How should evangelicals respond to the abuse of power?

Ed Shaw writes: Like many groups in society, and other church traditions, we evangelicals have a problem when it comes to unhealthy cultures, misuses of power by those in leadership, and the resulting abuse of those meant to be enjoying their care. Names from the US like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias quickly illustrate this, as do UK leaders like John Smyth, Steve Timmis and Jonathan Fletcher. There have been independent reports that confirm it—as well as numerous painful experiences shared on social media and elsewhere. Some of these have hit the headlines, other names and situations have gone unreported, but all have been devastating for the individuals, churches and organisations involved. I have been forced to see another side to some leaders I admired from afar, and friends who I thought I knew better than I did.  

What have people done in response? I have heard of survivors and bystanders walking away from evangelical churches. On social media, and elsewhere, there has been talk of cover-ups and the names of other alleged abusers and, incredibly, innocent victims have been made public. Numerous blogposts and podcasts have been produced and books written and read. Most of all, tears have been shed as hidden pain has, at last, been openly shared and people have responded with justifiable anger and grief about the evil that has gone unchecked. 

There have, of course, also been plenty of conversations along the lines of “something must be done” with people repeatedly asking the obvious question “how can we stop these things from happening again?” The independent reports commissioned have provided some helpful answers, but there has been a growing sense that the problems go wider and deeper and are not limited to just one part of evangelicalism. There has also been a right recognition that no single report, no numbered recommendations, no prominent resignations, do justice to the scale of the problem.

So it was with considerable trepidation that, at the beginning of this year, a group of Anglican evangelicals were commissioned by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) to form a workstream on culture, power and abuse. The CEEC seeks to unite Anglican evangelicals and the group was made up of women and men, young and old, lay and ordained, conservatives and charismatics, and, crucially, survivors of abuse. We were charged with providing resources that would help evangelicals start to respond effectively to what has often gone wrong in our midst. 

Today we launch the results of countless meetings, of listening to the voices of survivors, of reading the reports, of sharing our own positive and negative experiences of evangelicalism, of extensive engagement with a range of other resources, of getting the generous input of many outside voices. But what we share is not the answer to evangelicalism’s significant problem, instead we are simply hoping to encourage and equip all of us to start to have better conversations – with God and each other – of our experiences of culture, power and abuse. 

When we began to meet, we were united by a sense that “something must be done” but soon concluded that whatever might be done, nothing could be rushed. In response to our instinctive evangelical activism, we wanted to call ourselves, and others, to pause and lament what has happened before we do much else. As a result, the first of our resources is a liturgy of lament, an Anglican service of the Word, that draws on scripture, our rich liturgical tradition, and the voices of survivors. Our hope is that it will enable both individuals and churches to talk and listen to God about the range of emotions many are feeling right now: anger, guilt, shame, confusion—and so much more. It will give some churches the language they need to share in an act of corporate repentance for what has happened, unchecked, amongst them. Using the liturgy ourselves was one of the richest experiences of the many hours we have spent together. 

Can we trust Scripture when there are so many interpretations?

Andy Judd teaches Old Testament and hermeneutics at Ridley College, Melbourne, and a few years ago I heard him give a great paper at a conference on the Old Testament citations in Acts. He has just completed his doctoral research on Gadamer, Genre Theory and biblical hermeneutics, and I was able to ask him about his work.

IP: What have you been researching, and why were you drawn to this? 

AJ: I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the question of what it means to read the Bible as Scripture. There’s lots of ways people can read the Bible – maybe for historical curiosity, or to appreciate the literary dimension, or even an oppressive text to be resisted. But it seems to me that to read the Bible as Scripture means you’re holding two things in tension. Here I have an authoritative text, but at the same time it is a text whose meaning is continually relevant to me in new ways. What’s more, we seem to have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on what the Bible actually says. My subject matter, hermeneutics, is about taking a step back and asking ‘What is going on here?’ 

I’m drawn to this topic because so many of our big issues and debates seem to boil down to different ways of reading the text. In the Australian Anglican context there are loads of issues on which people have spectacularly diverse views – from gender, to marriage and sexuality, to what will happen in the last days. How can the Bible be authoritative, and relevant, if we can’t even agree what it means a lot of the time? 

IP: Why has there been such a proliferation of interpretative approaches to text in modern, Western thinking? Is this something to do with changes in culture, the intellectual landscape, or something else? 

AJ: I think there’s a handful of reasons all at play. One is just about the numbers. The more people you have reading for themselves, you more approaches you’re going to get. In Margaret Atwood’s novels about the Gilead and the handmaids, how do they keep control of people’s understanding of passages like Judges 19? They lock it away! As soon as the handmaids can read for themselves and access the Bible the game is up, and new and subversive interpretative approaches threaten the whole regime. So, at one level, you can blame the Reformation and Bible translators and our stubborn Anglican belief that people should read the Bible for themselves!

The second is about the text. The more complex and powerful the text, and the more we are asking it fresh questions from within fresh new situations, the more scope there will be for different ways of looking at it. Some kinds of texts just invite us to explore deeper. Whole industries of people disagree about what Hamlet means, but nobody has much trouble interpreting a parking ticket. The Bible is powerful and authoritative, but it is also endlessly relevant to new situations. And that complexity requires us I think to do more work understanding what it means. 

The third thing, though, which concerns the last few decades in particular, is an opening up of the rules of the game. Despite all the different ways Jews and Christians have read the Bible, for most of history there have been some ground rules that many, or even most people could agree on. They could often agree, some of them at least, on what game they were playing, and what an interpretive ‘win’ might look like – the best approach is the one that reveals the will of God, or is closest to what the author meant or might have meant given the historical situation, or whatever. 

What is distinctive about Luke’s gospel?

Richard Bauckham writes: This is the text of a sermon I preached originally in Christ Church, Chelsea, in order to introduce the congregation to the Gospel of Luke near the beginning of a year C in the Lectionary (year of Luke). There is one difference between the Gospels that anyone can see quite easily without even reading … Continue Reading

Three vital statistics from General Synod

This week saw the first meeting of the new General Synod following elections last month. It was designed to be a largely uncontroversial first session, not least because around 60% of the members were new—something fairly unprecedented, which resulted in a surprising number of established members not being re-elected. Most of the items of business … Continue Reading

Are there Two Types of Men in Leviticus 20:13?

Michael Messenger writes: Some months ago, I was alerted to an article in which David Instone-Brewer suggests that the prohibition of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 might apply only to activity between “heteroerotic males” (“Are there two types of men in Leviticus 20:13?”). While admitting that the evidence is “not enough to be certain” and “we … Continue Reading

Preaching on Christ the King

This Sunday, the last of the liturgical year, is Christ the king, and comes immediately before Advent. It is a slightly odd festival, since one of the key themes of Advent is not the anticipation of Christmas, but the anticipation of Jesus’ return as king; the Latin adventus is a translation of the Greek parousia … Continue Reading