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Fear and Hurt and Doctrine
They are needs, not weapons.
Note: My follow-up to the post on singleness and the church is coming, I promise!
Let me submit the following ideas to your consideration:
Fear of doctrinal compromise and liberal shift does not give you a license to believe or say whatever you want about people whom you suspect are guilty of this.
Hurt at the hands of people who claim a particular theology or church culture does not give you a license to believe or say whatever you want about the people who did this.
Fear and hurt are two of the great motivators of much Christian discourse today. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Christian discourse without them. If you crack open the book, log on to the feed, or open the email, there’s a rock solid chance you will encounter someone who is either afraid of the loss of truth that may be happening in your context, or else they are hurt at the loss of gentleness and love that may be happening in that same context.
And both of these, fear and hurt, are legitimate feelings. They’re legitimate because there is much doctrinal compromise, and there is much harm and abuse and bullying. When a Christian pastor or author or layperson speaks from one of these states of mind, it is rare that they’re simply seeing ghosts. Usually there are stories to back them up, evidence to give weight to their hurt and fear. They are telling the truth as they’ve experienced it.
And yet the act of processing these experiences and the convictions they create is a perilous undertaking. You can imagine this more clearly if what you have in mind is not some liquid movement called “evangelicalism” but, say, a single local church. People who are convinced that their church is going to apostasize can do enormous damage to themselves and those around them if they are so committed to that conclusion that they cannot be reasoned with. People who are hurt by what others in the church have said or done to them can inflict immense harm, on themselves and others, by refusing efforts to reconcile or forgive.
The only reason for the instinctive defensiveness many of you just felt when I mentioned those two scenarios is that so much Christian discourse is now shot through with a whistleblower ethos. If you suspect your church is smuggling liberalism, you have an obligation (many think) to denounce it loudly and quickly, and probably get out as fast as you can. If you’ve been hurt by your church, you have an obligation to identify the guilty parties and their crimes loudly and quickly, and probably get out as fast as you can. That’s how people talk about these issues online, because the danger of this mentality is lost in the abstractness of the medium. But you cannot live this way.
Even using the words “fear” and “hurt” can give off the impression that I’m dismissing the threat of creeping liberalism or the abusiveness of certain church cultures. Not at all. Fear and hurt are not illegitimate postures from which to speak. But they are incomplete postures. The fear does not bestow theological clarivoyance to predict exactly what such and such pastor or institution will do next. The hurt does not transform a person into a prophetic totem of the wrongness of a certain theology or group. Here’s the point: Fear and hurt aren’t weapons, they are needs. Fear needs to be assuaged. Hurt needs to be mended. And the whirlpool that is online theological discourse does not, and will never, recognize these as needs. It only recognizes them as clout.
I do wonder how much of our current arguments within evangelicalism would change overnight if people speaking from a position of fear or hurt would take a break from leveraging those feelings into rhteorical advantages, and instead let someone (or someones) minister to that need in a profound but quiet way. That’s something we all need. And in our most vulnerable moments, I suspect we know this.