Confronting fear in Church life

When I reflect on some of the stories of Christians abused by Christians, one of the common themes, that often seems to come into the accounts, is the word ‘fear’. A lot more could be said on the topic as to the way that fear is such a mind-numbing and dispiriting experience for the one experiencing it. I want here to reflect not on the experience itself but why this emotion appears so often in the process we describe as Christian abuse. Abuse, in whatever context it occurs, normally takes place because certain individuals enjoy power. One thing that sets up an appetite for power is that the individual seeking power has at some point in their lives felt insignificant and less than appreciated. Exercising domination over others, through the exercise of authority and power, seems to relieve a void of powerlessness because there is another person who looks up to you in some way. To have someone frightened of you seems to satisfy this longing for domination.

The desire to dominate other people has always seemingly been a part of human nature. Sometimes entire nations are encouraged to feel superior over other groups or nations. The Germans as a nation were taught by their Nazi rulers to despise Jews, Slavs and other non-Aryan races and this was seen to be an aspect of their vocation to be the master race in the world. Indian society is riddled with the imbedded caste system which is a socially sanctioned system of power abuse over despised groups on the part of the privileged. We see the effect of power hierarchies and the bullying they create everywhere, whether in the family, the school, the company or the church.

For domination to work there has to be the possibility of sanctions. The master has to be able to punish the slave for disobedience. The soldier in an army of occupation has to be to able threaten the civilian with punishment and the child in a bullying relationship with another threatens to make life a misery for his victim. These implied threats cast a miasma of fear over a dominating relationship. Even if a stability is achieved so that actual violence rarely happens, this possibility, the threat of violence and the fear that it produces, can pervade the atmosphere of an institution or relationship like a fog.

The miasma of fear arising from bullying and an authoritarian structure is something that exists in certain churches. The members of these churches of fear have, paradoxically, often become so acclimatised to the atmosphere that they have forgotten that coercion and domination are built into the system. They have avoided encountering the sanctions built into the authoritarian system by keeping their heads down. The attitude that places all responsibility for thinking out problems on to the leaders has been adopted. Pastor So and So has been to college so he understands the difficult parts of the bible. I can rely on my Pastor because that is what Bible says I have to do. The no-questioning and no-challenging of the leaders seems to work and an un-eerie peace is allowed to prevail as a result. But in that peace there is a recognition that, were it to be challenged, the Pastor could make life very uncomfortable indeed for the questioner. Peace is ultimately preserved through fear, just as the Soviet system appeared to ‘work’ for countless numbers of its citizens.

The Brentwood situation to which I often refer in this blog is one where the miasma of fear allowed a situation of cruelty, deceit and power games to prevail for 30 + years. The habits of fear are still around even as the constant challenge of Nigel Davies through his blog undermines the pretentions and hypocrisy of the leaders. While the leadership can suppress questioning within the group, it is less successful when an ex-member, who has cast off the fear-laden attitudes of the past, questions and challenges. I am one of those who offers support from the outside. A battle against past and present fear is a battle well worth fighting.

What are the weapons that can induce fear in the victims of church abuse? The first is the one we have already mentioned, the right of a Christian leader to demand absolute obedience from members of his flock. This demand, backed up by select number of bible quotes, still seems to work in more churches than we would expect. The second fear-inducing tactic by some Christian leaders is one which claims to have the right to decide whether or not the church member is going to enter heaven or not. There was a story in the press in the past week where a Baptist church in the States refused to take a funeral service for a 90 year old member of 50 years standing on the ground that she had stopped coming because of illness, thus not paying her dues. The effect of this kind of decree on the other elderly members in the congregation could be massive, as the funeral service would be seen as crucial to eternal salvation. This power to hold and withhold the keys to heaven is a serious matter. Third the authoritarian church holds all the cards in the matter of interpreting Scripture. One simply cannot challenge or discuss if the minister comes down heavily, for example, on matters of sexual conduct. One has to listen as the minister condemns, divorce, gay relationships or whatever is fashionably ‘un-Christian’ at the moment, This might mean hearing that members of one’s own family are beyond the pale. Fourthly, we have to face the possibility that the Church leader may be given to angry outbursts, sexual misconduct or generally dominating conduct which makes life unpleasant for everyone, not least himself.

In a piece of 1000 words, I now need to come to my conclusion quickly, though no doubt I shall return to this topic again. Jesus would have had absolutely no time for any of the antics in churches that produce fear or the threat of fear. He never threatened anyone with hell; he never blackmailed people into behaving in a particular way. The words ‘Perfect love casts out fear’, are the words of someone who wanted to repudiate creating fear in others as a weapon of control. Jesus saw all the power games that were played by inadequate people, the pomposity and hypocrisy that went with them. Jesus saw right through all that took place among the religious leaders of his day. A great deal of what he thought about power can be summed up in those words from Mark 10. ‘ the world the recognised rulers lord it over their subjects …..That is not the way with you.’ Service is to be the hallmark of their mutual relating to one another.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “Confronting fear in Church life

  1. I can vividly remember the fear. It still comes back from time to time. What will my email inbox reveal? The post? The next time I see so and so? I can remember sleepless nights before PCC meetings. I’m trying to analyse why. I mean, what are people going to do to me? Throw me out of the church is one answer. If they’re vile to me when I haven’t done anything, what on earth would they do if I did? So if I say anything to anyone, for example. The first thing that happens in my experience is that the person you have confided in (usually clergy) immediately tells the person you have accused (usually also clergy). Readers may find that difficult to believe, but it’s getting to be a large proportion of the people I’ve tried to explain to. Even if you haven’t actually said very much, something is usually said. Where I am now, this has happened. People from the past have been consulted. So much for a fresh start. The fresh start is only for your abuser. You have to pretend it never happened. You don’t get one. Hence the fear. And no-one ever tells you what so and so said about you. The first you hear of it is when the blow falls. So that would be another reason for the fear, the blow that comes out of nowhere for no reason and with no explanation.

  2. There is perhaps a less sinister fear – real nevertheless. That of “getting it wrong” – theologically speaking – and of therefore being branded as in error – with the ostracism that implies. It seems to me that one of the good things about getting older is being less concerned about this – but for younger folks, not being fully accepted is much more of a driver.

    Supreme irony in that failing – getting it wrong is something the bible explains as part of the human condition (“sin” though the word is often misunderstood) and the good news the Church has is the doctrine of Grace. Like all doctrines it is worth nothing unless it is lived….

  3. Grew up under a very EVIL pastor who had what I call hitler/Napoleon complex, very narcissistic. NOT a healthy church at all. People and families were NOT healthy and he kept them sick, in bondage and coming back for more. Do not understand what the attraction was at all; worse it was a Matriarchal church that must have been very unhappy with their lives to pick such abusive legalism. Assemblies (assassins) of God (they gave you their god) should NOT exist at all or Foursquare. There used to be an article that someone wrote on their 25 years in Foursquare Church, what a waste was basically their thoughts, so true. You could have sat your entire life in both movements; NEVER will I consider them churches. We as people DO NOT KNOW WHAT TRUE CHURCHES or Shepherd looks like. To be kept in fear, bondage by men who are in the pulpit who ARE NOT HEALED up themselves and have a complete and utter disdain for correction and accountability and we throw money at them to be kept in their lifestyles, GOD HAVE GREAT MERCY ON ALL OUR SOULS. Thank you for this site.

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