Does Evangelical theology inculcate abuse?

I had no particular desire or inclination to comment on the latest abuse scandal currently engulfing the Church of England. For one, the CofE is not my house to defend. For another, it is no great secret that sinful people will abuse positions of power. This is not unique to the Church of England, or indeed religious institutions, but common to anywhere that power is held in institutional form, whether that is churches, schools, councils, governments or businesses. Such, sadly, has it always been; the abuse only ever differing in form and degree. That is not to play down the appalling breach of trust nor the horrendous nature of abuse but is simply to note the fact that abusers will often abuse their positions of privilege in the pursuit of their abuse of people. It is to note the nature of the opportunity rather than to offer any apology for it.

Aside from all that, it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to distinguish an institution from individuals who abuse the power afforded to them by it. We would be mad to think the behaviour of Richard Nixon, for example, means that the entire system of US government is rotten to the core (you may wish to make that argument – on which I offer no comment – but it is a leap of logic to jump straight from tricky Dicky to wholesale institutional corruption). Likewise, it is a leap of logic to read into the abuse carried out by a single man an institutional inclination toward abuse. Whilst there are inevitably lessons to be learnt by any organisation engulfed in such scandal surrounding one of its members, it would not be fair to presume the whole institution corrupt as a result.

However, as I noted at the beginning, I had no intention to wading into the discussion. The CofE is little to do with me (though I do think – if we are going to begin attacking the institution itself – the above considerations are fair and ought to be borne in mind). I tend only to comment on the machinations of the CofE such as it impinges on me and my tradition. So why comment? The reason is simple: the abuse perpetrated by one man in the CofE is now being used, not just to attack the institution to which he belonged (fairly or unfairly as you may view that), but to tarnish any and every Evangelical, both inside and outside the Church of England, in the most egregious way.

In a comment piece in the Guardian, Giles Fraser has this to say:

Tom Brown’s School Days was published in 1857, the same year as the Indian Mutiny against British rule. Part of the purpose of empire was to promote evangelical Christianity. But the empire was no place for effeminate Christians. And so the ability to take a good beating became training for the sort of mental toughness that was required to rule the world…

Anne Atkins, writing in yesterday’s Telegraph, describes the young men who attended Smyth’s camps as “Christian, good-looking, sporty, decent, public school and Oxbridge educated”. This ideal of manly Christian decency, all side partings and blazers, survives. It’s why the evangelical Alpha Course uses someone like Bear Grylls as its advertising poster boy. And it’s why evangelicals retain the middle-class Victorian fear of homosexuality – because it doesn’t fit with their ideal of wholesome masculinity.

As I said, the current archbishop of Canterbury clearly bears no responsibility for the behaviour of sadists on Christian Camps in the 1970s. Nonetheless, his particular brand of Eton/Alpha Course Christianity is cut from the same cloth as the muscular Christianity of the 1850s. And this is why the Church of England hierarchy remains obsessed with maintaining the Anglican communion (ie what’s left of the empire) – it is no coincidence that Smyth fled to Zimbabwe and South Africa – and why it can’t get past an over-fascination with homosexuality. The archbishop is not to blame for Smyth’s sins. But he is still too much a part of the world that made him.

What are we to take as Fraser’s view? He clearly suggests that Evangelical Christianity permits, indeed encourages, the very abuse carried out by John Smyth.

Interestingly, Fraser shows no understanding of Evangelicalism. The vast majority of Evangelicals would have no frame of reference in respect to prep schools. The ‘muscular Christianity’ he describes – especially as supposedly pressed through the public school system – is simply foreign to the overwhelming majority of Evangelical people. Evangelicalism is not primarily drawn from such public school or Anglican stables. Anne Atkins’ description, if true at all, is less surprising because Smyth was involved in Evangelical Anglican camps. Such Evangelical people are not the model for Evangelicalism but are simply one stable from which Evangelicals are drawn.

Similarly egregious is the constant inference that the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself drawn from an Evangelical background, was somehow implicated. Fraser notes that Justin Welby almost certainly knew nothing about what was going on, being as he was a mere junior leader, yet proceeds to blame the whole thing on the same Evangelical theology advocated by the archbishop. What is interesting is that Fraser doesn’t produce one theological argument advanced by any Evangelical that could credibly be considered to have provided justification for Smyth’s abuse. I am no great fan of the Alpha Course, but I am at a loss to find anything in it that would lead one to justify systematic abuse. The claim is as laughable as it is untrue.

David Robertson has done a helpful job of explaining how both culture, experience and, most importantly, Evangelical theology itself makes it highly unlikely Evangelicalism is the cause of the problem. You can read his comments here. Likewise, Lee Gatiss has usefully shown how truth is not well served when it is co-opted to someone else’s agenda (such as Evangelical-bashing). You can read his comments here.

It is simply not credible to use John Smyth to suggest that Evangelical theology leads to systematic abuse. Fraser errs in associating Evangelicalism with the public school beatings he received as a boy. Without wishing to spill any secrets, most Evangelicals are neither Anglican nor public school educated. What is more, few (if any) public schools – certainly not the kind of prep school described by Fraser – can be described as Evangelical. What in the tenor of Evangelical theology, to which Fraser at no point appeals, lends itself to abuse? What about justification by faith alone in Christ alone permits abuse? What about Paul’s view of service, as understood by Evangelicals, leads one to believe that abuse is legitimate? There simply is nothing in Evangelical theology that can credibly be viewed as inculcating such behaviour.

It is certainly true that Evangelical people may fall and behave in heinous ways. That is not because of their theology but in spite of it. In fact, Evangelical theology recognises that we are all – every one us – sinners in need of God’s grace. That sinners go on and sin – sometimes in spectacularly horrific ways – is further testament to the truth of the doctrine of Total Depravity, not a consequence of believing it. It is for this reason that almost all Evangelical Free Churches insist on a set of checks and balances in a bid to minimise the consequences of sin where it may occur. A congregational polity and a genuine parity amongst an eldership, for example, does a great deal to keep in check the possible abuses that are so often associated with de facto one-man ministries. Nonetheless, as David Robertson so rightly points out, ‘any professing Christian who abuses children is doing so, not because they follow biblical theology, but because they are going against it’.

This slur against all Evangelicals simply should not stand. John Smyth abusing children no more infers Evangelical theology permits abuse than Bishop Peter Ball’s abuse of children suggests everybody who shares his theology must, of necessity, be a paedophile. This sort of argument does not serve the victims of Smyth well. How many Evangelical victims will be inclined to come forward if they believe their core theological beliefs will be blamed for their abuse? This is tantamount to suggesting Evangelical victims only have themselves to blame because of the things they themselves believe to be true. That would be shameful indeed!

The final word should be left to one of Smyth’s victims: the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson (you can read his full statement here):

I would also like to express the concern of myself and some of my fellow survivors that we are seen as people and not used as pawns in some political or religious game. Abusers espouse all theologies and none; and absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.