I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; here’s what happened when I complained

Picture of wooden crucifix on a table, with the words "I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; here’s what happened when I complained"

You’ll get the most out of this post if you first read the previous one. Basically, I went to a talk where a man preached that Jesus took humanity’s punishment when Jesus suffered on the cross. At the end I said I didn’t think was supported by the bible, but rather Jesus took humanity’s sin.

In the previous post, I talked about what the theology of penal substitutionary atonement is, why I have such issue with it, what this man actually said, and what I said by way of challenge.

This post charts my experiencing of going into that talk, coming away from it, and how people responded to me.

I’m sharing this because one of the most pressing questions of the current time is how people can raise their voices and be heard and bring about positive change. I don’t have all the answers, but my reflections on this particular incident may give people helpful food for thought.

Before we begin: my broader context

There are a few things readers should appreciate.

The first is that I have spent a lot of time considering some of the theologies that are structurally problematic within evangelicalism. I wasn’t discovering the issues of PSA when I heard this talk — I already knew about them. I was stepping into a single instance of a much bigger problem and because I knew this that helped me take a long view in how I processed what happened.

The second is that I believe God has called me to be an irritant to evangelicalism. I still bear responsibility for what I do and how I do it, but I’m not trying to take on a fight that doesn’t belong to me.

Third: I’ve also spent a few years contemplating how people speak up to bring about change. I’ve made rookie errors in the past and have had my expectations hammered; I leveraged those lessons in how I handled this situation. It also meant I wasn’t expecting people to agree with me and I knew to be precise in which battles I picked.

Lastly: this presentation was given by a guest speaker in a forum of which I am a member. I’m not inserting myself into someone else’s space, I’m trying to defend and reform the space in which I already have a stake. Also, I had already spoken to this speaker directly about how I found his speaking problematic; not only that, but after another presentation, I communicated to him in writing regarding the problems I saw in how he presented the gospel. More recently, after he visited again, I also spoke with the event organiser and learned that I was not the only person who’d complained about him. It was only off the back of all that that I decided I would attend another talk of his and express my misgivings in a way that the wider membership would see.

How I reacted to the talk

So, unsurprisingly, I came away churning over what the presenter said and what I’d said to challenge him.

The immediate concern, as has always been the case in such situations, was whether I’d said the right thing. I was pleased because I’d made a comment about our theologians being lawyers — and I felt that had landed well with the people who were in the room.

Also, I had clearly pointed out the distinction between Jesus taking our sin vs Jesus taking our punishment; no one misheard that, even if they didn’t understand its significance.

His response to my challenge wasn’t eating at me. He’d joked dismissively, he’d patched up some of the gaping holes of his talk, he’d been able to think of a riposte, and he smiled like all was well when he said time was up. I knew all of this was par for the course I was glad I didn’t feel the need to dwell on it.

I slightly regretted reiterating “but that’s not punishment” as he cut me off at the very end. I wondered whether it would make me look belligerent and out of control. After all, no one gives credit for the extent you contain your anger; they just discredit you if you express it in ways they don’t consider appropriate. Overall though, I felt I’d remained composed whilst in the room.

I chewed over his theology during the remainder of the day and talked to my husband about it that evening. I am hugely blessed to have him as a theological sounding board. I repeated what the man had said and my husband pointed out problems with it that I hadn’t appreciated at the time (how sin is not analogous to debt). I also talked about how I tried to pick my battle and choose my words carefully.

I wasn’t agitated, which I took as a good sign. But I wasn’t at peace either. There was a big blank. I wasn’t sure what God thought of me; but then I’ve been in this situation before and have learned that feeling cut off from God isn’t unusual. I prayed (still able to pray this time!) and tried to be intentional about spending time with God.

I asked God how I should raise the subject of the talk with the event organiser.

Before Christmas I’d had a conversation with the event organiser and the forum’s leader about how I interpret the Bible. One of the outcomes of that conversation a realisation that we didn’t agree on some big fundamentals of what the gospel is. The forum leader had suggested further dialogue on the subject, not that this had materialised. As I wondered how I could discuss the more recent presentation from this guest speaker, the Holy Spirit suggested that when I contact the event organiser, I refer back to the conversation that we said we wanted to have. This seemed like a good idea.

Contacting the organiser

The next day I had a migraine.

The day after that I contacted the person who organised the event and said I’d been thinking a lot about it, that I found the presentation concerning because I knew some people had left the church on account of similar theology, but that I was hopeful this might spark constructive conversations between ourselves about what the gospel actually is. I kept the email brief and didn’t go into the particulars; instead I emphasised that I wanted the forum to be a place where I felt safe to invite friends (this is not currently the case). I copied the email to a couple of other people who were also aware of my misgivings around this speaker.

The organiser replied directly to me saying my comment after the presentation was insensitive, a bit aggressive and that they didn’t know what I was trying to achieve with it. They also quoted Isaiah 53 to say that the Bible does support the idea of Jesus taking our punishment. Still, the organiser was willing to meet up and talk about it.

There’s context here that I don’t want to explain, but all-in-all I think the organiser’s email was measured and probably the best I could have hoped for. It could definitely have been a lot worse. If I’d wanted, I could have sat with it and shredded it to pieces, but I didn’t want to do that.

I didn’t know what to do actually.

Talking to God

I wanted God to give me a big hug. I wanted him to say I’d done the right thing, or that I’d done the best I could, or that it was all going to be OK in the end. He didn’t. Or at least, it didn’t feel like he did. But Graham Kendrick’s song “Love each other” went round and round in my head, echoing Jesus’ words as he washed the disciples’ feet:

This is what I want the church to be
This is what I want the world to see
Who it is you follow

Love each other,
One another,
Love each other
In the way that I have loved you.

God wanted me to respond to the organiser in love. Of that I had no doubt.

But this didn’t give me next steps. Plus, I still wanted to know whether I was at fault in what I’d said, or how I’d said it. In this game, there’s no credit for behaving better than other people are. And besides, if I get my hands dirty it’ll affect my relationship with God — and I don’t want that.

I poured out a stream of notes into my iPad. What would I say if I replied to the email? I had enough sense to know that responding via email wouldn’t be conducive to good conversation, but I had to get thoughts out of my head. I came up with analogies and defences and points that I’d have to acknowledge in future dialogue.

Eventually I distilled my notes down to the vital things that I wanted the organiser to know.

First, my issue was not with the Bible or with God, but with wider problems in evangelicalism. Whether or not the organiser accepts this is another matter entirely, but I have to at least communicate that this is how I see the situation. They need to appreciate that I do not see myself as resisting God’s word, God’s will or God’s anything.

Second, I need to emphasise the importance of the poor and their perspective when we frame the gospel. This has been consistently absent from this man’s presentations each time he’s come to speak at the forum.

But the words of the organiser’s email still troubled me. “I don’t know what you were trying to achieve.”

So, I asked God, what was I trying to achieve? How do I answer?

Immediately, the Holy Spirit answered: “the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.”

It was a quote Lt Gen David Lindsay Morrison attributed to David Hurley, Governor of NSW, and I knew the event organiser would recognise it. I was grateful as I now seemed to have an answer and a way forward. And at least I felt more grounded and that what I’d done wasn’t completely off piste.

There is no guarantee that I’ll have a constructive meeting with the event organiser when we eventually meet; but at least dialogue was still open and I had an idea of what I would prioritise next. I posted a Facebook prayer request just before I went to bed.

The next day I had another migraine.

I began to wonder whether I should mention the migraines when I eventually meet up with the event organiser. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t because it can easily be seen as trying to solicit sympathy and hence a tool to discredit me. But it’s also possible that it might show the event organiser that I’m not doing what I’m doing for fun.

I emailed them saying that I heard what they were saying, that I didn’t imagine their email was easy to write, and that I would like to meet. I then apologised for being brief, mentioning that I’d had a chunk of the day lost to a migraine. Shortly after, we had a date in the diary for two weeks’ time.

Processing with my husband

By the end of the day, my husband was angry and frustrated with the situation, concerned that the forum was unduly sucking up my time and emotional energy. He was particularly concerned about my migraines; these are typically months apart and only happen when I’m very stressed. Two in a week is unprecedented.

I told him that I was also concerned by the migraines but, given my positive wider circumstances, I feel like I should be able to handle the stress of this situation. I also said I didn’t have a choice, that there is no other equivalent forum and if I leave then I’ll lose all influence. (A lesson learned from bitter experience.) I also said that I think the Holy Spirit wants me to stay and to work towards making the forum better, that I believe it would grieve the Spirit if I just split away or react with consternation.

My husband said that I did have a choice. I had the choice of shaking the dust of my feet and leaving.

So, I answered him:

Think about the event organiser; this person has been brought up to believe that submitting to God’s will and the Bible is the most important thing in life. They’ve been working hard to make the forum fit for purpose, sometimes with little support and buy-in from the membership. They’ve appreciated how this external speaker has offered to come to events and make them worthwhile. They’ve set up this event, in good faith, and then I’ve come into room — someone who they already see as having a dubious theology because of my more liberal views on divorce and LGBTQ+ inclusion. During the talk, I humiliate the speaker and embarrass the organiser as host. In response, all the organiser says is, “I think what you did was insensitive, a bit aggressive, and I don’t know what you were trying to achieve.” And they’re still willing to meet with me.

I am a very, very long way from shaking the dust off my feet.

And when I put it like that, my husband agreed with me.

Though, he doubted whether the speaker felt humiliated; my husband thought it more likely the speaker came away quite pleased with himself.

Whatever. I can’t know and it doesn’t help me to dwell on negative possibilities.

Concluding thoughts

I appreciate that what I’ve presented here is a small pocket of time from a longer story, and I don’t know how that story will end. But for most of us, that’s where we are most of the time.

As much as I’d like to summarise my story and pick out key points, I think I need to let it resonate with people on their own terms. I’ve tried to give enough context so that people can evaluate the similarities and differences to their own situations. But the thing I need to stress above all else is that every situation is different.

Speaking up is a complex and delicate work, because it’s never just about what you say — it’s about what you want to achieve with it.

For myself, if I’m honest, most of the time I don’t see what the benefit is in working towards unity. Because it’s hard to tell the difference between real unity and fake unity, and finding the real unity usually means spending a long-time being patient with difficult people. Yet they’re hardly going to change if we ostracise them.

Good grief, this stuff is complicated.

And that’s why I say every situation is different; I don’t want someone to read my story and think that I’m presuming to tell them theirs.

I do know that the Holy Spirit has surprised me on more than one occasion, emphasising God’s desire that Christians are one body in Christ. I can only guess that the Spirit sees something that I don’t. Maybe if I did, I’d be more motivated.

I guess what matters for the time being is that I’m motivated enough to keep walking in faith. So long as I hear God’s voice, I’ll follow. And I pray you are able to do so too.

 


If you’re looking for some useful materials on speaking up effectively, I am currently finding Kathy Khang’s book Raise Your Voice very insightful.

One thought on “I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; here’s what happened when I complained

  1. So glad you pursued this issue, even though I’m sure it is stressful. I have only just begun to re-examine my views on PSA — not because I was super sold on them before, but just because I’d never heard anything different.

    IMO, analogies about what exactly Jesus’ death did for us are almost always confusing / inaccurate. I remember once seeing a Vacation Bible School presentation saying that we all have black hearts, and Jesus is like a doctor who does “spiritual surgery” on us to give us new hearts, and that’s how we are saved. They never explained how the cross tied into that and it was super confusing.

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