Jonathan Fletcher, Steve Timmis and the danger of tribalism

As you may have seen in the news last year, Jonathan Fletcher, former vicar of Emmanuel church, Wimbledon, has been caught up in a storm over abuse – without going into all the details, see e.g. this article. Then, in the news last week, I read that Steve Timmis, CEO of the Acts 29 network (a global church planting network), had been removed amid accusations of abuse.

A lot of ink has been spilt about Jonathan Fletcher, and I’m sure there will be lots more about Steve Timmis. I think there are serious questions that need to be asked about how two people in high positions in the church could get to where they are and be allowed to continue abuse without being stopped, how it could continue for so long, and so on. There are lots of uncomfortable questions and I think the evangelical world will have to do a lot of soul searching and hard wrestling.

There is one thing I’d like to say at this stage which is something which has been on my mind for a while – I started thinking about this on my previous post about conservative evangelical subculture, but I want to expand a bit on what I said there. I want to focus on conservative evangelical subculture because I think that is probably where these two incidents happened, although I think the issue affects all different subcultures in its own way.

Let’s start by focussing on the label “conservative evangelical”. An evangelical is simply a Christian who believes in the final authority of the Scriptures over anything else (see my post from a few years ago). A conservative evangelical is more specific – it involves holding on to a set of conservative theological beliefs, historically the distinctive one is over the role of women, i.e. whether women should be ordained / preach / exercise positions of leadership in the local church etc. (I believe open / conservative evangelical originally reflected taking an open / conservative stance on this issue, although both terms have since evolved).

Conservative evangelical is also more than a theological label: it has become something of a tribe. The problem is there aren’t many conservative evangelicals around, and so they (we, as I include myself) have tended to band together. The reality is that it revolves around certain churches, individuals, and organisations. There are certain names which we all know. For example, I’d say the Proclamation Trust (who run the EMA which I wrote about last time) is one of those organisations. (I don’t want to single them out – just as an example!) I think it’s fairly safe to say that Steve Timmis and Jonathan Fletcher would have fitted in conservative evangelical circles, I was aware of them both (although I knew very little about Fletcher before last year, I’d never heard him preach for example).

One of the problems with a tribe is defining who is in and who is out. I’ve noticed that, with conservative evangelicals, the particular standard applied is doctrinal orthodoxy: that is, whether someone believes a particular set of things, whether someone is “sound”.

If you sign up to those particular (unwritten, unspoken) beliefs, you’re in the club; if you don’t, you’re out. This has practical implications for how church is on the ground: at a previous church we attended, my wife used to have real difficulty. There was an unspoken assumption that people in the congregation were “sound”, that they believed certain things, and that everyone in the congregation was “one of us”. It wasn’t written down anywhere, it was just the culture. My wife often felt like she wasn’t “one of us”, even if it wasn’t actually intended or verbalised.

I think this is a dangerous place for a church to be in. Ultimately I think we should judge people by their love for the Lord and their love for Jesus, whether they have repented of their sins and turned to Christ. Every Christian will be at a different stage of maturity, people need a bit of space – especially to begin with – to grapple with the Bible, to come to understand for themselves that it is indeed God’s good word to us and trustworthy. You can’t expect everyone to become a Christian and immediately start believing all the ‘right’ things!

Now what relevance does this have to Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis? I’d say one of the common characteristics of conservative evangelicals is a love for understanding. We love doctrine, we love the Bible, we want to see how it fits together, and we especially love sermons which show that. Understanding, however, is not the same as genuine love for the Lord. It is, sadly, possible to know a lot about the Bible and theology without actually knowing God, or at least, knowing him very well.

Which brings me to Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis. I cannot comprehend the mindset of a genuine Christian leader, someone who walked with the Lord, doing the kind of things that they are accused of doing. The Bible is very clear about what Christian leadership should look like. For example:

…be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:2-3

Jesus himself said:

‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:42-45

And we could go on. The point is that being a Christian is fundamentally about love and service – loving and serving God and others. Laying our lives down, as Jesus Christ laid his life down: he is our model. Christian leaders have an especial responsibility here: Christian leadership is servant-leadership at its heart. If you’ve missed that, you’ve missed the heart of Christian leadership.

Now I don’t know either Fletcher or Timmis, all I know is from the things I’ve read online. It seems to me, from the limited amount I do know, that Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis did not embody servant-hearted leadership. Of course, I don’t know where their hearts are before the Lord, and I am not passing any judgement on their salvation. But it seems to me, from a position of limited knowledge, that their actions are not consistent with the understanding of servant leadership as embodied in Christ Jesus.

And I have to wonder: (1) how did people in positions of Christian leadership and responsibility seem to have so little grasp of the basics of what it means to be a Christian? They didn’t seem to demonstrate much Christian character and maturity; (2) how did they get away with it for so long?

I think the answer to those two questions is related and uncomfortable for conservative evangelicals. I wonder if tribalism plays a part: if the criteria for being “one of us” is reduced to holding a particular set of doctrinal convictions, then the more fundamental matter of actually loving the Lord becomes secondary. And, as I think we have seen, it is possible to hold a particular set of doctrinal convictions, even to preach a “sound” expository sermon, as a sort of intellectual exercise without a real spiritual maturity.

Were people prepared to overlook other issues with Fletcher and Timmis because they were “one of us”? Did people think, “they can’t be that bad, they’re sound“?

Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading Don Carson’s book “A Call to Spiritual Reformation”. (Carson is, of course, a household name to conservative evangelicals…) And these words jumped out at me:

Paul does not simply pray that we might know God better, but that God might give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation to the end that we might know God better. There is a set means to the desired end. What is required is wisdom and revelation mediated by the Spirit. This is not simply a corpus of truth to be picked up by reading a book on systematic theology (though such reading may do us a great deal of good!). It is growth in wisdom – probably here referring to how to live in God’s universe so as to please him – and revelation.

This is important. We are called to believe right doctrine, absolutely. Conservative evangelicals are good at that. But we mustn’t stop at simply stating it, or even preaching it, as if it’s some sort of intellectual exercise. We have to put it into practice. When we say God is good, we can’t just say it – we have to believe it. We read what Psalm 19 says about the law of the Lord being “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10) – but we should act as if that were the case as well. We should take delight in the law of the Lord, becoming more Christ-like, becoming more willing to serve others and to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Of course, we are all sinners and no-one is righteous – no-one can obey the law of God perfectly. But Christian leaders in particular should exhibit a certain maturity, a certain level of understanding. It’s notable that the pastoral epistles focus a lot on character, as well as a believing in and teaching sound doctrine. In fact, the two things should go together – I think Paul and the other apostles would have absolutely rejected the idea that you could separate right living and right doctrine.

Personally speaking, I am immensely grateful for my theological training under the late Mike Ovey – a man who did embody the fact that knowledge and character should go together. He did practice what he preached, and he taught us as much by his example as he did by his words.

In conclusion: every culture will have its own problems and blind spots. But, every culture should at the same time, by the grace of God, be seeking to overcome its problems and blind spots. I am hoping that conservative evangelical culture will come to recognise its own blind spots and change. I am hoping that revelations of leaders like this will bring about godly sorrow which leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Perhaps it’s time at least to have a conversation about these things.

3 Replies to “Jonathan Fletcher, Steve Timmis and the danger of tribalism”

    1. Yes, in fact Mike Ovey asked all first years at Oak Hill to read it virtually as soon as we arrived. Very good essay, and I think there is definitely something of that going on in con evo circles.

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