Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Does Christian Love Demand I Tolerate Unrepentant Sin?

Recently, I had some friends ask my opinion about a situation happening in their church.

About 15 years or so ago, a new pastor arrived to minister at this church. Like the experience of all pastors who come to a new ministry, there were a handful of individuals who didn't like him. Their dislike, however, began to grow into expressing slander against him, stirring up of division among the members, and leaving a wake of offended people in the congregation. Eventually, these hateful people left and moved into other local congregations to stew in their bitter factiousness and the beleaguered pastor had a successful ministry in the church in spite of his mistreatment.

Since this all took place, the pastor, too, has moved on to other ministry opportunities and a new pastor has replaced him. Now that the first pastor is gone, though, a number of the original troublemakers feel at ease to return for visits. What they do is come in right as the service is starting, sit in the back, and then quickly leave after the service is ended.

Their presence, of course, alarms many of the offended members who were around when these people were causing problems for the first pastor. The new pastor, however, is not nearly as troubled by their attendance as my offended friends and he thinks by gones should be by gones. In his mind, this was something which took place 15 years ago and Christians must be prepared to extend to them unconditional, 1 Corinthians 13 love.

The offended members, on the other hand, want to extend forgiveness, but at this point do not trust the troublemakers have honestly sought forgiveness from those whom they offended, including the first pastor they slandered. In the mind of my friends, the door is wide open for these troublemakers to return without confronting the sin they committed and only sets up a future situation in which they will only make trouble all over again.

The question from my friends is, "are we being too hard on these people and should we take the new pastor's approach of 'that's just water under the bridge, let's move on from all of this' and extend unconditional forgiveness?"

My answer: No. Plain and simple.

In framing my emphatic "no,"I have to first express profound disappointment with how the new pastor has responded to this situation. Sadly, he represents the typical mind set found in many congregations, particularly in smaller towns, of shying away from any serious confrontation with congregational sin. Some of the attitude arises from the human nature of desiring to avoid conflict. No one truly enjoys conflict, especially when the conflict comes to bear upon the beliefs and lifestyle of another person. Moreover, some of that mind set stems from either the southern-midwest culture of not sticking your nose into other people's business, or perhaps from an American anti-authoritarian attitude of "I don't want to tell you what to do." There is also cultural hospitality mores of always being welcoming. Even if the person is despised, they are to be made to feel welcome, though everyone is going to hypocritically gossip about the person behind his or her back.

The Christian faith, however, demands that pastors meddle in the lives of their people in a godly way. Such meddling involves setting aside American cultural values and social constructs and creating personal conflict. Using the Bible as the ultimate authority in a person's life and holding the individual accountable to its authority is something that will quickly cause conflict, but it is something a pastor has to do. Another buddy of mine told me how his pastor doesn't like confrontation, but my friend quickly pointed out to his pastor that confrontation is part of his job. Preaching the truth involves confrontation sometimes on a daily basis. A good portion of these situations described by my friends could quickly be resolved by shepherding leadership prepared to make the uncomfortable decision to confront an issue.

So what about forgiving these individuals? Christians must always be prepared to forgive and restore those who were at one time disobedient (see for example 2 Corinthians 2:3-11). Such forgiveness is not at that expense of dealing with past sins, however. Even if these people did what they did 15 years ago, if they haven't displayed repentance for their sinful behavior of slandering the pastor and stirring up factiousness in the church, and have not attempted to be reconciled with those folks they offended (the pastor and many in the congregation) then they should not expect to be welcomed into the fellowship where they caused the problems to begin with. The "time heals all wounds" and ignoring the sin they committed is only a means to excuse themselves from having to confront what they did and humbly ask forgiveness. Their present day behavior of coming into the back and leaving immediately after the saying of "amen" at the end of the service is an indication, at least to me, these folks haven't entirely dealt with the division they caused.

The world promotes a hypocritical tolerance that puts a fake smile on the faces of two individuals who are at odds. It shouldn't matter who is right or wrong, we should get along for the sake of the peace. True Christian fellowship, however, is governed by a standard of truth we use to address the root cause of disagreement and conflict. This is the way to have true peace, rather than construct an artificial environment which is only a facade.



Blogger Stephen A Morse said...

Dude, are you looking over my shoulder? If your 'friends' are members of my church... they need to come and talk to me. Just kidding...
This church had to come to grips with this prior to my arrival last year. One of the main reasons I felt called to this congregation was because they, as a body, called a member on the carpet for their past sin.
God has used and is using their obedience for His glory.

3:33 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I didn't want to mention you by name, Stephen, but now that you know... ;-)


5:21 AM, December 21, 2005  

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