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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence

The Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

My point: Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived—that one’s metanarrative is under threat.

Let me put that in English: People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way.

Let me put that in Yoda: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.

Show me someone who is expresses in anger his views of God, and I will show you someone who is deeply afraid of losing control of God.

I should unpack that a bit.

Am I the only one, or have you also noticed that disagreements about God can get nasty very quickly? (And the internet, with its anonymity, just makes it worse.)

Anger can be thinly disguised behind a veil of passive-aggressiveness, or the claim that, “It’s nothing personal, but since the gospel is at stake, well, we can’t take prisoners. You understand.” But the fear is still there.

When I see someone who:

seeks theological conflict with fellow Christians,

or is quick to turn the temperature up at the slightest provocation,

or presumes to be right at every turn and has has an excessive need to display it,

I know I am dealing with a deeply fearful person.

The defense of belligerence goes something like this: “Read Paul and Jesus. They went after people. They fought for the truth as warriors in a fierce battle. Don’t bother me with your Yoda-esque, soft-minded, Oprah-laced, psycho-babble. We are following biblical teaching whenever we fight and contend for the truth.”

Sometime in the mid-90s at a lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, the evangelical leader John Stott said (and I am faithfully representing the gist of his words):

  • Yes, sometimes Christians have to fight.
  • But they should hate it.
  • An excessive attraction to fighting is pathological (Stott’s word).

One cannot use Jesus and Paul as an excuse to see a gospel-survival conflict at every point of disagreement. Christians should hate to fight. They should seek to avoid it.

No, that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree–publicly, privately, strongly. It doesn’t mean you can’t call other Christians to the carpet for what they think or do.

But there are those who love to fight and think they are serving God in doing so—that he is perhaps especially proud of them when they bludgeon others.

There are those who cheer, with bloodlust giddiness, that “doctrine divides.” And so they march out, making sure to divide with relentless energy between Christians who get it (them) and those who don’t (others).

“Doctrine divides,” but that may tell us more about the person than the nature of doctrine. Doctrine is divisive with those who harbor a contentious spirit, an excessive need to be right on theological matters–afraid of being wrong.

About Jesus and Paul. Jesus turned up the heat, to be sure—but against hypocrites, the religious leaders of his day who were disconnected from God yet acted as if they were God’s mouthpiece, those who were quick to pounce on others for not towing the line of an arrow-straight traditional theological system.

Belligerent, self-assured  “defenders of the gospel” today have more in common with Pharisees than they do with Jesus.

If you want a model from Jesus for how to talk to those with differing understandings of God, read the parables and follow Jesus’ lead there. Of read the story of Nicodemus, or the woman at the well. Just watch how Jesus interacts with people.

I realize that Paul got a bit snarky at times. He went after the church in Galatia, that’s for sure. He was angry and got down right prickly with them.

But that was because the church he had built and invested so much time in was truly going down the theological toilet.

There were Jewish Christians in this church who felt that the old ways of the Law of Moses (especially circumcision) had to be maintained. (In the Old Testament, Gentiles had to be circumcised to partner with Israelites in worshipping God.)

Paul said that faith in Christ, not keeping the law, meant that everyone was now included, regardless of ethnicity (or gender, or social status), into God’s family.

In other words, the gospel was truly at stake.

The problem with taking this moment in the Galatian church as a template for being belligerent is that:

  • The people you are going after on the internet or in other venues are not people you have invested in personally. Think of minding your own business.
  • Not every theological disagreement is a “Galatians moment” where the gospel is at stake
  • You’re not Paul.

If you want a model from Paul for how to handle theological disagreements, read 1 Corinthians. Talk about a theological mess. These yahoos were each following their own pet cult personality, treated the Eucharist like the breakfast bar at Denny’s, were engaged in all sorts of immortal activity, and even had doubts about the resurrection.

What does Paul do? Blast them? No. Denounce them? No.

He spends fifteen chapters going over ground they probably already should have known but couldn’t quite get right. And the whole tone is set in the very beginning of the book, where Paul says he is writing,

To the church of God at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sort of makes you want to not be belligerent.

When engaged in potentially threatening theological dialogue, rather than fear we need to chose to trust—trust that God is bigger than our arguments, our intellects, our sacrosanct theological systems.

Listen, we all screw up here. We all give in to our darker side and get defensive. Rumor has it I’ve done it once or twice. No one reaches the ideal. But when we give in to the darker side, we should call it for what it is, repair the damage, and take it as a teaching moment for ourselves to cut it out in the future.

The problem is when the darker side becomes a preferred pattern of living and justified as godly behavior.

It isn’t.

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