people when we get into crisis situations.  How we act in the crisis may say more about us than how we get on in happier times.  So, one of the things I would encourage each of us to consider is whether or not fear comes into play when there are tensions in our churches. What can we do to de-escalate fear? For example, one thing we should be committed to is not to misuse church discipline to silence disagreement.

Thirdly, I have to say that I have seen examples of fear at play. I know of examples in local church contexts.  This includes reports of people using physical size to intimidate. It also includes examples of people being ostracized in churches. 

But I’ve also talked a lot about how we conduct ourselves online. I’ve seen examples of prominent evangelicals being challenged or disagreed with on social media over things they’ve said or written.  The result them is anything but sincere engagement.  Those who dare to disagree are put down with insults, lashed our at and accused usually in language that suggests they are not theologically and politically sound in some way or other.  That kind of culture is a fear culture and given that the implication is that prominent people have power to say and do what they like, given that it is often less powerful people who are then marked out for exile and exclusion, messages of dominance are being sent out.

So, back to Psalm 101, it is important that those of us who have voices step in to challenge when  that type of behaviour happens.  It is also important that we are careful to check and challenge our own behaviour. Yes criticism stings whether in person, by letter or in a tweet or two. But isn’t it possible that the critic who challenges me may have a point? So as much as I want to respond to defend myself and much as the gifts that put me into ministry mean I probably am able to think on my feet and build up a quick rebuttal, maybe it is helpful for me to put strategies in place to ensure I listen and reflect and that others know I will listen and reflect.

If perfect love drives out fear, then we need to come back to that. It is not just a question of ticking boxes to say “people are not afraid.” We need to go a step further so that we can say with confidence that people in our churches know that they are loved.

[1] Psalm 101:2-11.

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