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The Fearvangelicals

One of the overlooked consequences of turning from God is fear. In the book of Leviticus, a long list of consequences for disobedience is sealed in the fear that will overtake the hearts of God’s people:

And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues. And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. (Leviticus 26:36-37)

In her oft-quoted essay on fear, essayist Marilynne Robinson comments on this passage,

Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety however that word may be defined, can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears…There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient in their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on the one hand, and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.[1]

When fear consumes the hearts of an individual or a group, they will be inclined to see threats and enemies everywhere, and they will no longer be able to discern what is true from what is false.

Any honest evaluation would recognize that this kind of fear is running amok in American Evangelicalism. Indeed, some historians would argue that it would be impossible to give an account of Evangelicalism in the United States without describing the role fear has played in shaping our collective conscience.[2] Fear has become such a powerful force in American Evangelicalism today that we have become what pastor and author Skye Jethani has dubbed the “Fearvangelicals”.

When fear consumes the hearts of an individual or a group, they will be inclined to see threats and enemies everywhere, and they will no longer be able to discern what is true from what is false.

Fear in the Church

In Joshua 22 we find a great example of what it looks like when irrational fear takes the heart of God’s people. Two and a half tribes (the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh) had made a deal with Moses (Numbers 32) and confirmed with Joshua (Joshua 1:12-18) that they could settle on the east side of the Jordan River. After Joshua gives permission for these tribes to go and settle on the east side of the river, news comes back to the people of Israel that these two and a half tribes had made an alternative altar for worship (Joshua 22:10-11). In fear, the people of Israel assumed that these two and a half tribes were worshipping false gods at this altar and prepared to go to war against them (22:12).

Fortunately, the people of Israel decided to send an envoy to issues charges of idolatry before coming to blows (22:13-20). Of course, rather than issuing charges, the people of Israel ought to have first listened to the two and a half tribes (but fear makes us do silly things). In their response, the two and a half tribes tell us their true motivation: fear (22:21-29). These tribes feared that in the next generation, the children of Israel would say to the children of these tribes that on account of the distance between them, the children of these two and a half tribes have no share in the blessings of the Lord (22:24-26). Hearing this response, the envoy of Israel is satisfied to allow the altar to remain, and civil war is averted (22:30).

Do you see how much fear was present in the hearts of God’s people? In fear, they made numerous wrongful assumptions about one another. They were not only willing to accept permanent disunity, but they were even ready to go to war with one another!

American Christianity has been consumed by fear – and it shows.

Doesn’t this sound like so much of the American church today? Rather than listening to one another, voicing our concerns, and working together for shared goals, we would rather make quick assumptions and go to war with one another. American Christianity has been consumed by fear – and it shows.

At the 2019 General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), pastors and elders debated whether to affirm the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s (CBMW) Nashville Statement.[3] This document has the stated purpose of “serving Christ’s church and witnessing publicly to the good purposes of God for human sexuality revealed in Christian Scripture.” On the surface, it might have seemed like this would be an easy document for a biblically conservative and confessional denomination to affirm. However, a large number of elders stood against this vote for several reasons, including:

  • The PCA has never signed or affirmed other “third-party” evangelical statements, such as the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy, Hermeneutics, or Application. Instead, when issues of concern or controversy have arisen, we have always formed our own committee to write our own report and statement.
  • Many leaders of the CBMW hold troublesome and heterodox views of the Trinity, so we ought not to align ourselves with them when we disagree on such an essential doctrine.
  • Some of the declarations of the Nashville Statements are insensitive, even hurtful, to our gay brothers and sisters in our churches. Rather than signing this Statement, these elders wanted to write a more pastorally sensitive and winsome guide and statement for our churches.

In the end, those in favor of affirming the Nashville Statement won the day, but the vote divided the assembly. Those in favor of the vote numbered only about 60% of those gathered, with nearly 40% of the assembly voting against affirming the Statement. Many of those who voted against signing the Statement signed a protest in the official meeting minutes of the assembly.

Soon after the assembly disbanded, some leaders took up arms against those who voted against affirming the statement. Rather than working toward solutions of mutual understanding and unity, they created websites to attack those with whom they disagreed. Often, these websites grossly misrepresented the pastors and elders who voted against the Statement. These websites not only published the names of those who protested, but also encouraged church members to view these pastors and elders with suspicion. They even encouraged keeping these men out of ministry positions.[4]

Since then, others have joined the war effort by creating new coalitions to oppose those who they believe are the enemies within the PCA.[5] We now even have pastors who regularly make baseless charges against the denomination.[6] Such leaders and coalitions fuel a wartime narrative which breeds suspicion, bitterness, and anger in our churches.

These instances of fear are only a small handful of what exists inside my denomination (the PCA). Numerous other examples could be given from other evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. The data is out there if we are willing to confront it: White Evangelicals have long dealt on a platform of fear and suspicion. Such fear is often stoked to protect power and the status quo. As historian and author Kristen Kobes Du Mez has said,

Conservative evangelicals have long traded in a “religion of fear” and a “politics of horror.” For decades, leaders … have been stirring up fear in the hearts of American Christians—fear that Christianity is under siege, that communists, or secular humanists, or feminists, or liberals, or Muslims are one step away from destroying the family, the church, the nation, God’s truth, even civilization itself.

Perhaps evangelical leaders believed these threats were real and present. Perhaps. But they knew full well that inciting fear in American Christians was key to amassing their own personal power. In convincing followers that evil lurked around every corner, they ensured that their followers would cling more tightly to the spiritual protection they promised—a protection that came with a cost.[7]

The cost we have willingly paid is the fruit of bitterness, suspicion, and division in our churches. Not only are we willing to go to war against “outsiders” who represent our enemies (secularism, Cultural Marxism, “the gay agenda,” CRT, etc.), but we are even willing to go to war with one another. Open slander and suspicion among church members has almost become normal, so much so that many pastors are starting to think about leaving ministry as a result.[8]

The cost we have willingly paid is the fruit of bitterness, suspicion, and division in our churches.

Furthermore, is it any wonder that more than 1 in 4 White Evangelicals have bought into conspiracy theories?[9] That many feel like they are the most discriminated group in America?[10] That many tend to have very distorted views toward major events, such as the January 6th Capitol Riots?[11] When fear grips our hearts, we see threats and enemies everywhere.

Like the story in Joshua, our churches have been consumed by fear. We too make wrongful and sinful assumptions about one another, leading us to open war against those whom we should see as our brothers and sisters. If fear is not a Christian habit of mind (as Marilynne Robinson has said[12]), then we must wonder why fear preoccupies the hearts of so many Christians today.

Fear and Discernment

When confronted with the dangers of being consumed by fear, I have heard many Evangelicals respond by asking, “Ok, I get that fear is bad, but shouldn’t we be worried about false teaching or threats to our churches? Don’t we have reason to be concerned? Shouldn’t we practice discernment?” Yes, of course we should be concerned about legitimate false teaching and threats to our churches (ex. 1 Timothy 1:3). Yes, it is important for us to practice discernment to know truth from error (ex. Romans 12:1-2). However, there is a great deal of difference between the kind of discernment which has been poisoned by fear, and that which is genuinely characterized by the fruit of the Spirit.

When we are consumed by fear, the end result of our “discernment” will always be anger (Proverbs 29:22; James 1:19-20), toxic speech (Proverbs 12:18; James 3:1-12), bitterness (James 3:14; Hebrews 12:15), and division (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:3-4, 6:6-7; James 4:1-2).  Sadly, these characteristics are far too common in many Evangelical leaders, news (or “satire”) sites, and ministries.

However, when true discernment is practiced, it will always be done out of love (1 Corinthians 13). This love will always seek to build one another up, even if it has to come through difficult conversations (1 Thessalonians 5:11). It will lead to greater unity, not disunity (John 17:20-23; Philippians 2:1-2). In other words, true discernment – when done in love – will be characterized by all of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24).

There is no place in Scripture where we find an “ends justifies the means” principle.

There is no place in Scripture where we find an “ends justifies the means” principle. It is never appropriate for a Christian to stoke fear in the hearts of others, to use fear as a motivator, or to legitimize “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21) under the disguise of “discernment.”

The Fear of the Lord

So how do we stopped being so consumed by fear?

Perhaps a more biblical question would be, “How do we replace our sinful, earthly fears with a good and right fear of the Lord?”

In his newest book Rejoice & Tremble, theologian Michael Reeves argues that the reason why these earthly and sinful fears are so present in our churches is because we have lost the good and right fear of God. Reeves writes:

With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming even more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown – indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns – from personal health to the health of the planet – have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.[13]

Forget applying this to our society at large – how true is this of our congregations? The great irony is that often our fear is excused by “trying to protect the church.” However, by giving in to our fear, we have actually become more “worldly” than the world often is!

So, what is the solution? As we have already seen, the Bible describes earthly, sinful fear as a consequence of turning from the Lord. The good news for us is that there is a way for our hearts to turn from these earthly fears toward a right fear of the Lord instead. Read this promise of the New Covenant from Jeremiah:

Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. 38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:37-40, emphasis mine)

This New Covenant promise is further described in Jeremiah 33, where it is said that God’s people “shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it” (Jeremiah 33:9). In other words, we will rightly fear the Lord when we recognize all the good and wonderful things he has done for us.

We will rightly fear the Lord when we recognize all the good and wonderful things he has done for us.

We need the gospel. For in the gospel, we will find that Jesus has defeated sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57), every dark and sinful power of this world (Colossians 2:15), and he has given us new life in him (John 14:19). As our hearts are awakened by all that God has made known and done for us in Christ, our earthly fears will subside, and our right fear of the Lord will increase. Then, we will be able to say with the Psalmists,

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)

and,

The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad. (Psalm 126:3)

[1] Marilynne Robinson, “Fear” in The Givenness of Things, p. 126.

[2] Fear has been a powerful force in American Evangelicalism, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. Some Evangelical leaders even want us to believe that the United States is turning into Nazi Germany, and that we need to be prepared to give our lives in the face of the coming persecution. For more, see: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/02/eric-metaxas-2020-election-trump/617999/

[3] https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/

[4] https://pcaprotest.com

[5] https://ffpartnership.wpengine.com

[6] https://www.reformation21.org/blog/a-plea-to-the-pca

[7] https://reformedjournal.com/why-is-fear-an-evangelical-habit-of-mind/

[8] https://churchanswers.com/blog/six-reasons-your-pastor-is-about-to-quit/

[9] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/white-evangelicals-qanon-election-conspiracy-trump-aei.html

[10] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/10/14881446/prri-survey-muslims-christians-discrimination

[11] https://twitter.com/socofthesacred/status/1362805416636387328

[12] Robinson, p. 125.

[13] Michael Reeves, Rejoice & Tremble, p. 20.

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The Fearvangelicals

by Ben Hein time to read: 10 min
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