Abuse of power in Christian circles: some reflections on Psalm 103

Jul 2, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Rumours have been circulating for some time, but now information is coming into the public domain which is shaking the foundations of an influential and successful brand of evangelical Christianity in England. At a time when in the nation, the tradition of freely practiced orthodox Christianity is under threat in scale arguably comparable to the Viking invasions or the heyday of the enlightenment, a group which is one of the strong guardians and promoters of that tradition finds itself deeply wounded. What is emerging is a story of a highly respected and influential individual, informally regarded as an unquestioned leader of a movement with noble bible-based beliefs and missional aims, revealed as a manipulative bully who over many years drew younger ‘disciples’ into a web of control, sometimes involving activities with arguably mild but nevertheless unmistakable homoerotic overtones.

Questions are of course being asked about why more was not done to investigate when rumours started to surface, why help was not offered sooner to survivors, and whether anything in the Christian culture surrounding this leader needs to change. Much has been written about the specific case and more generally, how Christians should react when a pastor “falls” after revelations of immoral or abusive behaviour. And of course some who detest conservative evangelical theology have been quick to attempt to locate the cause of such activities in, for example, beliefs in God’s judgement and the atoning death of Christ, which they say promotes violence rather than love and peace.

But such abusive behaviour, rather than being caused by a belief in the bible, reveals a failure to follow the very biblical principles that its perpetrators claim to observe. At the same time there are those in the church who want to condemn the biblical principles themselves as causing abusive behaviour. I’ve been reflecting recently on Psalm 103, and would like to look briefly at three such key principles outlined in this poem which are denied by both forms of heresy.

  1. “The Lord does not treat as as our sins deserve”, Psalm 103:10.

The Psalm begins with a list of ‘benefits’ which the Lord gives his people, and the first on this list is the forgiveness of sins. This is expanded in verses 8-12: we are justly accused of doing wrong, and God’s response to evil is not indifference, but righteous anger. However, because of his love for his people, he does not repay with punishment, but instead ‘removes’ transgression – something which is explained in other Scriptural passages by the provision of atonement. The gospel application for us: We are sinners and need to trust in the Lord’s grace for forgiveness, demonstrated and effected supremely at Calvary.

The revisionist heresy denies this biblical truth in various ways. The humanist version would deny the essential sinfulness of humanity altogether, focussing on our goodness, while the neo-marxist version would divide humanity into sinful ‘oppressors’ who need punishment and/or forced reeducation, and sinless, oppressed victims who need expansion and defence of rights. As application, as basically good people we don’t need to be forgiven or to change, but to celebrate who we are.

A more subtle heresy affirms our sinful nature, our need for forgiveness and the sufficiency of God’s grace. But in practice it’s felt that this grace is not enough. Discipline must be maintained by administering punishment, perhaps by the the cane or slipper. Some of us who teach grace may be guilty of punishing ourselves, by working harder. In theory we believe that God’s spirit working in us effects change, but in practice we feel we can only enforce obedience to the word through disciplined repression of desire, and outward conformity to the norms of a tightly-knit group.

2. “The Lord’s love is with those who fear the Lord, who obey his statutes”, Psalm 103:17-18.

We are designed, as Adam and Eve, to flourish in relationship with God, by recognising his authority, submitting to him, and trusting his word as our guide.

For the revisionist, the bible is not trustworthy or a reliable guide. As many influential Anglican leaders in the West are saying openly, “Did God really say what we think the bible says, for example about sex and marriage?” Much better, they say, to locate ‘authority’ and ‘word’ in prevailing opinion in liberal society, rather than in ancient texts.

But for the evangelical there is also a danger. While in theory we fear God and obey his commands, in practice God is rather remote and he’s delegated his authority to our human leaders and mentors in our group. We ask ourselves how is it possible that a respected leader can enthral devoted young Christians into a relationship marked by manipulation, control and humiliation, even with a sexual element; they do not report it, or if they do, others turn a blind eye. Perhaps a reason is that a relationship based on reverent fear and obedience which should apply to God alone is conflated with a relationship with a mentor. Let me be clear: this is not in any way blaming the victim – the responsibility lies with the senior one who has abused his position of authority.

3. “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all”, Psalm 103:19.

The foundational truth of Scripture is that God exists, he is utterly sovereign and all-powerful. He carries out his will primarily through his angels, his “mighty ones”; his “heavenly servants” (v20-21). This cosmology is alien to a Western secular worldview.

Heresy One would say: no – such talk of a powerful God is inherently abusive, misogynistic, patriarchal, “logo-phallocentric”, antidemocratic, restrictive, oppressive. If there is a God, he is a reflection of our understanding of love, equality and inclusion.

For those inclined to Heresy Two: in theory God is in control, but we (our group) need to ensure we control things within our environment as much as we can. While in theory we believe the Lord is building his church, in practice we do it by establishing power structures through whom we can control the future leadership. We pray for the evangelistic success of the church, but really we believe that it’s up to us and our plans.

There is something in common between the two heresies. While one denies the truth of the bible and the other affirms it, both in effect are influenced by a secular, intellectual mindset. Either God is not really there and we have to create something like him in our own image. Or he is a theory only; something we read about but cannot really experience because he is too distant; in practice we are the ones who need to carry out his will.

Churches with a tendency to either of these heresies need the real God of Psalm 103 to intervene in our crisis.

See also: 3 ways to respond when a church leader is found guilty of abuse, by Christopher Ash, The Gospel Coalition

Jonathan Fletcher responds to allegations of ‘physical discipline’, from Christian Today

Statement about the abuse of spiritual responsibility, delivered at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in Westminster by Vaughan Roberts, Sarah Hall and Andrew Wales, and posted on the ‘walkingwith.uk’ website.

Leading Gafcon Bishop says he was a victim of spiritual abuse, from Christian Today

Minister ‘spiritually abused’ the vulnerable, by Gabriella Sterling, Telegraph

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