Saturday, August 24, 2013

Fred Is Sleeping With Freda!

People are saying Fred is sleeping with Freda.

What's the church going to do about it?

People often say such things to pastors. When he hears them, he knows the implication is clear: a situation has become unbearable and it is his responsibility to straighten it out.

Unfortunately, he also knows that people's concern for holiness is usually selective. The type of person involved and activity in question has a lot to do with whether congregants think a sin is serious enough to require church discipline.

Church concerns fall into an unwritten hierarchy of seriousness. Sexual sins are more serious than slander, and actually more serious than nearly anything else. Partying is more serious than heresy. Grandstanding is worse than greed. And so on. 

Many things the Bible defines as sinful don't even show up on a church's radar. Those "lesser sins" seem more subjective, less clear, not to mention less interesting, than the obvious, in-your-face, “Fred is sleeping with Freda,” or the even more serious,  “Fred is sleeping with Billy Bob."

So these are the types of offenses that usually make their rounds in churches.

By the time the offending activity gets to the pastor's attention, the story has usually been circulating for days through the coffee shops, emails and phone calls. The energy has been swirling around the stories until the fury becomes a storm.

Sooner or later, someone decides to talk to the pastor, to see what's going on.

"Did you know Fred is sleeping with Freda? It's causing a ruckus. What are we going to do about it?"

Of course,  “what are We going to do about it,” nearly always means 'what are you, our pastor, going to do about it?"

If the pastor suggests that barging into a situation without first hand knowledge is not a good idea, he will likely be presented with all the evidence accumulated by the concerned congregants.

One person will insist, “ I saw such and such with my own eyes,” “or “my cousin Sally Mae, who never lies, was there when such and such occurred and she is amazed that our church could possibly condone such a thing, and there was a day when church leaders – well, I suppose we are just in a different time, sigh …”

However, if the pastor responds with something like, “O.K., I will to go with you to speak with the offending person. You can tell him (or her) what you just said to me,” the answer is nearly always some version of “Oh, no, my name can’t be used in this because my daughter is on the basketball team with his cousin and goodness knows that if it were known that I was the one who told you ...”

If the pastor still doesn’t act in a timely manner; won't "bring things out into the open" or "deal with the situation,"then the talk begins to shift from the original preoccupation with the offender to a concern with pastor's incompetence or lack of spirituality. It becomes obvious the pastor lacks conviction or courage, or something else vital to be a ‘real’ spiritual leader. 

The pressure is on at that point. There is not a pastor reading this that won't agree.

But here’s the deal. Church discipline is not the responsibility of a spiritual policeman. It is the work of a healer, a dispenser of grace and redemption. Healers don’t go on witch-hunts; they weep over the destructiveness of sin.  Church discipline is a discipleship tool, a spiritual formation process. It is not a mechanism to maintain the church’s self-image. Healthy Church discipline is meant to be therapeutic, not punitive. The Savior who was ‘not willing that any should perish,’ and who ‘came into the world not to condemn the world but that through Him all might be saved,’ is not interested in stoning sinners. He is interested in dispensing divine grace, which alone has the power to transform sinners into saints.

Furthermore, we should only offer church discipline to those who invite it. Otherwise, what passes for church discipline is really an unwelcomed intrusion into lives not yet open for intimate levels of spiritual care. Much damage results from that sort of spiritual trespassing and the seasoned Christian leader resists it.

The truth is, most church people have little interest in ever becoming a disciple. They want to be saved, to be sure. They want to enjoy a “relevant, moving, worship service that meets their needs.” They want to get married and buried in the church. But they are uninterested in Bible study, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. They are especially uninterested in the type of spiritual formation that requires a real relationship with a seasoned spiritual leader. In fact, many church leaders, including pastors, are uninterested in either offering or receiving discipleship at those kinds of levels.

Given this state of affairs, what usually passes for ‘church discipline’ is actually a process to remove those situations and persons that cause personal distress for influential people. That is what we usually mean when we say that “the pastor ought to do something about that.’

Naturally, there are times when the congregation's safety, or unity requires action. Sometimes, we must help people separate from one another, so they won't cause each other further harm. Not all church divisions end up being unhealthy. In some cases, individuals heal and, after a time of separation, become ready to reconcile.  Time does not heal all wounds, but it does heal many. The story of Barnabas and Paul in the Book of Acts is an example of this.

Sometimes though, church people bully their pastors into becoming agents for their vindictiveness. If the bully is powerful enough, the pastor may comply, mostly to get some peace. But the cost to those affected by the resulting ‘church discipline’ can be extremely high. Furthermore, if the discipline imposed on offenders by the pastor does not lead to his or her redemption and restoration to the church fellowship, ‘church discipline’ becomes a form of spiritual abuse.

Most of the time, it is better not to act, even if the church people get agitated, than to act prematurely or without a desire and a plan for the offender’s ultimate redemption and reconciliation. Until there is a way to achieve these goals, pastors usually should wait, watch and pray.  This apparent pastoral inactivity may result in ‘good people’ getting upset, which is unpleasant for everyone. However, sometimes when a pastor forbears in this way, it helps those ‘good’ people become aware of their own sin.

Good people, who are certainly not ‘sleeping with Fred,’ want Fred's activity stopped, which is certainly reasonable. However, they are unaware of the deeper causes for their discomfort. They may not yet understand that the energy that motivates us to ‘deal with sin’ sometimes turns out not to be a concern for a struggling brother’s soul. Sometimes, it is simply a desire to remove an activity that provokes something yet unnamed and unacknowledged in the concerned Christian’s own soul.
Mature spiritual leaders weigh out these things. They make themselves purposefully deaf to the pleas of powerful people who call for his yet unreflected and premature judgment. Seasoned spiritual leaders know that much more is involved than meets the eye when fallen human beings, including the pastor himself incidentally, become highly motivated to ‘deal with’ the sins of others.  

The words of the apostle Paul remain as powerful as when he first wrote them and were written for the times we must deal with Fred:  “if any of you are overtaken by a fault, you who are spiritual restore such a one, in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.”


Lisa Diaz said...

I am not a Pastor nor do I ever hope to become one; that burden would most likely be too difficult for me to bear. I can tell you this however: it is the work of the Holy Spirit to maintain the integrity of the church and its members, to keep them "in line" if you will and to ensure that God's ways are not be trampled upon. It is admirable that you would even become a Pastor; let those of us who are not willing to walk such a path remain humble and simply respect you for your accountability to a Spirit so Holy as God's!

Amazed said...

This is so very good! You hit the nail on the head in this blog!!! Thanks for sharing!! So many self-righteous people in the Church want to throw the first stone this spirit is what is keeping souls from coming into the Kingdom of God. I like the balance that you provided in your teaching as well. Very good read!! Once again thanks for posting!

CP said...

It sounds to me like you are a man passively putting the blame for shirking his duties onto your congregation. If you did not want the responsibility of involvement, why take the position of pastor? People came to you with genuine concerns. It is your responsibility to address these concerns without making it sound like YOU are the victim here. No guts, no glory, Sir. Instead of making a blog post about why you refuse to get involved, perhaps a sermon about the evils of gossip? To say most church goers only wish to be wed then buried, so they do the bare minimum they have to is more a reflection on their spiritual leader (you) than it is on them.

CP said...

Yeah. Pretty sure you wouldn't post MY comment. Coward.

Dan Scott said...

I actually didn't see your comment until now, CP. So sorry I didn't publish it. it isn't that difficult to have guts when people's lives are not in the balance. When they are, it sometimes takes guts to forebear, to discern, to actually think though the possible ramifications of one's actions, or lack of action for that matter.

Thanks for taking the time to write. I did not mean to ignore your comment.