Conservative evangelical theology SHOULD mean there is no excuse for abuse

Predictably, one of the responses to two high profile cases of abuse has been for some to identify a specific problem with conservative evangelicalism and therefore with its underlying theology..  conservative evangelical, or more properly, “Reformed Theology” holds that.

  • God is the great and glorious Lord, the Triune God who is love, holy and just.  He made us in his image and our chief purpose is to glorify him and to enjoy him.
  • The whole human race sinned and fell in Adam. Sin affects everyone of us and every aspect of our lives so that we are described as “dead in our sin.”  This is sometimes known as Total Depravity.
  • Christ demonstrated God’s love to us by dying on the cross in order to win the victory over evil, death and Satan by bearing the penalty for our guilt so that our shame could be covered over. In him we have both a redeemer and example.
  • God chooses in love to forgive us and reconcile us to himself in Christ.  Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us (we are clothed in his righteousness) and so we are justified (declared right with God) through faith. It is “just as if I’d kept God’s law perfectly).
  • Because salvation belongs to God. It is his unconditional love and grace at work, we can trust him to hold onto us and never lose us from his hand, through life, death and into eternity.

Now, it is worth highlighting two things here. First of all, that there are sadly many examples of abuse in contexts where those beliefs are not held and secondly that there are many Christians who hold to these doctrines who would never entertain the possibility that abuse is acceptable. Further, this is specifically because those doctrines exclude the possibility of abuse as an acceptable part of the believer’s life.

I think that the reason that this idea got out is partly because of the second point, that total depravity leads to a low view of human dignity and partly because of the third point where a caricature of this doctrine is often presented, sometimes be advocates but more often than not by opponents of an angry God taking out his anger at us on his Son -what Steve Chalke referred to as “cosmic child abuse.” If Jesus is the one who takes the abuse of an angry father then so should we (including where the father figures in our lives include church or camp leaders).

Yet that is completely to miss hear what the doctrine is about. The whole point of the good news summarised above is that God is love, that the Father Son and Holy Spirit willingly act in love and grace towards us, that grace means that we don’t get what we deserve, that there is nothing we could do and nothing we should do to try and make atonement for our own sin.  Rather, the Christian’s life as the puritans and reformed theologians and pastors from Jonathan Edwards through to John Piper have argued is all about enjoying God and his goodness. 

Such a Gospel explicitly and completely excludes the possibility of another man placing himself as mediator between us and God. Such a doctrine explicitly and completely excludes the slightest hint of a possibility that I am required to suffer physical abuse to make amends for my sin. Rather, the promise of the Bible is that all of my sin, past, present and future was dealt with at calvary and that I can daily confess my sin knowing that God is faithful and just so that he forgives and cleanses.

Now, on several occasions in the light  of both false accusation about what we believe and in response to horrific cases in the media, people (including me) have written in the terms I’ve done above in order to defend reformed theology against unfair attack. However, I think that we also need to address ourselves on this.

Whilst reformed theology SHOULD exclude the idea and practice of abuse, we need to recognise that it hasn’t always. Further, that those carrying out the abuse have used their doctrinal beliefs in order to justify their actions. And further still, we need to acknowledge that this isn’t just about a few rotten apples.  This has of course been seen in the lessons learnt reports but it has also been something that a number of people have been raising for some time. I frequently mention here Ray Ortlund who has argued passionately for a grace culture to reflect our belief in the doctrines of Grace. Further, I’ve been writing about the problem of a Guilt Driven Church culture and the way this can become abusive for several years now myself.  So, how do we end up in this situation where our doctrine should guard and protect against these things but doesn’t seem to.

Well, a few things. First of all, I think it is worth saying that in terms of our doctrinal positives, there can still be areas where we fail to put an emphasis. The application of doctrine to life requires the deep work of the Holy Spirit and perhaps out of reaction to some extreme forms of charismatic theology, conservative evangelicals have at times reacted by under emphasising the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, we need to recognise linked to this that we can so often compartmentalise things so that too often it may seem like we believe one thing but live as though we believe another.

Thirdly, sadly, even good doctrine can be subject to distortion and this is what I think we have seen at times both in the high level abuse cases and in the problems with culture that have also been picked up upon.  In that respect, the doctrine actually believed and taught ends up different to the doctrine in the Statements of Faith and the theology books.  We need to look carefully again at what it is that we are actually discipling people in.

So, these things need to be addressed both to the abusers in order to say “there is no excuse for your sin.” They need to be addressed to the wider church family to challenge and correct us. There should be no place for this sin among us. Finally, it needs saying to victims and to potential victims to say that there is no excuse or justification for what people  have done to you or are trying to coerce you into. The things that Fletcher and Smyth did were simply wrong, simply evil. 

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