Sunday, April 14, 2019

Mopping Up the Mess

Kate’s husband Sam cheated on her. For just shy of three years. One night, confronted with Kate’s suspicions, he breaks down in tears, blurts out the truth and begs for Kate’s forgiveness. He abruptly terminates his illicit relationship, confesses his infidelity to the elders of their church, and resigns from his responsibilities teaching Sunday School and administering the church’s financial affairs. Several months later, Sam is living in a motel while he and Kate go through marriage counselling.

Kate knows she is responsible to God to forgive her husband, and she is working hard at that. Her question is whether forgiving Sam means she must take him back, not just as partner in life but as her spiritual head. Several of Kate’s church friends have strong opinions about this. They insist she should do it, and do it as soon as possible.

They say she has not truly forgiven Sam if she won’t take him back.

Yet Another Failure of Christian Charity

Another scenario. Carlo is a single man in his mid-twenties. He has led the church youth group for the last three years. He is well-liked by the kids, and is by all accounts an unusually solid Bible teacher. Then one winter weekend on a youth retreat, Carlo is discovered sharing a sleeping bag with almost-sixteen-year-old Carrie. Carrie’s twice-divorced and unsaved parents are completely indifferent to the incident. They have other ongoing dramas to occupy them. Carlo narrowly escapes legal prosecution and permanent classification as a sex offender. He repents, and is cautiously received back into fellowship at his local church, where he maintains a low profile with no further incidents.

Here’s where it gets fun: Carlo is now living in your town and attending your church. He volunteers to lead your youth group. After all, he can still teach the Bible much more lucidly than all your other available options, and the kids still like him.

Is it a failure of Christian charity to say no? Are you being unforgiving?

Humbled, But … What, Exactly?

One more. A Christian blogger whose work you regularly read and enjoy writes a piece in which he publicly acknowledges having gotten too emotionally close to a female associate. His internet ministry, which includes several of his own adult children, totally disintegrates. A year later, however, he is back online, this time solo, with a brand new website and new format. He has apparently reconciled with his wife. The “new format” involves a great deal of travel and time away from home. There are polite but obscure references to past failures and having been “humbled” in his website bio, but otherwise everything appears back to normal.

Are you going to keep reading?

In all the above cases, I know Christians who would answer with a definite “yes”. Yes, true forgiveness means taking Sam back. Yes, punishing Carlo for something that happened years ago is a failure of Christian charity, and may cheat your youth group of some terrific Bible teaching. And yes, you ought to keep reading the repentant blogger’s work if the man is writing the same sort of good things he always wrote. If his repentance is adequate for his wife, it should surely be sufficient for you. You don’t even know his circumstances. How can you stand in judgment on him?

To this I have one thing to say: You may want to rethink that.

Seven Times in a Day

Jesus once astounded his disciples with this statement:
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Wow. I find that incredible too. It takes a spiritual man to forgive seven offenses in a single day. Perhaps they are even the same offense, over and over and over. Forgiving that would be even more impressive. Furthermore, it sounds like at least once, and maybe each time, you had to initiate the restoration process: brother sins, you rebuke, brother repents. Apart from your rebukes, he might have not even noticed his glaring faults. Now THAT takes a spectacular amount of forgiveness.

Gobsmacked, But Not Stupefied

Can you see why the disciples were gobsmacked? I can. And yet, this is our Lord’s clear teaching. We accept it, as we should, practice it to the very best of our abilities, and pray for the grace to forgive as the Lord Jesus does. So then, it takes a spiritual man or woman — not to mention a great heaping shovelful of the grace of God — to forgive a fellow believer seven times in a day. But bear this in mind too: it takes a pretty inattentive Christian not to recognize that with your brother’s track record, the same routine is virtually guaranteed to play out again tomorrow. There is no special “super-spirituality credit” for being oblivious to such things.

Forgiveness involves a lot of things. It involves receiving a sinning brother or sister back into the fellowship of the saints, and doing your best to help that person learn to walk spiritually again. It involves keeping your mouth shut about the offense after it has been confessed and forgiven. It involves confessing your own grudges against such a person before the Lord if they resurface, and absolutely refusing to allow bitterness to stake out a foothold in your heart. It involves avoiding gossip about them and rebuking those who do. It involves praying for the restored brother or sister and treating them decently and respectfully when you meet them.

What forgiveness does not involve is choosing to deliberately flunk basic pattern recognition. Forgiving someone does not mean packing up your Christian discernment in your old kit bag and smiling, smiling, smiling while you pretend not to notice that an offense committed seven times in one day has revealed something fairly significant about your brother’s character. It has, and it is not even slightly unforgiving to notice it. That shouldn’t change your willingness to offer him forgiveness, but it might well change how your church uses him now and in the future.

Pattern Recognition and Responsible Leadership

Love and generosity are Christian virtues. Stone blindness is not. Pretend blindness is even worse: it’s disingenuous.

Patterns of behavior are what they are. This is why Christians are to evaluate elders and deacons by character-based standards that extend across time: above reproach, not arrogant, not quick-tempered, not a drunkard, and so on. Why? Because you are not merely acknowledging personally that this person is an elder or deacon; you are acknowledging them on behalf of everyone they will later deal with in service to your church and the Lord himself. When we say, “I endorse this guy,” it is not unreasonable to think we are in line for a little bit of heavenly credit for participating in the good things he does. But what we are certainly doing is making ourselves accountable to both God and men for having endorsed him. This is why Timothy was told, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.”

Personal (or even corporate) forgiveness, and restoring an erring brother or sister to a set of responsibilities at which they have failed egregiously are two very, very different things. It is not unforgiving to say, “I love you brother. Let’s go for coffee,” while privately resolving that you wouldn’t let the fellow near your daughter unsupervised in a month of Sundays.

When a Christian demonstrates unequivocally that he has a problem that has historically made him undependable in one way or another, he has an absolute biblical right to be forgiven when he repents. What he absolutely does NOT have is a biblical right to put the ongoing testimony of an entire local church at risk. He should certainly not be intentionally subjected to temptations to which he has already proven far too susceptible.

Forgiven … and What the Future Looks Like

So … Carlo? Well, there are lots of things a repentant Christian can do that are very, very useful and not the least bit hazardous to a church’s public testimony, such as visiting old folks homes and hospitals to encourage believers who are often left to their own devices. The lawn outside the church building surely needs to be cut on a regular basis, and church buildings are often in need of volunteers to do cleaning duty. In Carlo’s position, these are the sorts of services I would be looking to perform for my fellow believers and for the Lord. Go sit in the lowest place, and leave it to someone with greater authority and discernment to say, “Friend, move up higher.”

Our blogger friend? Well, he may post whatever he likes. I am disinclined to pay much attention until I see some consistency over a period of years. This is not because I have no respect for his wife’s decision to take him back, but because such a decision can be made out of any number of perfectly natural reasons: fear of being alone, concern about being responsible for turning a couple’s children away from their father, peer pressure, and who knows what else. The proof of repentance is in how her husband elects to live his life now, and that may take time to become clear. If I happen to ignore what he is offering during the period in which he is working that out, that is my loss. Or not. It is certainly not up to anyone else to tell me what I should or shouldn’t read.

As for Kate, the way of a man with a maid was too wonderful for Solomon to understand. This was the wisest human being in history, folks. Thus, I have no opinion about what she should do or not do about Sam. I don’t think any of us ought to be too dogmatic about that. We can point her to biblical principles that may help her decide, if she is looking for that. We can offer a shoulder. But we haven’t lived Kate’s marriage, and we don’t have to live with the consequences of her choice. We don’t have to feel responsible for her children, their feelings about their father, and how they get raised. One thing I will absolutely do is defend her right to forgive Sam while declining to subject herself to the rest of what may be a very lengthy lifetime of his dubious spiritual leadership. These are two separate issues, and she’s earned the right to make that choice without me weighing in.

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