It stands to reason that when the Bible tells us to fear God and not man, it means it. But there has been an intentional false Gospel of fear pervasive in Evangelical Culture and it’s getting worse.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
In his book “Believe Me”, John Fea traced the history from the intentional calculations of the religious right and the moral majority to the inevitable uprise of grievance politics that have come to dominate the right of the political spectrum. Some have said that this is a reaction against the left’s identity politics, but I disagree. Fea makes the case pretty forcefully that starting as far back as the 1920s, evangelists and evangelicals were buying into what Fea calls; “a false gospel of fear.” Kristen Du Mez has confirmed this to be the case in her recent book “Jesus and John Wayne”, where she demonstrates that fear was often the driving force behind everything from what got taught at Christian schools to who Christians supported for president. There was the fear of looking weak, fear of a perceived other, fear of losing power and influence, and fear of what was labeled “creeping secularism.” One can really sum up all these fears as: “fear of marginalization,” something that Andrew Wilson of King’s Church in London noted in a recent interview with the Gospel Coalition has been the position of the Church in England for most of the last century.
To promote this gospel of fear Evangelical leaders created boogeymen, “ists” and “isms” that were well-overplayed, if not none existent, to control their congregations into voting a certain way, supporting a certain cause, fighting the culture wars, attending the conferences etc. Matt Chandler gives an excellent example of what this looks like in his mini-sermon “The Rose” in which he describes a fire and brimstone purity culture preacher passing a rose around a youth group congregation and when it got back to him, torn apart and broken he yelled at the congregation: “Who would want this, all messed up and broken, this is what you are like if you have sex before marriage, no one would want you.” Chandler, of course, wanted to scream that, in fact, Jesus wants the rose because: “That’s the point of the Gospel.”
This type of gospel was preached on all levels of society. As a kid I can remember being made to believe that I would be offered drugs on a regular basis or that if I posted certain things online it would make me undesirable for employment. I have never once been offered drugs, and I have always been careful about social media. Most of my friends can say the same. Yet one the micro-level, these things were used to make us afraid and control our behavior, not for our benefit. Most of the people who I know today who use drugs or abuse alcohol started using in rebellion against this gospel of fear. “My parents tell me not to do it, that I should be afraid of these things. I am going to prove they’re not that scary.” This had extremely destructive results. I can agree with being cautious or even staying away from drugs and learning to be respectful of the influence of alcohol, but the fear that was used to control behavior was over-blown. On the macro-level, we see the result in the rise of grievance politics, you have been told to fear “Socialism” or “Marxism” or “CRT” by people who, in most cases, cannot even define those terms and are using them to get you to vote a certain way on certain issues, support certain people and products or support a political candidate or party.
Jonathan V. Last has stated on: “The Next Level” podcast that we are seeing in our society is the result of our being a deeply unserious people. “The fights and debates we are having in our society” he said: “are the result of decadence and reveal how deeply unserious we are.” N.T. Wright has stated that the reason the Church in Europe settled the issue of “women in ministry” years ago, was because they were forced to by the Churches’ marginalization. When you are marginalized, you do not have the ability to have foolish and fruitless debates because the world is going to hit you hard if you don’t maintain orthodoxy. In America, the Church is headed for marginalization, but we are not yet there. We are also the richest country on Earth, and the Church here has more money than the church on other parts of the globe. We are so decadent that we are bored and so we have the privilege, time and luxury to have these pointless and often foolish debates and when we get tired of those, we have to turn to our chosen a boogeyman real or imagined.
This of course, is intellectually lazy, because by just denouncing something you do not have to engage with it on the merits of what it is. Most Christians have been told to fear, for instance, Socialism, but cannot define Socialism. As a conservative, I am no fan of Socialism, but I am also not afraid of it, it is a secular theory of government that relies on the forced redistribution of wealth by the government to form an equal, equitable society. But if God puts the church under socialist leaders, as he has in many countries in history, then we are to submit to them, not fear them as Romans 13 instructs us, we are also to pray for them, as 1 Timothy 2:1-5 instructs us. These two commands of scripture should not be ignored, but often are, in favor of “the gospel of fear.” What is worse is the way this particular boogeyman gets used, as a tool of the “whataboutism’ that gets brought up when someone critiques something within that person’s own camp. This again, is lazy and dishonest, but it also makes your system its abuses above critique because well: “What about socialism?”
What is worse is the way this gospel of fear is often employed to justify the sins of our own side. For instance, in a conversation with a brother the topic of CRT came up, Critical Race Theory is a legal and social theory of ethnicity based on the idea that The Civil Rights Movement was incomplete in its goal to bring equality and bring equity. It acknowledges that systemic sins such as racism exist and still have influence in ways, we are likely unaware of. Some have gone so far as to posit that the races would be better separate, but others, like Jamar Tisby have argued that the Church is the only place equipped to bring equity and unity between Black and White. The Southern Baptist Convention, however, has gone to war against CRT and is hemorrhaging members and member churches because of it. Their stance seems like a set back since they apologized for their role in the defense of slavery and Jim Crow sometime in the early 2000s. From what I have read so far, CRT is not the threat to unity that many White Christians are claiming it to be, perhaps some on the fringes of the movement could be considered concerning, but it seems more likely that CRT is a distraction to keep us from dealing with a much bigger, internal issues, the idolatry and heresy of Christian Nationalism. Sure, some would say that CN is just as concerning as CRT, but they devote their attacks to CRT and say nothing, or are complicit with, CN. Or, as I said above, CN is justified because: “What about CRT?” in the minds of the proponents of the Gospel of Fear of CRT, Christian Nationalism is justifiable because by keeping our power and influence we can make sure threats like CRT cannot get in. Again, this is dishonest and intellectually lazy, and the fact that it allows us to ignore major problems within the Church, is sinister. By the way, we do have an ethnic divide in the Church as well, and Tisby is correct, the Church is the only organization equipped in its biblical structure, purpose, and make-up to create a place where ethnic equity and equality exist. CN is, believe it or not, a greater threat to our existence than CRT, since Idolatry is what has led the Covenant People of God into cultural and physical exile almost every time it has happened since Israel.
We would be better served if we would abandon this Gospel of fear and deal with the reality that the Church, God’s covenant people, are a mess and it is not because of CRT, but because our own leaders, the people we are supposed to trust, have been discipling us into a gospel of fear for the better part of 200 years. This was, as Fea, Du Mez and others point out, an intentional decision that was designed to manipulate the tools of this world for the sake of preserving and protecting the Church that is supposed to be under the sole protection of the Triune God who is jealous for us. It has the effect of feeding us to the wolves. That is to say, the people who end up suffering the most because of this gospel of fear are not going to be the evangelical leaders that no one will hold accountable but God himself, but the people on the ground, the small-town church in Keen New Hampshire or Buffalo Center Iowa. The world will hold us accountable for not living as we claim to live, and it will not be pretty. It already is not.
So what is the solution? The solution is what it has always been, show the world the blessings of living the Jesus life in the Jesus way. Like what my father-in-law’s church did when they bought a building in their small town. The building was once home to a winery and housed an art gallery. At the meeting, the owners of the art gallery that rented space in the building were expecting to have their rent raised and force them to find another space for their gallery. They were expecting these Evangelical Christians to be exactly what our reputation tells them we are: rude and nasty, mean spirited and judgmental. To the surprise of the owners of the art gallery, not only did my father-in-law’s church ask them to stay, but they also treated them with kindness, respect and dignity and even lowered their rent. This was a shock to these men and women who likely had never entered the doors of a church. The winsome love of Christ, shown by my father-in-law’s church was a greater testimony to the town of Northfield than any multiplication of culture wars, or demand to have things their way , or support of a political party could have ever been. By doing things the Jesus Way, they will have shifted the way that group thinks about Evangelicals and Christians in general. This was how the Church operated in the ancient world, with Roman governors and emperors astonished that this small, persecuted group of people within their empire would care for the sick and dying, take in infants who had been exposed and raise them as their own children, willingly give up their lives because the Way of Jesus was so radically opposite of the Roman way. Emperor Julian even stated it was this willingness of the Christians to care for plague victims that kept his “re-paganizing” program from succeeding.
What if we lived this out again? What if, instead of being known as bullies and mean-spirited fear mongers, always ranting about Liberals and losing, instead of grievance politics, we chose this way, the third way of Jesus? How would our world be different? Yes, Christians would become marginalized once again, but that is going to happen whether we go quietly or fight to the final man. What if the Jesus way, became our way again? Then maybe people would want to find out what and why we have hope of any kind in our ever-darkening world. What if we were willing to hold our leaders accountable for their false Gospels? If they saw us address all the various problems within our own people and not just renounce and cancel Christian Nationalism and all our other issues but called upon those creating them to repent or face the consequence of ex-communication, like Paul did with Hymaneus and Alexander in Ephesus. What if we cared for the widow, the orphan and the refugee and stopped being afraid of them? What if we came along side single mothers and fathers and helped them care for their kids and flourish in a challenging circumstance? What if we stopped defending sexual predators and stood by their victims and dismantled the culture that has allowed these men to go unpunished and we stopped placing the blame on their wives or their victims? What if we stopped telling men they had to be strong and masculine by the world’s standards, and teach them to live the life of Jesus, getting angry over violations of God’s holiness and His temple? What if we became like Jesus again and showed the world what it means when God calls us “salt and light.”
That will happen, it will happen because the Holy Spirit has already begun the winnowing process, we are already on the threshing floor, and when the dross is burned off, the remnant that remains will be reformed into the image of the Son. The option before us is to repent and return willingly, or find ourselves before the chastisement of God whose mercies are new every morning, but who will not tolerate violations of His holiness and Kingdom and who has given us the best and most blessed way to live, through a relationship and in communion with His son, Jesus Christ our Lord. May He reign forever and ever, Amen.
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Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center