Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence

Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence October 29, 2011

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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  • Don Johnson

    3Jn 1:9 I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.

    I am charismatic and so (I believe) sometimes God speaks to me. I was reading 3 John some time ago and God spoke to me “You have the spirit of Diotrephes.” I go, just great, I get a word from God and it is a rebuke! I ask, “How do I have the spirit of Diotrephes?” and God told me “You want to be right more than you want to love.” And I knew God was right! I repented but also realize this is a growth path for me and that it is EASY for me to fall into the temptation of wanting to “be right” more than to love.

    There is a reason God inspired Paul to write 1 Cor 13 and it is not that it is suitable for weddings. It is suitable ALL THE TIME and if we cannot live it, it is better to be silent.

    • peteenns

      Wanting to be right is the problem. Understanding why is the beginning of the solution.

  • Well said! I love you writings.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Britt.

  • Thought this might be better here…

    Good article Peter. A few questions: What do you make of Paul’s rather draconian sentence on those who refused to see the error of their ways in Corinth? I mean he flat out expels anyone who is sexually perverse to a not friendly judgment and advises them to be kicked out of the church. What do we make of this? Second, though Jesus did engage with Nicodemus in a very civil manner, Nicodemus’ approach was very humble. By contrast, when Jesus’ opponents got “snarky” with him he had no qualms about shoveling it back over specifically theological issues. Again, what do we do with this? Lastly, was that John Eldredge’s book I just saw on your blog?

    • peteenns

      Good points, Matt. Here is what I would say off the cuff. Re: Paul and Corinth, he was mad but he also had the right to be, since they were his spiritual children. Yes, Nicodemus was humble, but so often today humility and a true searching spirit are squashed by belligerence on the other side. And yes, Jesus got snarky with his hypocritical opponents (which is one of the points I was making). The Eldridge book is a Patheos ad.

      • Micah

        Mr. Enns,

        Great article. I really enjoyed it, especially since I have been involved very personally with one particular homeschool organization that is very fearful. I am just now understanding where that fear comes from and am better equipped to engage in a loving and non-threatening way and articles like this are a real encouragement.

        Regarding Paul and the sin of the one man at Corinth. I heard a phenomenal sermon on that. The pastor pointed out the corporate aspect of Paul’s work, especially with the Corinthian church. To make a long story short the parallels of this one persons sin and Achan’s sin are incredible. Paul was warning that one man’s sin can destroy the whole body (like the OT type). Therefore, it is imperative that they cut him off to save the body. Really interesting stuff especially if one sees the connections between the OT Exodus/entering of the promised land and the NT anti-type of the 1st century.


  • As the internet becomes less and less anonymous, as more social networks are demanding real names and more accounts are being linked together – I think I’m seeing theological debates getting toned down. Whatever pride there was in throwing around charges of heresy and Nazism, shocking others with outlandish doctrinal suggestions and violent political statements, people online realize now that what they say can hurt real people and get them into real trouble.

    • peteenns

      Hopefully, Jenny. But, even with giving names, there is little true accountability. It is easy to be belligerent from a distance over the internet, even with giving your name.

  • JenG

    Pete, you’ve nailed it again! Your humble diplomacy in the face of incessant belligerence is credited to you as virtue.

    I wonder sometimes if the belligerence is not rooted in fear so much as in relentless epistemic certainty which is the (faulty?) foundation for many people’s faith? What I mean to say is that someone can’t be fearful unless they suspect, even a little bit, that what their opponent is saying might be true or might be perceived by others as such. If they aren’t willing to concede even a bit of doubt, then it’s not fear but a deep and abiding sense of certainty that they feel, as part of a nurture-acquired response taught to them in regards to how to conduct public discourse, necessitates a strong and unwavering defense. We’ve lost the fine art of debate in the sound-byte/status update world and have difficultly engaging in thorough and useful conversations between people with opposing views. Fear/anger certainly further exacerbates the problem…

    @Matt: I’d like to kindly suggest that I think there is a big difference between Jesus, a thoroughly educated and divinely inspired prophet-like figure trying to passionately convince his own people, whom he loved, by using the rhetoric of his time, to *completely* re-think their entire way of viewing their own law and teachings for the glory of God and his kingdom… and what Pete is referring to here: at times, dangerously uneducated or perhaps biased or just pain chip-on-the-shoulder (and often anonymous) bloggers/commenters raging (from a place of fear) on other bloggers under the guise of the name of the Lord, the cause of “defending truth/gospel” or the fight for their own particular doctrine. Maybe next time one of us finds ourselves in Jesus’ shoes or Paul’s “shoes” (which will be… well… never?), perhaps then we have the right to consider using what appear to be less than loving and epistemically humble techniques.

    I have only recently starting reading and commenting on blogs because I really love the idea of personally interacting with the brilliant men and women putting forth new and exciting ideas for keeping faith alive in these crazy times. I am so humbled by any response from them and that they offer to give their time to these conversations – it’s above and beyond the call of duty, in my opinion, and they don’t deserve the disrespectful attitude of many of the commenters. The only reason I comment today is because I felt like I needed to defend Pete’s great article here (since he spends so much time having to do that himself!) and because I feel like people often comment before even really reading the whole blog article (to clarify, that comment was not directed @Matt. I assume you did read Pete’s article fully before replying!). A lot of back-and-forth could be spared if people read fully, stopped, thought, went away for a few hours, came back and THEN posted if they really felt it necessary.

    Which is not to say this post is necessary. I’m not going to rock anyone’s world with this one… : P

    • peteenns

      JenG, I would agree about epistemic certainty–but the fear of losing that is what can lead to anger.

  • JenG

    In retrospect, I ended up on a tangent about blogging there – that was not to say this article was meant in particular reference to bloggers but that this is one of the forums in which this problem of angry/fear-based debate seems most apparent to me these days.

  • RJS

    Exactly. A very nice piece.

    It is fine to disagree – and to do so strongly. But the belligerence and anger is a real problem.

    It seems to me as well that most, if not all, of the anger of Paul or Jesus appears when people are hurting others – excluding or oppressing them (and the strongly denounced sexual immorality can fit here). It does not often or at all appear over other sorts of doctrinal issues.

    • peteenns

      At least not “doctrinal” in the way many Protestants use it, i.e., as a “system” of doctrine.

      • RJS

        Yes, doctrinal as in the correct systematic doctrine.

        As I reread this, I am not sure I see fear playing as large a role in driving the attitude, although I am sure it does for some. The attitude, whatever the driving factor, is a problem.

        • Rick


          Thanks for your comment about the “fear” factor. I too am not sure we can accuse all of having that motivation. I am sure probably do, but many may not. Many may just be considering the importance of the topic, or the Subject of the topic, and feel the need to be the defender.

          • peteenns

            Rick and RJS,

            Let me still suggest that even the importance of the topic does not account for belligerence. A person who is centered and at peace does not engage in belligerence even if they are in “defending mode.” One can defend without the type of belligerence I describe in my post. I also distinguish between a healthy anger and pugilism.

          • Rick

            “even the importance of the topic does not account for belligerence.”

            Even though 1 Peter 3:15 deals with our attitude when we respond to a question about our faith, we should have that same attitude even when we share our thoughts without first being asked.

  • Jon Altman

    I’m on a United Methodist Clergy blog where real names are used. Charges of heresy (including those directed at me) don’t seem to have diminished much there.

    • peteenns

      I’m sure you’re right, Jon. That’s what I was getting at in a comment above about internet “anonymity” even if names are used. There’s something about the internet to creates “distance.”

  • This is another great piece of writing. There is always the tendency of being right about something, about doctrinal matters and all that. But it need not be in the wrong spirit, like for the sake of argument and being right. Dialogue rather than debate would always be a better route.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Jonathan. I’m more than open to debate, though–just not debate laced with power moves, pugilism, etc.


    We know how to suspend judgment. When the sales rep. asks if we need help, we say we are just looking. We are not yet making decisions. We are collecting information. When we meet another person, though, we judge quickly. He’s friendly or not friendly. We understand the other person perfectly. We don’t, of course. If we suspend judgment and try to understand the other person better for a little time, we will understand better. Anger is a good thing when is is used properly, when it is needed an appropriate. When is that?

    Let us pray, please. Let us pray.

  • C. Ehrlich

    Fear for one’s metanarrative probably isn’t the only important factor at work here.

    I suspect, for example, that fundamentalists often feel disrespected, while those criticizing them often attribute to fundamentalism partial responsibility for many serious harms and problems (the suicide of a gay kid, opposition to climate change initiatives, the war in Iraq, the disrepute of one’s faith, …).

    • peteenns

      Yes, I suppose there is also personal insecurities at work and other similar factors. But that, too, is a fear if feeling inadequate.

  • Pf

    Paul was so nice he wished his opponents would castrate themselves. How loving and kind.

    • Paul was asking his opponents to take their ideas to their logical conclusions, and thus see that the ideas are evil. As it was, the Judaizers were using circumcision as a method of control, something Jesus despised: Mt 20:20-28.

  • This is a great blog post, as are all of the responses. Belligerence in both religious and political discourse has reached exponential proportions in our society. I agree that fear is a huge factor and that we must remember love casts out fear. Likewise, defensiveness breeds defensiveness in the other. When we surrender there is so much more room for possibility, intimacy and complexity.

    Related to the overall topic, I think of a parent who screams out of control when trying to discipline a child and how the child instinctually knows mom or dad has completely lost it. Then there is the parent who is so grounded and secure, all s/he has to do is look at the child, calmly set a limit and lovingly but firmly not budge despite whatever hysterics might ensue.

    I think there is also a basic distrust in today’s society of critical thinking that is potentially damaging to Christianity. In “Strength to Love” MLK Jr. writes: “But somewhere along the way the church must remind men that devoid of intelligence, goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forces leading to shameful crucifixions.”

    • peteenns

      Great points, Lise. Thanks.

  • I don’t think that we should accept fear as a legitimate response to being wrong. It shouldn’t destabilize our place on the universe if we understand that our salvation does not depend on our faith, but rather on the faithfulness of Jesus. Following your diagnosis of the problem, here’s my stab at a solution: http://www.alexjdemarco.com/2011/11/103/

    • peteenns

      Good angle, Alex. Part of letting go of fear is trusting God–which is a fearful thing sometimes because it removes from us control.

  • @jeng Jesus was educated?

  • If only Christians would channel their fighting spirits toward fighting actual evil in the world—that which causes objective suffering—over the easy route of fighting over words. It’s almost as if Jesus said something about judging a tree by its fruit, and not by appearance…

  • Charles Randall Paul

    I enjoyed this piece. I do think that ‘concern for loved ones’ is a slightly different motive than fear, and sometimes we act in aggressive ways out of defense for those who are weaker. Still, this article is very helpful.

    On the general point, the best place for a heart-to-heart conversation on the web with a trustworthy rival or opponent who is not anonymous is the new site, The World Table. http://www.theworldtable.org