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‘No guilt, no shame’: a new gospel for a therapeutic culture

April 2020 | by Sharon James

Stephen Cottrell
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When Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, takes over from John Sentamu as Archbishop of York in June, he will become the second-most senior leader in the Church of England. Cottrell believes that Scripture must be interpreted in the light of ‘what we know now about human development and human sexuality’. In other words, biblical teaching should come second to 21st century Western cultural beliefs. In 2017, he suggested that prayers of thanksgiving for civil partnerships could be offered up at communion services (in clear opposition to official Church of England teaching).

Jayne Ozanne, front-line campaigner for the banning of counselling people away from same-sex desire, welcomed news of Cottrell’s appointment. She, alongside many others, claim that ‘Inclusive Church’ is what Jesus would want. It sounds appealing. After all, the free offer of the gospel should be extended to all!

But, in biblical terms, the free offer of the gospel involves preaching that salvation is freely available to all who repent and believe. By contrast, ‘Inclusive Church’ is a code signalling that repentance won’t be demanded. Whoever we are, and whatever we do, we’ll find affirmation of our own experience.

Old-style liberals placed human reason above Scripture, which meant that biblical truths such as the bodily resurrection of Christ were ditched. Present-day liberals (including some self-designated ‘evangelicals’) place human experience above Scripture. Biblical ethics — such as man-woman marriage or the protection of unborn life — are discarded. Mention of sin or repentance is usually limited to corporate sin (such as economic or race/gender-based injustice). Sin is seen as anything that threatens human flourishing. Calls for individual repentance are seen as threatening to individual wellbeing. So, in an exact inversion of biblical truth, if preaching evokes feelings of guilt or shame, it is regarded as ‘spiritual abuse’.

Jayne Ozanne
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Popular understanding of the thinking of Freud and others has created a culture where it is assumed that guilt is unhealthy, shame is damaging, and individual freedom and fulfilment are all important. This has seeped deep into the church as well. ‘Moralistic therapeutic deism’ characterises much of professed evangelical theology. In a human-centred theological system, God is there to meet my needs and keep me happy. Anything that threatens my self-claimed identity, ‘orientation’, or fulfilment must be disowned, including any sections of Scripture that judge my lifestyle.

English clergy such as Cottrell have perfected the art of using a code language especially designed to keep all sides of the debate happy. Americans tend to be more direct. American ‘evangelical’ Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber doesn’t bother to disguise where human-centred theology leads.

Last summer, Southwark Cathedral welcomed Bolz-Weber to promote her new book, Shameless, before she went on to speak at the well-known Greenbelt festival. Bolz-Weber calls for a ‘new Reformation’ and compares the publication of Shameless to the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral Church in Wittenberg in 1517. She interprets Luther’s phrase simul justus et peccator (‘at the same time saint and sinner’) as meaning that any professing believer should be regarded as ‘already holy’. Calls to further holiness are viewed as legalism. The teaching that sexual activity should be restricted to man-woman marriage is, she argues, destructive of sexual fulfilment and human flourishing.

Nadia Bolz-Weber
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A key moment in Shameless is the description of ‘liberation’ experienced by one of Bolz-Weber’s parishioners when she tore out and burned the Bible pages referring to God’s condemnation of homosexuality. She proceeded to burn all the other pages, with the exception of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Bolz-Weber claims that the truth of the Bible is not found in the whole text, only in those parts which fit with our experience.

As with many ‘ex-conservative-evangelicals’, Bolz-Weber is reacting against a painful past. She grew up in a Pentecostal church where ‘demons’ of impurity or lust were routinely exorcised. Young people felt trapped in an endless cycle of self-examination to check their own purity. She hated the ‘angry, capricious God with a killer surveillance system’, who seemed always to be checking her behaviour, but never satisfied. Her church demanded stereotypes of femininity and beauty which she felt she could never attain (she suffered a rare disfiguring disease). Consumed with anger and failure, she found solace in drugs and alcohol. Eventually she was helped to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. She also turned back to Jesus: but a Jesus who would affirm rather than condemn her. She was filled with zeal to preach ‘this good news’ of liberation to others.

Nadia became pregnant in her early twenties, but decided she loved her baby too much to put the child up for adoption. She aborted the child, and claims never to have regretted that decision. Part of her call to a ‘new reformation’ is to summon evangelicals away from their ‘pro-life’ position to acceptance of abortion right up to term.

In 2006, she entered a Lutheran seminary, and was then ordained. She married a fellow minister, and had two children. After many years of what she says was an ‘unfulfilling’ marriage, she left her husband, now has a boyfriend, and claims to have found sexual fulfilment. She encourages her teenage daughter to enjoy a ‘guilt-free sex life’ and is accepting of her teenage son’s gay lifestyle.

To help promote Shameless, Bolz-Weber invited women to send her their purity rings (often used in America as a symbol of keeping sex for marriage). In return, they received a certificate of ‘impurity’ and promised to live a ‘shameless, open, and free life’. Around 170 rings were sent in, melted, and formed into an obscene image engraved with the word ‘Freedom’.

Bolz-Weber appeals to those who claim to have been bruised by the ‘purity movement’, including young people who say they were driven to despair if they lost their virginity. Church history is littered with examples of people swinging from one extreme to the opposite. The courtship movement, the ‘Silver Ring Thing’, and other manifestations of the ‘purity culture’ were an understandable reaction against sexual permissiveness. There is now a reaction in the opposite direction (Josh Harris has renounced his best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye as well as his faith).

But for every testimony of someone who claimed to have been damaged by the purity movement, you could match it with the testimony of those whose lives have been wrecked by sexual ‘freedom’. Several generations of young people have been cast adrift in a world without any sexual restraint or protective boundaries. To date, around three million young people have signed up to the True Love Waits (or similar) purity pledges, so it is unsurprising that some will say that it didn’t help, or even harmed them. Far larger numbers would say that it protected them.

Bolz-Weber redefines ‘repentance’ as rejection of negative thoughts about self, redefines ‘Satan’ as the accuser who wrongly tells us that we are unworthy, and redefines ‘apocalypse’ as the unveiling of lies perpetrated by ‘the patriarchy’. She denies Scriptural teaching about sin and the penalties for sin. She calls for ‘sexual reformation’, but actually demands the smashing down of boundaries which protect God’s beautiful creation design. She seeks to soothe and comfort people who are living in defiance of God’s moral law. She is a false prophet, preaching a false gospel.

Shameless, however, does provide us with an honest description of the ‘no guilt, no shame’ perversion of the gospel being peddled for our contemporary therapeutic culture.  And it serves as a wake-up call to the implications of the appointment of a new archbishop who celebrates ‘inclusivity’. For ‘Inclusive Church’ denies the eternal consequences of refusing to repent, promotes sin, nullifies the truth of Scripture, and dishonours God. It is a false gospel.

Dr Sharon James is a Christian author, speaker, and Social Policy Analyst at The Christian Institute.