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"True Love, Real Grace and Reverent Fear:
A Response to Phil Wogaman."


Phil Wogaman, a frequent contributor of commentaries to UMNS, recently posed the question, "Is religion mostly about fear?" While Wogaman has garnered a great deal of respect in some United Methodist circles, his commentaries often amount to little more than thinly veiled attacks against that sector of United Methodism which identifies itself as "evangelical" or "orthodox" in its faith and practice. This latest offering is no exception. The following is offered in response.

I recently learned that some courts are now applying a new test to determine whether a behavior is really central to a person's religious faith. The test is whether a particular form of behavior is commanded by the church.  As some lawyers have come to speak of this, it is whether you are afraid you will go to hell if you don't act in that way. Some church-state lawyers are calling this the "Go to Hell" test.

It would be helpful if Wogaman cited some specific examples of this "test" being used by the courts. Instead, he speaks in general about "some courts" without indicating any level of jurisdiction or the number of cases in which the "Go to Hell" test is currently being applied. This may seem trivial at this point, but it is important to keep in mind when we arrive at Wogaman's main argument, which has nothing to do with the courts or church-state law.

I'm not sure I like the "Go to Hell" test. I can see the point. It is a way of testing how serious we are about our religious faith. It also reminds us that avoiding evil is an important aspect of most religions.  What bothers me is the idea that the essential thing about religion is the negative. That is another way of saying that the main motivation of religious people is fear.

Wogaman makes a fallacious assumption here. He equates "avoiding evil" with "fear." It is already apparent that Wogaman is erroneously jumping from one form of "fear" to another. He begins his article by talking about "some courts" which are now judging the seriousness of a person's religious faith by whether or not they are afraid they will "go to hell" if they do not act in a certain way. This type of "fear" can be, and has been, used in a manipulative fashion by some churches. However, it is by no means an exclusively negative motivation.

John Wesley had one criterion for persons joining his Methodist Societies: "a desire to flee the wrath to come." Can it not be said that Wesley used fear as a motivation for recruiting members of his societies? If so, was he being manipulative? Not at all. He was meeting the people where they were in order to nurture them into a more mature expression of their faith. What may have begun as a timid fear of judgment was transformed into a reverent fear of God and a life-renewing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Wogaman, in his customary fashion, is trying to equate opposing views (namely those of evangelicals) with some form of irrational "fear." In so doing, he overlooks the most important function of fear, namely, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10a) and "Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man's all" (Eccl. 12:13b). There is wisdom borne of a reverent fear of God and the whole of humanity's purpose is found in living in a constant state of obedience to this just and righteous Creator.

I suppose some degree of fear is present, even when the primary motivation is positive. For instance, my primary motivation in feeding the hungry is love, but it is also fear of what will happen to the hungry if they are not fed. But doesn't it make a big difference which is the primary motive?

But is not love itself the supreme command of Christ--"Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12b)? If our acts of love are not motivated primarily out of obedience to Christ, then they are not truly acts of love. And ought not our acts of love toward the hungry be motivated by a firm conviction that, when we look into the face of a starving child, we are really looking into the face of Christ? Just where Christ fits into Wogaman's thinking is unclear, since Jesus is not mentioned anywhere in this ostensibly religious essay.

When I am acting primarily out of fear, my motivations are self-centered. Christians will recognize that this was exactly what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote (especially in Romans and Galatians) about the importance of grace. According to Paul, when obedience to religious law is central to our faith, we will be consumed by fear, for we know that we cannot perfectly observe the law. And even if we could, we would not be experiencing God as God of love.

Indeed, if we could perfectly fulfill the law in and of ourselves, we would have no need to experience God--loving or otherwise--at all. Despite Wogaman's emphasis on grace as a theme in Paul's writings, there is, again, no mention of Christ, who came to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law. Paul's emphasis on grace is grounded in the belief that the law is no longer necessary because Christ has fulfilled its purpose by his death on the cross. Grace without Christ, like love without Christ, is little more than an abstract concept which can be twisted to mean whatever one wants it to mean. Grace without Christ is, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, "cheap grace." That is the kind of grace that Wogaman seems to be focusing on.

How often that simple distinction between a religion of fear and a religion of love comes back to me in the midst of the religious controversies of our time. We are constantly being invited to respond to fear: fear of holding incorrect doctrines, fear of homosexuality or abortion, fear of division within the church.

Wogaman's main point finally becomes apparent. This is just another swipe at people who do not hold his "enlightened" views about doctrine, morality and the church. He has made a broad jump from his original premise about a fear of God to a premise about a purely human fear which is largely the product of his own fertile imagination. Wogaman wants to make fear the primary motivation of those in the church who contend for the Apostolic faith, have a deep respect for the sanctity of human life and sexuality, and see church unity as something more than mere conformity.

I occasionally receive letters from people who want to warn me of the dangers of hell, and the impression the letters convey is that fear is much more central to their form of religion than love. I'm sure I need admonitions and criticisms from time to time, but should my spiritual life be so dominated by fear? And should the churches act out of fear?  When religious people (and their churches) act mainly out of fear, they also have a tendency to try to use force to make people do what we think they ought to do. There is some place for that also, since this world is not populated by angels. But when we put the main emphasis upon force, we are mostly relying on our ability to make other people fear. It is pretty difficult to inspire fear and love in the same people at the same time.

Again, it would be helpful if Wogaman offered specific examples of churches or individuals who try to "use force" to "make people do" what they want them to. This does happen in small, independent churches. But, in general, it is not really a problem in mainline Protestant churches.

We sometimes say "love the sinner, but hate the sin." My impression is that it can be extremely difficult to combine those attitudes, particularly when we are consumed by hatred of the sin as practiced by the one we love. We easily drift into hating the people who do the sin that we hate.

For a man of such scholarly background, Wogaman seems to exhibit a very shallow understanding of discipleship. There is virtually no aspect of Christian discipleship that is not "extremely difficult." As followers of Christ, our lives are a series of paradoxes. We live in the midst of the kingdoms of this world while claiming citizenship in a kingdom not of this world; we must deny ourselves while lavishing hospitality upon others; we are called to perfection but must constantly rely on grace when we fall short; and, yes, we must love sinners while hating the sin which separates them from God. Understanding our own sinfulness, this is the only attitude we can have while living in the shadow of the cross.

It seems to me that churches are really much better at love than they are at mandating behavior. The really interesting thing is that when a church is a center of love, behavior based on love tends to follow.

What kind of love ought the church be the center of? "Love" is a catch phrase in a popular culture which neither understands nor desires holiness. But if love does not flow out of holiness, it is not real love. The love which ought to emanate from the church is the same kind of sacrificial love demonstrated by Christ, who gave himself for a sinful human race, while living a life of perfect obedience to God.

That does not mean the church should stop teaching ethics. It means that churches should be more concerned about motivating love and drawing people into mutually respectful consideration of what love means - and not be so preoccupied with laying down the law.

The church's primary task has always been proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and drawing people into the community of faith by being the ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world. The church is not just another social service organization teaching people self-esteem, self-respect and self-love. It is the Body of Christ, a living reminder to the world that the kingdom of God is near, and a community of faith built upon the Gospel of Christ. That Gospel motivates us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to love one another, to live holy lives, and to render unto God the Father our most reverent fear and worship, as we stand in awe of his mighty acts in Jesus Christ.

James A. Gibson Pastor, Marshallville United Methodist Church South Georgia Annual Conference


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