October 21, 2014

The Church and Her Scandals

navarino

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, How long?
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

- The Church’s One Foundation,” Samuel J. Stone

* * *

Money, Sex, and Power: this is the triumvirate that rules “the world.” These are what “the flesh” craves. This is what “the devil” uses in his attempts to set us against God. They are described in 1John 2 as “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (NASB) — I want to experience what makes me feel good, I want to possess what looks good to me, I want to control things and be honored.

We can pursue and abuse money, sex, and power in any number of ways and in a variety of contexts, including religious communities. In fact, religion often provides the perfect context in which the world, flesh, and devil may work, because those involved in the spiritual life are often trusting and devoted toward their leaders, and leaders learn quickly that there are many places and ways to hide in the world of the sacred.

From the earliest days of following Jesus, this has been part of the Church’s story. He chose twelve followers, one of whom betrayed him and never came back. Eleven ran away in fear and eventually returned, showing all subsequent disciples that even the best of us live by forgiveness and grace alone.

The New Testament, if read honestly, is a series of messages sent to people who came to faith and came together, only to find that the world, flesh, and devil tend to make their presence known even at the Communion table, in the person behind the pulpit, when leaders come together to make decisions, and among the members of the congregation when people who are different and have different ways want to join in and be part of the community.

Russian_Black_Sea_Fleet_after_the_battle_of_Synope_1853_Ananias and Sapphira threatened to bring a financial scandal upon the Church in its earliest days. The Corinthians brought a world of sexually immoral practices into the sanctuary. A host of people in and around the Church followed the path of Diotrephes, who “liked to put himself first” and have the power. Etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes, when I consider not only the NT testimony but also the long and tawdry story of Christian history, I wonder that God has not judged us as he did the kingdoms of Israel. Ephesians says, “[God] has put all things under [Christ's] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Our “reign” as the King’s ambassadors in this world has often proven disastrous. And still today, the Church is beset by scandal, schism, heresy, and crimes against the defenseless and weak through the abuse of money, sex, and power.

Surely, from the beginning of the Christian way, it has been necessary for every believer to pray the words of Nehemiah: “Both I and my family have sinned.”

If our hearts know anything of God’s love in Christ, we will advocate for those who “hunger and thirst for justice,” the poor and meek who mourn and suffer under the leadership of those who are not merciful nor pure of heart, who seek power not peace, and who cause suffering by playing the part of persecutors rather than following the way of the Cross.

This week, we will get some updates on scandals that are currently troubling the Church, causing pain to victims, and besmirching Jesus’ reputation in the world.

As a way of introducing this topic, here are a few websites devoted to truth, justice, and compassion in the context of Church scandal. Listing these sites here does not mean we automatically share every perspective written on them. Just like we hope you read Internet Monk with discernment, we urge you to do the same with everything you read. But we appreciate the work these kinds of blogs and sites do, especially in helping us hear the cries of the abused.

The first of Martin Luther’s ninety five theses states: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.,” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.” How then can we observe Lent, the season of repentance, without acknowledging not only our own sins but also the sins of the Church?

Lord, have mercy.

Comments

  1. David Weber book titles for the win!

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Schism_Rent_Asunder

  2. If incidents like Ananias & Sapphira were more common, we wouldn’t have much financial impropriety in the Church. Would-be offenders would be wary of being “slain in the Spirit”.

  3. On the one hand the scandals of the Church are our own sins writ large; we recognize a solidarity in sin and though it’s difficult, it’s not impossible to repent of and address such scandals. But there are certain institutional sins of the historic church, the most obvious being slavery, that make it hard to recognize ourselves as part of the same communion of saints with those who openly held and practiced such things. We reflexively want to put distance between ourselves and them. No, we say to ourselves, it’s not possible with an untroubled conscience to own slaves and actually be a Christian. But a true recognition of the communion of saints requires that even as we wonder how it is possible for Christians to hold such horrible views, we affirm that it in fact is possible for even such a one to be our brother or sister in Christ; in fact, it is possible and likely that we ourselves are holding such sinful and scandalous views at this very moment in unrepentant blindness even though we truly profess Christ before the world. The scandals of the church should make us look to the condition of our own hearts even as we repent for the Church.

  4. “Eleven ran away in fear”

    Only ten ran away in fear. John was standing near the cross with Mary and heard Jesus say to them, “Woman, behold thy son” and “Behold thy mother.” Or should I tear that page out of my Bible?

    • And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

      ‘I will strike the shepherd,
      and the sheep will be scattered.’

      Mark 14:27

    • That was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” We have no overt statement that it was John the Apostle standing by the cross. Plus, none of the synoptics have any of his followers at the foot of the cross, and all the women, including a couple Marys, stood watching from a distance.

    • No, you should read your Bible again and see that John ran away too AND he was standing near the cross with Mary. That indicates that while he fled, he came back faster than any of the others.

    • Eric and CM,
      The Synoptics also don’t define what a “distance” is. John states they stood near the cross.
      Also, simple cross-referencing would place “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as one of the twelve.
      It would be somewhat disingenuous to not assume this is John.

      In softening the curtness in your replies to “been there, done that”, a bit more measured response might have been to recognize the devotion of the three Mary’s and the Beloved Disciple who were present. Whatever desertion that may have been in their hearts, it was very shortlived indeed.

      • Highwayman says:

        “It would be somewhat disingenuous to not assume this is John.”

        I can’t claim to know enough to argue the case either way, but I’m aware that not everybody accepts that the Beloved Disciple was John. I’m sure I’ve heard it suggested that it might have been Nathaniel, but yet another suggestion is put forward by John Henson in an introductory article to his translation / paraphrase, ‘Good as New – A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures’, where he writes:

        “Lazarus is clearly identified as the ‘Beloved Disciple’ in the text and given credit for at least some of the facts provided. For what reasons the Church decided at a very early stage to put people off the scent with regard to the identity of the special friend of Jesus is puzzling. The answer will probably escape us unless we are willing to accept the fact of the Church’s frequent dishonesty throughout its history whenever it considered that the truth would not be helpful to its charges. Lazarus may have been disliked or the object of jealousy because of his close relationship with Jesus. Jealousy and rivalry among the disciples are well documented in all the Gospels…

        …We are unlikely to arrive at an agreed answer this side of heaven, but it is important to allow the genuine alternatives to have an airing and not to be afraid of the crusty old censor!”

      • The Synoptics seem to intend to portray Jesus as forsaken by all his followers, friends and family, by Creation, and, in Matthew and Mark, by God his Father as well. John, by contrast, not only has Jesus’ friends and followers and family with him at the cross, but he also dies a serene and victorious death with no taunters or mockers. Can or should the Synoptics and John be conflated or “harmonized”?

        • Miguel, I’ve heard a lot folks say the disciple Jesus loved was Lazarus. Peter and the disciple Jesus loved ran to the tomb, but Peter got there first. If it was Lazarus, that makes sense; he would have had some trepidation about getting that close to a tomb again…

          • This is the first I’ve heard it. I’m generally pretty skeptical about these conspiracy theories where the church changed the story for some ulterior motive or another. I still think John makes the most sense, but these alternate suggestions make for fascinating possibilities. The two questions I would need answered are: What was the incentive for the church to decide it had to be John and forget the real story, and what major doctrine, if any, could this peripheral detail possibly effect? If the answer to the latter is none, it kinda undermines any chance of a conspiracy.

  5. What an appropriate topic of reflection for Lent. This seems to me my theme for the week.

    A scandal broke recently in my own area, not of the religious kind, but it brings my mind to a similar place. This week an OB associated with a major hospital, the person who delivered my son this past year, committed suicide. He was under investigation for surreptitiously photographing women at his practice. Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious professional … lapse.

    I guess I ought to be outraged (he was not my regular OB, so I am not among the potential victims, but he’s someone I would have thought about seeing after my experience with him during the delivery). But mostly I’m sad for him and everyone involved. Whatever else he was doing, he made crucial judgment calls in the last hrs of the delivery and as a result of his actions my baby was OK (he might not have been, the way things were going). I liked him, and I still feel grateful to him. It seems tragic he’s gone and that he had to go down in this way, even if he was the one at fault.

    I think its particularly difficult when shepherds (pastors, doctors, etc.)—people we rely on to rescue us when we’re not at our best—fall down.

    Since I believe people are both beautiful and tragically flawed at the same time, this isn’t intellectually surprising to me. But it is a sad, stark reminder of the troubled common humanity we all share.

    • We’re all glorious messes. Even the pastor/preacher/minister/evangelist…whoever it is who stands up front and delivers the sermon or lectionary or whatever it is he/she delivers…we’re all glorious messes. And often the messes we find ourselves in are ones of our own making.

    • Danielle…do you live in Baltimore? I read about that story in John Hopkins on WTOP.

      Hey…I’m a huge mess. I struggle with lust and my thought life of which I hate. I also was crushed by doubts and hollowed by them. I was an offensive lineman in football and losing weight…why is it so hard? I have a blown shoulder and torn rotator cuff that came about from swimming. I’ve had both parents suffer from a brain tumor or pancreatic cancer. And I’m desperatly tryingt o get my swelling down on my leg. As that is part of my legacy of being in the hospital.

      So yes I’m broken, I feel like I limp through the day, and yes I’m screwed up. But I think there might be hope.

      • Eagle, yes, we are in Baltimore. The story you read/heard is the very same.

        “But I think there might be hope.”

        Yes … ! I can live with that.

        • In the words that end Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnameable”:

          “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

          Hope remains.

  6. I’ve never heard that verse of The Church’s One Foundation before. It ought to be included more.

    • Perhaps your song leader needs to stop deleting verses. :) It is the 3rd verse as written by Stone. The hymn was written in response to heretical teaching by Bishop Colenso of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

  7. What really bothers me about church scandals is how many Christians enable them and let them continue. Either they live in denial, or they can’t face fact. In my own family I saw with disdain family members say that the child molestation scandal in the Roman Catholic church was sensationalized and overblown. And there was anger at the media for reporting it. I didn’t see some family members get angry that the RC church tried to cover it up. Also I deal with a guy who is involved in Sovereign Grace Ministries. He’s brianwashed, indoctrinated and says “my church is separate from all the problems plaguing SGM” He’s in denial and oh man the fights we’ve had of SGMgate.

    Both the Roman Catholic and SGM show in my mind how many Christians fail to have discernment. And how their actions enable the problems to continue. I loved what you said CM about havign discernment in reading those blogs. People should carefully weigh everything they read, hear, observe, etc… Sadly discernment doesn’t exist very much with Christians. If Christians did discern and acted, epxressed outrage, withheld giving, etc… then some of these scandals would not have happened.

    • David Cornwell says:

      And rather than discernment excuses are made and cover-ups are attempted and then ignored.

    • sarahmorgan says:

      I think Christians who are recognized as having the gift of discernment are usually driven out of churches one way or another, because they’re the ones constantly rocking the boat and upsetting the status quo. :-p

      • Well that would explain a lot.

      • I feel like I’m in constant “discernment” mode. As such, I think many in my church see me as a Doubting Thomas, a cynic, etc. etc. My radar is always on alert in regard to church leadership trying to get the congregation to drink some sort of Kool-Aid. I think some people see the value of a discerning person, and good leaders recognize the need to hear other angles on sensitive issues. Most do not, however…and the discerning person is often marginalized.

        The problem with folks like me is that we have a tendency to think we’re ALWAYS right. God gave us the gift of discernment, so every time we feel the Spirit pulsing us about something, it’s ALWAYS correct discernment. I have discovered, much of the time AFTER the fact, that I am NOT always right, that what I felt was God’s truth was in fact only a strong opinion based upon some sort of belief system of mine. I’ve learned to make my points, then back off if they’re not being accepted, and let God work it out. I’ve also come to realize that many “drink the Kool-Aid” issues have turned out not to be that dramatic, damaging, or ungodly.

      • YES!

  8. Joshua Ben Nun says:

    What’s being punished here (if anything) is the sin of pride. Those of us who remember the old triumphal Roman Catholic Church don’t have any difficulty grasping how it was that any amount of wrongdoing could be swept under the rug–not because the bishops and their cadres were such evil people, but because they were so thoroughly conditioned to think that the church could do no wrong. (And, if anyone in the church did do wrong, the correct course was to keep it secret.) Ergo, the evidence that there was a lot of wrong going on simply didn’t, for these people, compute.

  9. Thank you for linking to our site and for the validation. There is a large Group of folks who have been hurt in CC’s and it is important to deal with the issues and “expose” the stuff and validate these people as not “enemies of the devil” etc.

  10. Chaplain Mike,

    I clicked the Blog on the Way link yesterday. The author, Jeri, writes more like Michael Spencer than anyone else around, except for the typos (Michael’s, not hers).

    Extreme, hyperbolic descriptions of fundamentalism and the abuses within. If not altogether true the allegations at least make strong points—illustrations of a few problems I’ve had lately with fundamentalism.

    One of her articles (The Manhood Cult, Feb 22) spoke to a few questions I’ve had, and in fact my pastor and I had a long discussion this morning about some of these very issues. Difficult to read some of her stuff because I’m afraid she may have come a little close to the truth.

    Blog on the Way now bookmarked. I may even comment over there before long.

    Any comment about her blog or do you dare?

  11. Chaplain Mike,

    I clicked the Blog on the Way link yesterday. The author, Jeri, writes more like Michael Spencer than anyone else around, except for the typos (Michael’s, not hers).

    Extreme, hyperbolic descriptions of fundamentalism and the abuses within. If not altogether true the allegations at least make strong points—illustrations of a few problems I’ve had lately with fundamentalism.

    One of her articles (The Manhood Cult, Feb 22) spoke to a few questions I’ve had, and in fact my pastor and I had a long discussion this morning about some of these very issues. Difficult to read some of her stuff because I’m afraid she may have come a little close to the truth.

    Blog on the Way now bookmarked. I may even comment over there before long.

    Any comment about her blog or do you dare?