The Meaning of ‘Fear-Power’—3 Options

The label “fear-power culture” has various meanings, depending on the perspective of the speaker. This posts explains the three ways people have defined “fear-power culture.”

1. Religious: Fear-Power as Spiritual Control

The worldviews of Majority World cultures, especially tribal religions, give special prominence to spiritual realities. People live in fear of unseen forces such as mana, curses, witches, and ancestors. Consequently, they seek spiritual power over those forces through ritual practices. This constant interaction with the invisible world is the religious aspect of “fear-power.” This is the most common meaning of the term.

This sense of “fear-power” is written about under various other labels. Christian anthropologists explained “folk/traditional religion,” “animism,” and “excluded middle.” At a practical level, ministry approaches in fear-power contexts are “spiritual warfare,” “power encounter,” and “deliverance ministries.” Biblical scholars have exegeted the motif of “divine warrior” and the language of “powers and principalities” in the Bible. Over the last 100 years, the rapid expansion of charismatic Christianity in the global South has prompted theological and missiological reflection on the meaning of the gospel in fear-power contexts. These reflections cover various areas, but generally relate to this spiritual/religious connotations of fear-power. (Click here for ministry resources related to fear-power)

2. Psychological: Fear-Power as Emotional Anxiety

Western psychologists, emphasizing personal and internal aspects, usually identify “anxiety” as the third emotion along with guilt and shame. For example, the journal article “Anxiety, Guilt and Shame in the Atonement” (Theology Today, 1964) draws from the psychology of religion. David Augsburger explains anxiety, guilt, and shame in his book Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures (1984). The psychological use of “anxiety” is quite similar to spiritual fear-power, as seen in this Wiki definition:

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior, such as pacing back and forth, somatic complaints and rumination. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as the feeling of imminent death.

The drive for hyper-productivity in Western cultures create extremes level of anxiety. People worry about controlling the future and live in fear of failure. Anxiety, along with guilt and shame, are pervasive emotional realities in Western culture.

3. Political: Fear-Power as Social Authority

Others define “fear-power” in socio-political terms. Power is the ability to exercise control over other people. Leaders instill a sense of fear by making threats. People submit to leaders because they fear the negative repercussions of appearing disrespectful. This social arrangement is hierarchical and authoritarian. People who utilize the categories guilt, shame, and fear in corporate and secular venues define “fear” in such a socio-political manner.

I believe these socio-political dynamics are better classified as a subset or expression of “shame-honor” referred to as “patronage”— a reciprocal relationship between social unequals. This political definition of fear-power is basically patron-client relations, which are a prominent aspect of honor-shame cultures.


So is “fear-power” a (1) spiritual, (2) psychological, or (3) political concept? Well, yes! All three facets of the human experience are mired by sin and require redemption. The Bible (along with the realities of everyday life) testifies to all three dimensions, so you define “fear-power” with flexiblity. People will (and should) define it according to the pastoral and missional exigencies of their context.

Nevertheless, I see several advantages to the spiritual definition of fear-power. One, this is the most common understanding of fear-power in missions literature, so the term has been somewhat pre-defined. Second, the oppression of Satan and the victory of God over spiritual forces are too prominent in the Bible (and most cultures) for us to not include in our cultural frameworks. Third, placing the accent on spiritual aspects of “fear-power” is beneficial for global mission. Western Christians are often oblivious to the spiritual world, so developing this neglected aspect of our worldview is essential for ministry fruitfulness.

resources for Majority World ministry

6 Comments on “The Meaning of ‘Fear-Power’—3 Options

  1. It seems to me that a major expression of the “fear-power” matrix in the US now is about insurance, particularly health insurance. People make large life decisions based on questions about insurance coverage. I have friends whose lives are controlled by issues related to health insurance.

    Like expressions of “fear-power” in other cultures, this one is hidden in the fabric of daily life, but it is there. If Christians are supposed to be set free of the fear of death, yet as a culture we seem consumed with forestalling that day.

  2. Interesting! I’ve spent 34 years working among Muslims. Of course every Muslim knows the fear of even thinking about another religion and their truth claims. Apostasy laws are the ultimate weapon of fear. Without this fear of death, many more Muslims would be coming to Jesus

  3. Thanks, Gene Daniels, for the comment on insurance as a cultural expression of mitigating anxiety. An aspect of Western society that stands out to me in this regard is the ways that individuals and the government respond to terrorism.

    The larger themes are a concern with security, and a dependence on technological solutions to perceived threats. (For the purpose of analysis, there is no difference between technology and magic.)

  4. Thank you both! I have been in the insurance business for over 40 years—health Insurance is no longer based on the management and mathematics of risk. It is only controlled by political (fear power) forces. My family now lives and works in a Muslim-dominated country. Comments from both people resonate for prayer. Thank you. Praying towards Mt. 24:14!

  5. I see no 1 among the people I work with very much. That’s one of the reason that they still hold on to their gods. No. 3 is also very strong in our society.

  6. I agree that social exclusion is our greatest fear. Brene’ Brown says as much in her works on shame. (I understand that the shame, fear, guilt triangle was developed as a cultural tool, but it speaks to our personal lives as well).

    So while much of our fear comes from the shame corner of the triangle, it may also come from the guilt corner as well. Our national news speaks of men and women who, accused by the federal government of a crime, plead guilty to a lesser charge rather than face bankruptcy attempting to pay the legal costs of defending themselves in court. In doing so they violate their own sense of guilt and innocence by pleading guilty to something they did not do, and accept the shame of exclusion from public work. All of this because they face the power of the state with unlimited resources to prosecute, and a 97% success rate in court. Legal charges are often at least perceived as being brought selectively, depending on the defendant’s political affiliations. This in the land of the free!

    We must also consider the power of civil legal actions. It is well known that fear of litigation drives our medical treatment and costs. Nonprofit organizations who do great work for the Kingdom of God and their communities divert resources to provide liability insurance for their organizations and boards of directors. If civil action is brought against an individual or organization, the plaintiff has power to subpoena thousands of pages of documents, which in turn creates opportunities for greedy attorneys to scour these documents in search of other possible legal action. Publicity surrounding legal action often causes supporters of the organization to distance themselves (shame) and to reduce financial support.

    While it could be argued that the courts offer equal justice under the law and an escape from the injustices of honor-shame and fear- power cultures, defending ones cause has become so burdensome, and the shame of being accused so intense, that much of what was gained in western society has been lost.

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