Thursday, March 30, 2023

Some Thoughts on Penal Substitution and Atonement Theories

This post is linked to my column in the April 1, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press. 

Prepared by Robert J. Dean, ThD, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, Providence Theological Seminary. 

The second article of the Nicene Creed, which was finalized at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, includes the phrase “he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” The name “Pontius Pilate” locates the crucifixion of Jesus within history as an event that occurred in a specific place and at a particular time. The inclusion of the short phrase “for us” indicates that Jesus’ death upon a cruel instrument of Roman torture is not simply an event which can be relegated to the distant past. Rather, it is one of enduring importance for people of every age.

In the phrase, “for us,” the church confesses that Jesus Christ through his death has accomplished something of eternal significance which we human beings could not accomplish for ourselves. When Christians seek to describe what Christ has accomplished, they often reach for the term “atonement.” 

The word atonement was coined by the early English Reformer William Tyndale and it meant exactly what its parts would seem to indicate: atone-ment. So when Christians speak of atonement, they are attempting to give voice to how Christ has acted to overcome everything that divides the creation from its Creator; this includes not only the repair of the breach in the relationship between God and humanity, but also the healing of the wounds of division which mar relations between human beings themselves and between human beings and the rest of the creation — each understood as consequences of the ruptured relationship between God and humanity. 

While the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) established the ground rules for which later Christians were to speak of the divinity of Christ and the unity of divine and human natures in the single subject of Christ respectively, various theologians have observed that no ecumenical council has ever offered a definitive prescription for how Christians are to speak of the atonement. 

This is perhaps a reflection of the richly variegated way that Scripture itself speaks of Christ’s atoning death. For example, the New Testament speaks of Jesus’ death on the cross as: our ransom (Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:12; 1 Tim. 2:6); an example for us (Phil. 2:3-8; 1 Pet. 2:21-23); his triumph over the principalities and powers which hold us in bondage (Col. 2:15; Rom 8:2); the expiation of our sin (Heb. 2:17; Rom. 3:25-26; 1 John 2:2); our reconciliation (Rom. 5:10-11; 1 Cor. 1:19-20); the tearing down of the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, and the creation of the new eschatological people of God (Eph. 2:11-22). 

The Gospel of John within its pages presents a rich tapestry of images and interpretations of the significance of Jesus’ death. The crucified Christ is depicted as the Passover Lamb (1:29, 19:36) and the golden snake lifted on a pole in the wilderness (3:14). He washes the disciples’ feet as an enacted parable of his coming crucifixion (13:1-11); and tells his disciples that he is going aways “to prepare a place” for them (14:3). While dying on the cross, Jesus creates a new family, joining his mother and the beloved disciple together in one household (19:25-27).

Evangelical theologians today are increasingly aware of the diverse ways that Scripture describes the ultimately inexhaustible work of Christ. The evangelical Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge, in her tour de force The Crucifixion, warns readers to avoid forcing “the various themes and motifs used by the New Testament to expound the crucifixion of Christ” into “one narrow theoretical tunnel.” 1 

The biblical scholar Scot McKnight, in his book called A Community Called Atonement, employs a metaphor from the world of golf, equating the various metaphors and images with golf clubs that allow a golfer to hit a variety of shots as the circumstances require. A golfer who attempted to play an entire round with just a driver and a putter would be at a supreme disadvantage to someone carrying the full complement of fourteen clubs. 

McKnight writes, “It is easy to be faithful to one biblical metaphor for the atonement – say ransom or justification – and work hard at making everything fit into that image. The difficult art of bricolage, of taking all the biblical images and combining them into an expression that manages to keep all of them in play at the same time, is much more demanding. To return to our image, we are in search of a bag in which all the clubs can fit.” 2 

Throughout the history of the church there have been various attempts to discover a “a bag in which all the clubs can fit” through the development of various theories or models of the atonement. The Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén’s attempt to classify these theories of atonement into three different categories in his book Christus Victor (1931) proved to be particularly influential. 

According to Aulén’s schema, theories of atonement can be classified as objective (as exemplified in Anselm of Canterbury), subjective (as exemplified in Peter Abelard), or classical/dramatic (argued for by Aulén himself, which he claims represents the view of the Church Fathers). 

While substantive, Aulén’s schema is overly reductionistic and fails to do justice to both the full scope of thought of the figures it holds up as exemplars and to the biblical testimony itself. In recent years, a variety of theologians and biblical scholars have attempted to formulate their own groupings of theories or metaphors of atonement. 

The British Reformed theologian Colin Gunton put forward victory, justice, and sacrifice as the major interpretive metaphors for the atonement. Scot McKnight suggests that there are five big metaphors for atonement: “incorporation (into Christ, who recapitulated Adam’s life), ransom or liberation, satisfaction, moral influence, and penal substitution.” 

The Anglican theologian Mark McIntosh characterizes the conceptual domains for salvation as encompassing medical, legal, cosmichistorical, military-political, sacrificial, and mystical metaphors. Fleming Rutledge has recently suggested that there are two overarching categories that describe what is happening in the cross of Christ: 1.) “God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin”; 2.) “God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.” 

However, following that assertion the rest of her book is devoted to unpacking eight different biblical motifs that provide windows into the magnificent mystery of the cross. As has likely become apparent, there is little scholarly consensus surrounding how to classify and count the various models and theories of atonement. 

One of the earliest and most significant attempts to offer a sustained and systematic treatment of the mechanism of the atonement is found in the work of the 11th century bishop Anselm of Canterbury entitled Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man?”). Anselm argues that a holy God cannot simply turn a blind eye to the evil unleashed in the world through sin. There must be justice and justice can only occur if humanity is punished for its sin or if satisfaction is made to God for the offense that humanity has caused to his infinite holiness. In contemporary terms, we might think of satisfaction in terms of reparations. Anselm insists that God does not opt to punish humanity but instead chooses the path of satisfaction. The only problem is that there is nothing that human beings have that God needs or that they could offer to God as satisfaction for the offense they have committed. This is where, for Anselm, the necessity of the incarnation enters the picture. Only a God-man could offer a life not only unblemished by sin, but of infinite worth, that could serve as a reparation for the transgression of humanity against God’s infinite holiness. 

With Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith during the Reformation, forensic metaphors for the atonement begin to occupy an increasingly important place in the imagination of the burgeoning Protestant movement. Considering that the language of justification itself emerges from the context of the courtroom, it should perhaps not be surprising that these forensic metaphors rose to increasing prominence. Though it must be said that Luther himself could speak of atonement in a variety of different registers including not only the forensic, but also the participatory (speaking of the marriage between Christ and the soul), and the dramatic (delighting in Christ’s triumph over the unholy triumvirate of Sin, Death, and the Devil). 

The second-generation Swiss Reformer John Calvin continued to emphasize a forensic understanding of atonement and could speak of Christ bearing the punishment that sinners rightfully deserved. While the substitutionary pattern of the Reformers and their progeny resonated with that of the earlier satisfaction theory, by introducing the variable of punishment they had radically changed Anselm’s equation. 

In the 19th century, Princeton Seminary became the major site of intellectual resistance against the emerging forms of theological liberalism in the United States. The theologian Charles Hodge and his successors at Princeton, including B.B. Warfield, became staunch and influential proponents and defenders of penal substitution. 

Penal substitutionary atonement has occupied a central place in the popular evangelical imagination when it comes to thinking about Christ’s work on the cross. Some evangelical preachers and organizations have at times seemingly equated a penal substitutionary interpretation of the cross with the Gospel itself. 

While this would be unnecessarily reductionistic, it is important to see that penal substitution does resonate with important aspects of the biblical testimony. First, it treats the incomparable majesty and transcendent holiness of God with utmost respect. 

Second, it recognizes that the offence of sin is not a trifling matter but must be regarded with utter seriousness – justice must be done and be seen to be done. 

Third, it stands within the folds of the great Christian tradition in affirming the substitutionary character of Jesus’ death, recognizing that Christ acts “for us.” 

Fourth, it attempts to integrate into its framework passages such as Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”) and 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin”). (Although, it should be noted that these verses do not speak of Christ bearing an extrinsic or additional penalty, but simply bearing the weight of sin and the curse.) 

There are perhaps also cultural and historical factors playing into the evangelical attraction to penal substitution, ranging from the movements lineage that goes back to the Protestant Reformation, to the litigious and transactional character of the modern world within which evangelicalism was born and continues to thrive. 

Penal substitutionary accounts are not without their problems and penal substitutionary views of the atonement have come under intense scrutiny in recent decades. Many of these criticisms more often find their target in the presentations of penal substitution circulating at the popular level or emanating from local pulpits then they do in the work of more nuanced and sophisticated proponents of penal substitution, like the evangelical Anglican theologian James Packer, who taught for many years at Regent College in Vancouver. 

The easily criticized popular account presents the story of a God who is mad as hell with humanity on account of its sin and therefore decides to work out his anger management issues by mercilessly smiting an innocent bystander by the name of Jesus. Far from good news, this caricature of the Gospel, presents a merciless God of dubious character who somehow saves the world through committing an act of gross injustice. 

Such a portrayal must be combatted and corrected for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps there is no better place to start than with what may be the most famous verse in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Here we see that what is given in the death of Christ is nothing other than the life of the Son of God. This means that Jesus is not some innocent bystander who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus is certainly innocent, but he is not a bystander. 

Rather, Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, which means that on the cross we see the alienation of sin being swallowed up in the fathomless depths of God’s own love. If this is the case, and as John 3:16, points out, then it means that God is not in some conflicted emotional or motivational state when it comes to the human creature. Already in 400 A.D., St Augustine appears to have been attempting to correct such a mistaken notion, writing: 

Is it really the case that when God the Father was angry with us he saw the death of the Son on our behalf and was reconciled to us? Does this mean then that his Son was already so reconciled to us that he was even prepared to die for us, while the Father was still so angry with us that unless the Son died for us he would not be reconciled to us? . . . Would the Father have not spared his own Son but handed him over for us, if he had not already been reconciled? . . . I observe that the Father loved us not merely before the Son died for us, but before he founded the world. 3 

Augustine observes that the atonement does not affect a change in God, but rather affects a change in us and our situation before God. That change could be described as a translation from death to life, or in the words of John 3:16, entrance into “eternal life.” Eternal life in the Gospel of John begins in the here and now, as through the Holy Spirit, the Son who dwells in the heart of the Father, comes to dwell within the hearts of believers (John 14:15-20). 

This insight serves as an effective bridge to one final criticism of penal substitutionary theory, namely that it risks separating the cross from the life and ministry of Jesus on the one hand and the resurrection on the other. Under the purview of penal substitutionary theory, it is difficult to offer a convincing or coherent account of Jesus’ life and ministry or to describe the resurrection in a way that makes it nothing more than an accessory to Good Friday. 

Holding together the life and ministry of Jesus with his cross and with his resurrection is not a struggle unique to evangelicals holding to penal substitution. Most accounts of the atonement and forms of Christian spirituality struggle in this regard with liberal and progressive Christians, along with some Mennonites, emphasizing the life and teachings of Jesus; evangelicals and Roman Catholics tending to emphasize the cross; and Pentecostals and the Orthodox placing unique stress upon the resurrection. 

The failure to hold together Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, can result in characteristic distortions in the practice of the faith with those emphasizing the life and teachings of Jesus particularly susceptible to legalistic ideologies of both the left- and right-wing varieties. Those who focus exclusively on the cross can tend toward a transactional approach to spirituality that ultimately makes little difference for how one lives in the world. While those prioritizing the resurrection can find themselves trending towards (3) triumphalism, ranging from the Prosperity Gospel prevalent in global charismatic circles to the ethnonationalism on display in contemporary Russian Orthodoxy. 

Theories of atonement are ultimately meant to serve as lenses and primers for engaging with the story of Jesus Christ. They are not meant to be replacements for that story. For as the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once said, “the job of doctrine is to hold us still before Jesus.” 4 

When all is said and done, no one is saved by holding to any particular theory of the atonement, rather we are saved by Jesus Christ who simply is our atonement. At its most basic level, the ecumenically received understanding of the atonement is just this: “He has done it! Jesus Christ is our reconciliation!” What better news could there be than that? 


1.    Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 208.

2.    Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 35.

3.    Augustine, De Trinitate, XVII.4.15.

4.    Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Toronto: ABC Pub., 2003), 37.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Early cancer death of prosperity gospel preacher Leon Fontaine raises questions for his followers


In November 2022, Leon Fontaine died. Fontaine, pastor of Springs Church—the largest church in Canada, with locations in Winnipeg and Calgary—was a well-known prosperity gospel preacher, telling people they could live healthy and successful lives through faith in Jesus. His death came as a shock to many since he died young (age 59) and of cancer—a disease he claimed could be miraculously defeated by believers.

His death prompted me to write the following reflection for the Winnipeg Free Press and reprinted here.

Many years ago, when I was in my late teens, a much-loved youth pastor in my hometown was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Together with others, we prayed for him to be healed. Oh, how we prayed! Fervently, devotedly, as individuals and in groups. 

We prayed how we had been taught: to claim victory over the dreaded disease in the name of Jesus, believing if we said the right things in the right way our prayers would produce a miracle. 

And then he died. 

Upon hearing the news, I was devastated and confused. Hadn’t I been taught the Bible promised health and healing for believers? That Jesus promised abundant life for Christians — not just in heaven, but here on earth, too? That God answered prayers if people had enough faith? 

It was a tough and challenging time for me. The suppositions of my belief system were rocked. Things didn’t turn out the way I had been told. I had to figure out a new way to live as a person of faith in the world.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I had been taught was a form of Christianity known as the prosperity gospel — the belief it’s God’s will for Christians to be happy, healthy and wealthy. All I had to do was “name it and claim it.”  

I haven’t believed that way for a very long time. Over the years I’ve learned that life is unpredictable, uncertain and messy. But many people still do, including those who go to Springs Church.

Springs is known in Canadian Christian circles as a prosperity gospel church. And Leon Fontaine was one of its most popular preachers. In sermons and video messages he said things like: “God has promised us health and healing. That’s a fact . . . I’ve witnessed incredible instantaneous miracles take place, and I’ve also watched people walk out miraculous recovery from everything from plantar warts to terminal cancer.”

No matter what you’re facing, he said, “the truth remains that you can walk in God’s promises of health and healing!”

He asked in another message: “What if I told you that God doesn’t want you to be sick? Many Christians have been taught that whatever happens in their life is God's will. In other words, if one person is healthy and the other is sick — it's God's will. But if you look in the Bible, you'll see that's actually not true.”

God’s will, he preached, was not for people to be “poor, sick, and hurting . . . when the Bible says ‘for by grace are ye saved by faith.’ The word saved doesn't just means saved from hell. It means saved from sickness, saved from poverty, saved from early deaths.”

God’s plan was to save Christians from sickness and disease, he said. His grace would keep them healthy and protected “until old age” — as long as people had enough faith and trained their minds to think only positive thoughts. No negative thoughts!

But now Fontaine is dead, at age 59 from cancer. How will people at Springs respond? His passing might prompt some uncomfortable questions for his followers, such as: Was what he taught wrong? If Fontaine could die young from cancer, a disease he said God would cure people from, was it all a lie?

And if it wasn’t a lie, here’s a troubling thought: Did Fontaine not believe what he preached? Or did he not have enough faith to get his own miracle? If a man so close to God like him couldn’t get healed, what hope is there for others?

Finally, can this God Fontaine preached about be trusted? For some, his death could prompt a crisis of faith.

Former Winnipegger Kate Bowler is a cancer survivor and author of the book “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” She acknowledges its appeal. The prosperity gospel, she said, “offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you,” she said.

But life doesn’t always work out that way. And when it doesn’t, followers of the prosperity gospel can suffer doubly. “Shame compounds the grief,” she said, noting they not only feel grief over the loss of a loved one, they also feel guilty because they weren’t able to pull them through — a guilt they need to live with for the rest of their lives.

“Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith,” she said.

To be clear, I don’t think Fontaine was a fake or a charlatan. I don’t think he was preying on the hopes and dreams of others. I believe he sincerely believed what he was preaching. And from the tributes pouring in, he sounded like a caring and devoted pastor, husband, father and friend. 

But the fact of the matter is there are no guarantees in life. Christians get cancer, too. Sometimes they survive it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get a good job, sometimes they are passed over for promotion. Sometimes someone they love dies, sometimes they don’t. There is no “gospel,” prosperity or otherwise, that offers a formula that works every time for every situation.

Or, as Bowler put it, “there is no cure to being human; finitude is going to be part of this deal . . . at some point, we must say to ourselves, ‘I’m going to need to let go.’”

From the December 31, 2022 Winnipeg Free Press.

Read my earlier article about Fontaine, shortly after his death, in the Free Press.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Religion scholars weigh in on decline for evangelical congregations in Canada

In my November 26 Winnipeg Free Press column, I wrote about how the recent census shows it’s not only the mainline Protestant denominations that are declining, but also Pentecostals and Baptists—two evangelical denominations tracked by Statistics Canada. What’s happening? And does the decrease extend to other denominations? I asked some scholars from religion who are part of the evangelical tradition to share some thoughts. Their full responses are below. 

Rick Hiemstra, Director of Research, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada 

I think the answer to your question lies in how the census question has evolved over time and in how the religion question is coded. 

For a chart showing how the census questions have change from 1951 to 2001 see the chart on page 5 of “Evangelicals and the Canadian Census.” 

Extending this chart, I’ve included the 2011 National Household Survey question and the 2021 census question below. The differences between these two questions have been highlighted in yellow. 

2011 National Household survey which replaced the 2011 long-form census 

22. What is this person’s religion? 

Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practicing member of that group. 

For example, Roman Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Muslim, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Greek Orthodox, etc. 

(Specify one denomination or religion only, or no religion.) 


The 2021 long-form census 

30. What is this person’s religion? 

Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practicing member of that group. 

For example, Roman Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Muslim, Baptist, Hindu, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, etc. 

(Specify one denomination or religion only, or no religion.) 


Note the declining position of evangelical denominations in the question. 

If you look at tables 2 and 3 in the “Evangelicals and the Canadian Census” paper linked above, you can see that the direction of census numbers between 1991 and 2001 were sometimes at odds either in the direction or magnitude of denominational statistics. 

For example, the 2001 census reported a decadal decline for Pentecostal of 15.3% whereas the Pentecostal denominations reported a membership growth of 23.3% over the same period. The census and membership numbers are not the same thing. 

As I note in the paper, Pentecostal did not appear in the 2001 census question, and I think this accounted for at least some of the discrepancy. So questions do make a difference in data. 

Baptist and Pentecostal are the only evangelical denominations that remain in the census question. Their share fell between 2011 and 2021, and while there may have been some decline, there has been a somewhat corresponding rise in “other Christian.” 

I’ve had some correspondence with Jarod Dobson from StatCan about how they’re coding the religion variable on the 2021 census. He provided this link:

You’ll note that “Other Christian” isn’t broken down any further. In the past, census coders were provided with a codebook that essentially told coders what buckets to put different religious code values (answers) into. I asked for the equivalent document for today and, while I was presented with a spreadsheet with more detail, I was cautioned not to treat it as a code book. 

So, we don’t really know how “other Christian” was coded, although I would really like to know. I suspect that there are many in this category who would be considered evangelical by type or movement definitions (see Stackhouse “Defining ‘Evangelical’”;) but who would be reluctant to identify either with the more comprehensive “evangelical” label or one the denominations associated with the movement. 

I think this is more than just a case of their being “shy evangelicals.” It’s likely an attempt to put distance between themselves and the common characterizations of evangelicals in the media and culture. 

Until StatsCan releases a codebook for the 2021 census, we won’t know the composition of “other Christian.” My guess is that they’re mostly Evangelicals.

Kevin Flatt, Redeemer University 

Rick's points about the limitations of census data regarding evangelical affiliation are important ones, and I agree with his analysis. I'll add three additional thoughts. 

First, the "Other Christian" category may contain evangelical denominations or traditions among new Canadians, such as African Independent Churches, that do not easily map on to more well-known (to Canadians) evangelical groups such as Baptists and Pentecostals. 

Such "new to us" groups tend to get under-counted and under-noticed, but with immigration trends, are likely becoming a larger part of the evangelical mix in Canada. 

Second, the Christian, Not Otherwise Stated (n.o.s.) category (as distinct from the "Other Christian" category) probably has some mix of evangelicals and "cultural" Christians who retain some sense of Christian identification but have lost touch with any particular church community or tradition. It thus combines the two Christian subgroups with the highest and lowest levels, respectively, of measurable religiosity. 

There are probably more cultural Christians than evangelicals in this census category. But given the large sociological differences, it would be nice to tease this out further. My understanding is that others who are more well informed than I am (e.g. Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme) have educated guesses about the relative proportions of evangelicals and cultural Christians in this category based on non-census data. 

Sam and his colleagues have done some great work using denominational statistics that suggests that some evangelical groups stalled or began to decline numerically after 2000 or so. This represents a change from the situation in the last half of the 20th century, which denominational statistics and other detailed research suggest were a period of fairly robust growth for evangelical churches, matching or exceeding population growth. 

As Rick notes, the census has never really done a good job of capturing these trends, but if that numerical transition has really happened "on the ground," one would expect it to show up in broad strokes in the census eventually. If "the great evangelical stall-out" is really happening, my armchair hypothesis is that it has three main drivers: 

Number 1: The drying-up of defections from mainline Protestantism as a source of growth. I think the switch of theologically and morally conservative Protestants out of liberalizing mainline Protestant churches was an under-appreciated contributor to evangelical growth in the 1960s-1990s period. 

But most evangelically-inclined mainline Protestants who wanted to switch over to evangelical churches had already done so by the 1990s, and of course as the mainline Protestant churches have dwindled away (United Church affiliation fell by about 40% from the 2011 to 2021 census) there are fewer potential defectors. 

Number two, Canadian and broader Western popular culture and institutions are less compatible with evangelical faith today than they were 40 years ago. The cognitive dissonance for evangelical children and youth in public schools, for example, is now much greater due to both the waning of a residual generic Protestant ethos (remember that Ontario public schools could still begin the day with Christian devotions until 1988 or so) and the emergence of a new moral/ideological ethos, especially around sexuality. 

Social media use has exploded since about 2012; this tends to have a secularizing impact on balance in terms of young people's reference points. Of course, many evangelicals retain their convictions or even have them strengthened as they age, and pass them on to the next generation, but the headwinds are stronger than they used to be. 

And number three, changes in the character of evangelical churches. In explaining church growth or decline, we need to look not only at the external environment, which is largely shared by all churches in the same geographical/cultural setting, but also the varying characteristics of the churches themselves. 

Bob Burkinshaw argued in Pilgrims in Lotus Land that a combination of theological/moral conservatism (for lack of a better word) and innovative techniques underpinned a lot of evangelical growth in 20th-century British Columbia. If that is correct, and generalizable to the rest of the country—and I think it largely is—then a change in those characteristics could lead to numerical reversals. 

I don't have good data on this, but my anecdotal impression is that the larger evangelical groups in Canada today are by-and-large somewhat less theologically and morally conservative than they were in, say, 1980. If that hunch is correct, it could be a factor too. But this last point will be controversial. 

Sorry to pull the old preacher's trick of sneaking in three sub-points under my final point.

John Stackhouse, Crandall University 

As others have said, we do need to bore into “Other Christian” and “Christian Not Otherwise Stated” to see who’s there. 

1. What’s the difference between those two categories? Ought there to be two? 

2. Boring into them further will help test the thesis that denominationalism is waning (a thesis going back a full generation) such that Christians, and especially evangelicals, don’t care about denominations and instead search for a local church according to an individual/familial list of concerns (rather than a “tribal” loyalty to denomination or a doctrinal/sacramental/ethical loyalty to a particular tradition): good preaching (as they themselves judge “good”), good Sunday School, good youth group, etc. 

I wouldn’t condemn this attitude as necessarily consumeristic, but it is utterly individualistic. 

3. Boring into them further will also test the thesis that evangelicals have been declining for at least three decades—in every metric, from regular churchgoing to giving to affiliation—and somehow not all the relevant census and poll data show that decline. 

If that thesis is true, then what has happened to prompt evangelical decline? If that thesis isn’t true (per Reimer and Wilkinson, who—if memory serves—suggest that evangelicals have not declined but have in fact retained their share of the market, thus actually growing in a growing Canada), then where are (all) the evangelicals in the national census? 

Sam Reimer, Crandall University 

A couple of comments: 

First, when Reimer and Wilkinson wrote their 2015 book on evangelical congregations, our sense was that we were just passing over the peak and starting the decline, although some evangelical denominations were declining in the 1990s. 

I think that evangelicals are more clearly declining now, but it will be slowed because of immigrants who are evangelical. As Kevin noted, these are harder to count. However, evangelicals are likely losing ground because the Canadian born are becoming nones. 

Second, the census, because of the wording of their question—and maybe just a sense from respondents that they should answer in a way consistent with their family tradition—reports higher percentages of religious affiliates than polls do. More people are willing to say they have no religious affiliation in the polls. So, the recent Maru/EFC poll showed that Christians were a minority in Canada, whereas the census still reports a slight majority.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Winnipeg’s mayoral candidates and the faith community; questions and answers


How will Winnipeg’s new mayor engage the city’s faith communities? That’s the question posed to candidates in late September. 

I reached out to local faith community leaders for specific issues they wanted to see addressed by the candidates. They came up with three questions. 

First, knowing the contributions made by faith groups to help the marginal and vulnerable in the city, what would the candidates do as mayor to recognize and support those efforts? 

Second, what would they do to address and combat antisemitism and Islamophobia? 

And third, what could the city do to help congregations with aging buildings, especially in the core, maintain these buildings so they could continue to serve people in the area? 

Candidates who replied were Shaun Loney, Rick Shone, Glen Murray, Chris Clacio, Scott Gillingham, Rana Bokhari, Jenny Motkaluk and Kevin Klein. Below find their full responses. Their edited responses were published in the Winnipeg Free Press on October 8. 

Shaun Loney

I'm an active member at St. Mary's Road United Church.  I also attend Indigenous ceremonies regularly including at the Sandy Saulteaux Centre near Beausejour.  

My job as Mayor will be to help us see our assets in the City to make measurable progress on the issues that we're struggling with but we need new and modern tools to connect what we have to what we need. 

The question is, what role can our faith communities play in helping the City address issues like homelessness and poverty and what does that look like in 2022, here in Winnipeg. 

I want to partner with faith communities to help Winnipeg emerge out of an old paradigm where we treat people living in poverty as though there is something wrong with them and to see they have been interacting with failed systems and outdated institutions. 

The way I see it, Winnipeg's defining issue is our ability to connect the people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done.  Social enterprises lean into a business model that embeds love and compassion into our economics.  They hire people with barriers to employment.  As Mayor, I'd love to partner with faith communities who are struggling with underutilized church buildings to see employment opportunities emerge for new Canadians, Indigenous and others left out of the labour market. 

How about a few faith communities with underutilized buildings working with the City to see new housing opportunities for women getting out of jail and those same women being able to work in a coffee shop on the main level? 

How about an Islamic community hosting a social enterprise that hires refugees to paint? One week it's completing painting jobs that have been contracted by the City and the next it's working on getting a driver's license or learning English. 

We can begin to see "problems" like underutilized buildings or refugee unemployment as opportunities when we take as asset-based approach and see the potential in each other. 

The outcomes generated by ventures like these—including providing supportive housing for those living on our streets—have important financial benefits to our overburdened emergency services such as police, fire and ambulance.  As Mayor, I will modernize how nonprofits and emergency service providers partner with each other to recognize the important financial benefits that nonprofits have in lowering the workloads. 

How about a church hiring people with physical disabilities to visit lonely seniors who are regularly calling 911 out of sheer loneliness?  The Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service would have a financial interest in the impacts that this activity would have on their daily dispatches.   

These social enterprise activities would have positive revenue implications for faith communities that can add to their donations.  Faith communities already use social enterprise strategies—selling tickets to a fall supper or a musical put on by members of the congregation. 

Others, such as MCC, sponsoring thrift shops to do social good.  Let's do a lot more of this, in new and interesting ways.  As Mayor, I will make this a clear option for faith communities to partner with the City to work together to solve our most stubborn problems. 

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are indeed growing problems. In 2015, when PM Harper announced a snitch line to report "barbaric cultural practises" my partner Fiona and I organized an event at the Central Mosque.  We expected 30 people to show up, to show some love for our Islamic neighbours—and 300 showed up. Here's the news of the event in the Winnipeg Free Press and another from Global TV.  As Mayor, I want to be very active in helping Winnipeggers in embracing diversity of all kinds to see the potential in each other.   

Rick Shone

I know, from experience, that faith groups play a huge role in the function of our society. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and was a youth leader into my university days. I went to a Christian Reformed school and a Mennonite high school (MBCI) and completed a minor in religious studies at the U of M. The values of these communities have shaped and informed the person I am today. 

Many faith groups are so active in the wider community and all the efforts of these volunteers makes a difference. I would love to see the city partner more with faith groups to address social issues. When I decided to run for mayor, I knew that if the city could develop better partnerships with faith groups, biz groups, neighbourhood associations, etc. we could achieve so much more as a team when we work together to solve these challenges. 

I currently sit on the board of the West End Biz and have been on the board of the Central Neighbourhoods Association, so I have seen first-hand the struggle it can be for organizations when partnering with the city. 

Winnipeg must be a city where all people feel safe and supported. This is my goal and I do not support any type of hate. In our household, my wife and I have raised our kids to respect others. We have raised them not to judge, to get to know people and their stories. We have many friends from both of these communities but there are also so many others who do not feel supported and safe in Winnipeg. 

My vision is to live in a city with a heart, one that supports and accepts others. It starts with education and then creating opportunities from different ethnic backgrounds, faiths, etc. to be able to meet, mix and get to know one another.  

The question of older buildings is is a great one I've thought of often as I've seen our aging members and Presbyterian churches. When it comes to upgrading/renovating, etc. I do think the city can be much more expedient in granting permits and ensuring that certain things remain grandfathered so as to not trigger costly upgrades. 

Many congregations are realizing that they must use the building more than just on Sundays or service days. They are indeed perfect buildings that can be used for community gatherings of all kinds, including City of Winnipeg leisure guide programs. Day care, weddings and many other functions can be held in church buildings. These programs can help pay for rent and upgrades to the building to ensure that they remain prominent in the community for a long time to come. 

Glen Murray 

Many of the best social outreach programs in our city are run by faith-based organizations. It is integral that the city reduce and remove roadblocks that prevent these organizations from fulfilling their mission. Together we can work to achieve better outcomes for groups looking to make an impact. 

As a member of a community that has been historically marginalized and attacked, I personally understand the challenges prejudice and hate can cause. It is important that the Mayor always be on the front lines, combating all types of hate in our City. We must ensure Winnipeg is always a welcoming, accepting and open place for people of all faiths. 

It’s important that we always appreciate that Winnipeg has many beautiful historic buildings. While the city cannot engage in a broad scale program to restore privately-owned buildings, we can and must always play a role in ensuring that we have beautiful public spaces in good repair. I am open to hearing all ideas from community leaders for how the city can help. 

Chris Clacio 

Thank you for your email and the questions I've been meaning to engage with the faith groups for many years, but I've been personally unaware of how to do that. 

As Mayor I would start by visiting every faith group in Winnipeg to discuss how the city of Winnipeg and the Office of the Mayor could do better engagement to reach out to the different groups in our city and include them in the civic process within city hall. 

After the first initial meetings with every single faith group, I would set up a meeting with all the leaders of the faith groups I meet with to begin the dialogue and discussions to address our relatives that are struggling and need support in our city. 

I do see and believe that going forwards in the post-covid world where we exist in the city of Winnipeg needs different faith groups to be at the table and be involved in the solutions that the city could partner up to address topics of concern in Winnipeg. 

Early in the election I made an announcement that I will rebrand the Office of Public Engagement into the Office of Civic Engagement. What makes this office different from the current form is if you as a resident or as a group of residents have an initiative or project you want to do in your neighbourhood you would reach out to this division, and they would connect you with your local councilors and specific department staff to help fund and implement the program. 

The best summary of how this office would operate would be what in the municipal sector is called a civic innovation lab which is based on social innovation labs. The second part of my announcement was the creation of a four-year participatory budgeting process.  

As mayor I would work with both the Jewish and Muslim citizens within our wards and neighbourhoods to address all forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia within our city. Over my 7 years working with urban indigenous young people in the inner city of Winnipeg, one important gift they have taught me about working alongside other citizens who I myself don't represent or speak for is to first get to know the citizens that come from the Jewish and Muslim communities. 

During my time helping and supporting urban indigenous young people in the city it was through always showing up every Friday at 6pm since August 2014 at 470 Selkirk Ave. At the Indigenous Family Centre that I was able to connect with and see different citizens from all walks of life coming together to "stop the violence and build community'' 52 times for 9 years straight. 

The only way I know how to make all citizens safe is to see more investments within the city go towards recreational, museums, parks, pools, and libraries services. This is the only way I believe we can improve our citizens' safety. 

There are many things the city can do to help different groups maintain and utilize these old church buildings so they can continue to serve all citizens. The difficulty at the moment is all about accessibility for citizen-based organizations to work in collaboration with the city to better coordinate with all stakeholders to implement the initiatives which is why the Office of Civic Engagement would be an asset in organizing with all faith groups, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian based organizations within the city. 

This would allow for easier communication with city staff, mayor's office, your city councillor, and the citizens to design, develop, and evaluate city services for aging church buildings.  

I have a complicated relationship within my life related to my faith and it wasn't until the pandemic began and my own journey of reconciliation of showing up every Friday and helping urban indigenous young people building up the neighbourhoods of the mature and inner city for almost 7-8 years. 

My family immigrated from the Philippines during the time of martial law being placed by the federal government back in 1974. My Mom had arrived here in 1982; 10 years prior to my birth in June 1992. Growing up here on Turtle Island; Winnipeg no one in my family ever explained to me about how to speak Tagalog, the history of the Philippines, or my family's relationship with Roman Catholicism. All I knew growing up was that I was non-practicing Catholic and I had seen my own immediate and extended family members always following prayer. 

As I attended University to study politics I had joined several atheist, agnostic, philosophical student groups trying to figure out whether I believe in those beliefs. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their final report back in 2015, I had already been learning from many urban indigenous young people how indigenous knowledge had been systematically been misrepresented or excluded in many places within our city. As the pandemic grew my relationship to the Meet Me at The Bell Tower slowed down where I was always connecting with different citizen-based organizations.  

June 2022 that was the year I turned 30 years old, reflected on my life (and lived experiences), and learned more about my relationship to my own faith. I still consider myself a non-practicing Catholic but now I understand a little bit about my mom's family relationship to Roman Catholicism through learning about the colonial process that happened in the Philippines by the Spanish from 1565 to 1898 and the United States from 1902 to 1946. 

As part of the self reflection of learning about all this history of my family's homeland and its similar process that happened here to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. I can now see why I had struggled to figure my relationship to a higher authority. 

Scott Gillingham 

As a former pastor for over 20 years, I have a deep appreciation for the important contributions faith communities make to the health and strength of our city. The congregations I led were always actively involved as partners with organizations like Winnipeg (now Manitoba) Harvest, downtown missions; Union, Siloam and Lighthouse, Adult and Teen Challenge, helping refugees and other newcomers to Winnipeg. We were intentionally focused on building up our city.  

The theme of my campaign is “Uniting to Build a Stronger Winnipeg. Government is not the answer to every challenge facing the people of our city, nor can government alone do all that needs to be done to address the poverty, addiction and homelessness in Winnipeg. For more than a century in Winnipeg faith communities have been and remain on the front lines of meeting the social needs of Winnipeggers. I take this opportunity to thank them for their quiet, faithful work bringing help and hope to people of all ages and walks of life. 

I envision a city where all partners, including faith communities, are at the table, appreciated, empowered and working together in a coordinated manner to address Winnipeg’s shared social challenges and seize our opportunities.  

As Mayor, I will lead the coordination of the contributions made by every sector, including faith communities, senior levels of government, Indigenous governments, the business community, educators, non-profits and more. Each sector has a role to play in building a stronger, healthier Winnipeg where all people have the opportunity to benefit. By coordinating our efforts we can identify and address areas of overlap and gaps so the people we are serving get the help they need. 

Over the past several months of my mayoral campaign I have been very engaged with various and diverse faith communities across Winnipeg. I am encouraged by their commitment to making Winnipeg a stronger city. They are dedicated to helping address the social needs many fellow-Winnipeggers face.  

Earlier this year, I used my social media platforms to denounce in the strongest terms the appearance of an antisemitic flag at a rally in Winnipeg. 

As Mayor, I will continue to denounce antisemitism, Islamophobia and will work to foster a city that is growing in mutual acceptance, understanding and appreciation.  

A few months ago, I attended a forum at the Grand Mosque on Waverley St hosted by the Manitoba Islamic Association. The topic of Islamphobia was discussed and was a followup to the recent report, ‘Community Experiences with Islamophobia’.  

The presence of the antisemitic flag and the report outlining the experiences forum shows Winnipeg still has work to do to eradicate hate and intolerance in our community.  

As Mayor, I will actively engage all faith and cultural communities to listen and understand what they are experiencing in Winnipeg. By knowing what communities are facing we can find ways to address it. I will work to make our city a place where all people feel welcome, safe and at home in Winnipeg.  

As a former pastor I can appreciate that some congregations with older buildings can get to the frustrating stage where they feel they are spending their time on money serving the building instead of the people of the community. 

As Mayor, I will be open to support rezoning of older church buildings so that appropriate adaptive reuse may be accommodated. For example, the conversion of St. Mathews Anglican Church to the West End Commons housing community is an example of an aging church building that was transformed into 26 apartments offered at affordable rents through a no-profit structure. 

I recognize that beyond the tangible work of addressing social needs, faith communities strengthen the fabric of our city by promoting values of love for others, generosity, honesty, service, mutual respect and hope. Lived out, these values strengthen individuals and build families. As Mayor, I will always appreciate the importance of faith communities to Winnipeg’s future hope and success. 

I am a Christian and attend church regularly.  

Kevin Klein 

First, thank you for reaching out to the candidates to address these challenges within the Faith-Based community. I imagine that over the years you have tried to reach out to those in power to achieve meaningful discussion and have received many empty promises. I will try to answer based on my proven track record and personal history.

There is a culture at City Hall that fears the repercussions of allowing religious groups to participate and receive funding for social issues in Winnipeg. I find this disappointing given how much help religious organizations give to the vulnerable. Every organization that provides service should have a seat at the table. There is a massive amount of funding that goes to organizations in the city but no accountability as to where the funding is going or what kind of results are achieved. 

When elected, I will open the opportunity for funding to any non-profit organization who is willing to help and will require more accountability from those already receiving funding to ensure that funding is being used wisely and prudently.

I am fortunate to have made many personal connections within both the Jewish and Muslim communities during my time in Winnipeg. I value them as friends and advisors and will continue to maintain these connections and listen as Mayor. I believe these connections with community leaders will enable me to be aware of issues quickly and I would rely on their input to treat them with the cultural sensitivity that they deserve and provide them with the assurance that their safety is crucial.

While church buildings are private property and do not fall under the purveyance of the city, I believe that we can still help make upkeep and renovations easier by making them less costly. During this campaign I have committed to reducing the cost of permits for non-profits by 75%. When elected mayor I would work with council to help them understand the importance of preserving these aging buildings within the communities that they serve.

I hope that I have answered your questions clearly. As a child I was often one of the vulnerable who relied on the charity of others, so I understand how important religious organizations are to the community.

Finally, I am reminded of a story my father-in-law (a retired minister) tells of how important it is to serve the community.

Their church building was next door to a middle-school and the kids who smoked would come hang out on the church steps as they couldn’t smoke on school property. Graffiti, destruction, and garbage became a huge issue. As opposed to forcing them off the property, the ladies of the church began a lunch program and invited the kids in for a free meal every week.

Not only did the graffiti and destruction stop, but years later my father-in-law would run into these kids who told him how that small act of kindness encouraged them to make different choices in life. 

Jenny Motkaluk

Religion/faith is a personal matter. The government doesn't and should never tell congregants what to believe. At the same time the good works that faith groups do is a reflection of their moral beliefs and support broader social goals. Where those efforts provide a benefit to the community as a whole, the City should be a good partner. Just as the City should be a good partner to anyone whose efforts will make Winnipeg stronger.  

Winnipeggers deserve leadership that supports the passion, ambitions, and dreams of all of us. Recently, I participated in the redevelopment of Augustine United Church into Augustine Centre, which includes Oak Table and SPLASH Daycare as two partners that offer substantial support to the broader community.  The City could have been a better partner in that process and when I'm Mayor, it will be. 

Winnipeg is a great city because of the people who choose to live here.  We are the most diverse city in the country and everyone who lives here is first and foremost a Winnipegger in my view. People who want to inject the violent politics of other countries halfway around the world into Winnipeg, must know that there will be zero tolerance for anything other than reasoned debate. I believe Israel has a right to exist.  

When Jews, Muslims or any other Winnipeggers are harassed and attacked in our city, I will speak out against it and take action. I reject Woke Culture, BDS, and equity policies because they are often used as a disguise for antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. 

Churches are a big part of the urban mosaic and many congregations are facing the same challenges of dwindling and aging membership which reduces their ability to maintain their Churches. Augustine Centre is a great example of a congregation responding to this challenge and should be looked on as a model for others, such as Rosh Pina which was recently listed for sale.  

Sadly, the City of Winnipeg acted more as a barrier to success in that project than a champion.  In particular, delays in the permit office proved very costly to their redevelopment efforts. As Mayor, I will create high performance departments so that City Hall starts working with us rather than against us. 

I identify as a Winnipegger.  As a kid, I was raised in the Ukrainian Catholic community, I went to Immaculate Heart of Mary School and attended several churches in the North End of Winnipeg, including St Joseph's and St Andrew's. 

Rana Bokhari 

Recognizing the challenges that marginalized, racialized and vulnerable people in our city face is one the most important issues in this campaign. How the government at all levels have addressed these issues thus far, is perhaps one of our society's greatest failures. As a Human Rights candidate, as a woman who believes that how we treat our most vulnerable is a reflection of our society—I believe that drug, addiction and mental health issues require all groups, community, faith and others partnering together to do better. 

I understand the challenges both the Jewish and Muslim communities face. I have lived experience dealing with Islamophobia. The City has a role to play in creating safe communities, safe places of worship and safety on the streets free from any violence rooted in antisemitism and Islamophobia. This starts with education, lifting the voices of those communities and ensuring that we come together to celebrate our achievements and also our hardships shoulder to shoulder. 

I acknowledge that some very important landmarks and old church buildings continue to serve invaluable services to all community members. Whether it is through programs, shelter, gathering spaces or food banks. 

One of the main pillars of my campaign is community, we would work together to ensure we are supporting the community who rely on these spaces by working with various Christian denominations that are continuing the great work despite all odds.