When Steve Chalke infamously used his punchline comparing Penal Substitution to “cosmic child abuse” a lot of people picked up on how offensive this was towards God. I think Chalke’s defence would be that it could not be offensive to God because the God he believed in had not punished his son on our behalf and therefore the charge wasn’t against Him.
But I felt that the offence was in a slightly different place. You see the punchline was brilliant at catching attention, it was offensive enough to grab our attention and to demonstrate the alleged distastefulness of our doctrine. Yet his use of the phrase in my opinion did not think carefully enough about one group of people, those who have been directly affected by abuse. To my mind, and having pastored people who have experienced different forms of abuse, it took their pain and suffering and used it as a mere punchline to make his point and sell his book.
I felt similarly uneasy recently when reading a book that chose to talk about the church suffering a form of spiritual Alzheimer’s. It felt like an unpleasant and thoughtless turn of phrase given that there will be few readers who haven’t been touched by the cruelty of this disease. It’s an illness that leaves family members feeling as though they have lost their loved one before they’ve gone. Its not just about losing your memory and getting forgetful -as it is so often reduced to in humour. Rather, Alzheimer’s is a distressing form of dementia that causes anxiety and confusion.
Now at this point I want to challenge myself – in fact when I expressed my unhappiness with the phrase, my wife did that for me. “How would you feel about talking about sin as being like cancer.” It’s a good point and Scripture often uses disease type imagery such as spiritual blindness. For that reason I’m cautious about too heavy a tilt towards protesting “ablism”. I did have a little mischievous fun the other day when someone asked me “are you blind” though!
I think my problem is this. The author in question simply wanted to highlight a risk of forgetfulness. He believed we’d forgotten important aspects of doctrine. There are words, phrases and analogies that will do the job of getting such a point across. He could simply have said that we had become forgetful. He could have even talked about amnesia. Yet instead he chose a word in way that suggested he didn’t really get what the illness was or its pastoral impact. He went for the offensive option when there wasn’t a need and unlike with cancer where the imagery is used to focus on the problem of sin, he used an analogy that focused more on the horrific circumstances of the person.
For me, the language seemed unnecessary, it seemed more focused on provoking than informing and it jarred. It stood out and suggested a thoughtlessness and carelessness that far from commending his argument distracted from it.
I don’t want to become legalistic on such things. I don’t think we can be. However what I would encourage you to do when preparing to preach or write is to think carefully about he words and phrases you choose. Are they necessary? Will they help? Will they cause offence? Is that offence useful and crucial? For as many people I gain, how many listeners will I lose. Will it bring glory to Christ or dishonour?
We should at least pause to consider such things – or as I was taught from childhood “think before you speak.”