A religious dogmatist whose views can be debunked on religious grounds
For the pastor of a church with only 300 members, Steven Anderson knows how to make big headlines. I first became aware of him (possibly like many others) in 2015, in the aftermath of the Bataclan theater massacre in Paris by Daesh-linked attackers. He had made headlines by suggesting that the victims deserved it; that they were “worshipping Satan.”
It was not the first time he had courted controversy with his extreme views. He seems to revel in it. In 2008, he was in the news for saying he prayed for the death of Barack Obama; in 2016 for regretting that there had been survivors of the Orlando nightclub shooting; and in 2014 for making an anti-Semitic documentary. The list goes on.
All his positions, whether on US politics, human sexuality, Islam or women, claim to be based on biblical teaching, disowning all responsibility for what he says. “I didn’t write the Bible,” he protested to an interviewer challenging him on some of his views.
Religious extremists must be challenged on religious grounds, whether Muslim or Christian. Any other attempt to destroy their ideologies will fail. Appeals to modern secular morality, statute law or international norms are irrelevant to those whose ideologies reject the status of those moral foundations.
The website of Anderson’s church says he does not have a college degree, and justifies that by saying Bible colleges are not qualified to set up churches. A lack of theological training, or even a desire for theological training, is a worrying sign in someone who purports to be qualified to teach theology (which is to an extent what any preacher does).
For similarities, look at Osama bin Laden (a degree in economics and business administration), Ayman Al-Zawahiri (medicine), Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (high school dropout). All of them claimed to be better qualified to interpret theology and scripture than those who had studied it.
“It is questionable whether any of his … beliefs are founded on a sound understanding of Christianity.”
The problems with this view become apparent when one starts to look at the doctrinal statement (the core set of beliefs) of Anderson’s church. Although one might think that these describe what the church believes, they in fact mostly describe what it opposes. Many of these are not statements of doctrine (what is necessary for the faith), as one might hope for in a doctrinal statement, but rather statements of practice (what is sinful and what is not).
Top of the doctrinal statement is that “the King James Bible is the word of God without error.” This is a curious statement, given the King James Version is a relatively recent English translation of the Bible, raising the question of what Anderson thinks about any church before the year 1611.
Elsewhere, the doctrinal statement says the church believes “only in the local church, and not in a universal church.” This takes Anderson and his followers into even more dangerous territory, because they are stepping outside of the three generally accepted Christian creeds, all of which refer to the “catholic” faith or the “catholic” church (“catholic” meaning “universal”).
Anderson may not be aware that an image that he uses on the doctrinal statement page of his website — derived from one of these three creeds, the Athanasian Creed — violates thoroughly his statement of belief in the local rather than universal church.
That belief in the universal church made its way into the creeds because it is in the Bible. In the Book of Acts, the biblical account of the early church, it distinguishes between the local and the universal by referring to “the church” for the latter, and “the church at” a place for the former.
In other words, a local church was the universal church in a particular location. Elsewhere in the Bible, in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he condemns those who emphasize the local over the universal, describing the church as a “body” with different “members” (or parts): “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (I use the King James Version in case Anderson condemns me for using something else!)
There is a theological term for those who reject the creeds and the teaching of scripture: Heretics. In this respect, Anderson is preaching heresy. He is preaching an exclusivist interpretation of Christianity in which those who do not follow him are not Christians.
By emphasizing his accountability only to the local church, he is rejecting the church as a whole and rejecting the teaching of the Bible. If he is willing to do this about something so important in Christian belief, it is questionable whether any of his other beliefs are founded on a sound understanding of Christianity.
• Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby