October 19, 2017

Dealing with the Wayward

Dealing with the Wayward
Damaris Zehner

Recently on iMonk we discussed how a church responded to a young man who confessed to a sin.  We tossed comments back and forth referring to Matthew 18 and both the Gospel and the letters of John.  Most of us seemed to be in agreement that the church’s handling of the situation was lacking in wisdom, at the least.

But why are we surprised that so many today lack wisdom?  It isn’t something we’re born with, after all, and for many of us even a lifetime isn’t long enough to acquire much.  Wisdom, especially that wisdom imparted to the Church by the Holy Spirit, is cumulative.  We become wise by humbling ourselves and learning from others – those around us and those who came before us – not by making it up by ourselves, as the leadership of this church (I understand) is prone to do.

I happened a few days ago to come across some ancient wisdom on the issue of dealing with sin among Christians:  two stories from The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell.

The first:  A certain brother had sinned and the priest commanded him to go out from the church.  But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, “I too am a sinful man.”

The second:  Two brethren made their way into the city to sell their handiwork:  and when in the city they went different ways, divided one from the other, one of them fell into fornication.  After a while came his brother, saying, “Brother, let us go back to our cell.”  But he made answer, “I am not coming. . . .  Because when thou didst go from me, I ran into temptation, and I sinned in the flesh.”  But the other, anxious to help him, began to tell him, saying, “But so it happened with me:  when I was separated from thee, I too ran into fornication.  But let us go, and do penance together with all our might: and God will forgive us that are sinful men.”  . . . And they came back to the monastery and told the old men what had befallen them, and they enjoined on them the penance they must do.  But the one began his penance, not for himself but for his brother, as if he himself had sinned.  And God, seeing his love and his labour, after a few days revealed to one of the old men that for the great love of this brother who had not sinned, He had forgiven the brother who had.  And verily this is to lay down one’s soul for one’s brother.

My first reaction, especially to the second story, was to bristle at the idea of lying out of kindness.  Surely, I thought, there was a way to do good without being dishonest.  Well, yes; if salvation is my personal program of purification, just between me and God, then risking my soul by lying would be wrong and foolhardy.

But then it occurred to me that the second brother was not lying.  Although he had not committed fornication right then, he too was a sinful man.  Knowing himself to be sinful, he couldn’t pick up the first stone.  He understood that his job was less to strive for rigorous purity than to love his neighbor as himself.  He understood that salvation isn’t a gold medal awarded to the most rigorous achiever; it’s a party we’re all invited to, and if we refuse to share our taxi with someone else on the way to the banquet hall, we probably won’t get in ourselves.

Going back to the church we read about recently.  They had half of the story right:  they got the commanding to go out of the church part, and the enjoining of penance part.  But what about the second half of the story?  Was there no one willing to get up and go out with the young man who had sinned?  Was there no one willing to do penance with him out of love?  I hope there was.  There might have been.  Stories of humble kindness don’t usually get spread abroad as vigorously as stories of public disgrace.

I always had a hard time understanding 1 Peter 4:8 – “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”  The stories clarify the verse for me.  There is great wisdom to be found in these ancient books, as well as in more recent ones.  But here’s my dilemma:  Should I send a copy of The Desert Fathers to the church in question, or would that be an act of criticism and lack of charity on my part?

Comments

  1. “and if we refuse to share our taxi with someone else on the way to the banquet hall, we probably won’t get in ourselves.”

    I agree, Damaris. Sometimes I think about what would happen in the Church on earth if all of us who did some certain sins had to leave. If we were all being at least honest about our sins, there would be NOBODY in the pews. I know we have to have some standards. We could not have an acrtive pedophile teaching Sunday School. But, for the most part, we have all sinned and fallen short in holiness and in being loving to our fellow human beings. We need to forgive one another, over and over again as Jesus told us.

    In regard to sending the book, I think you could write a note that indicates you are sending it with love.

  2. David Cornwell says:

    “Wisdom, especially that wisdom imparted to the Church by the Holy Spirit, is cumulative. We become wise by humbling ourselves and learning from others – those around us and those who came before us – not by making it up by ourselves…”

    Very wise statement.

    We can learn more about how to handle church discipline from the life of Jesus than any other way. Study how he dealt with sinners and those who confessed their sin to Him. When the Church goes about disciplining someone else it is fraught with danger and must be approached with humility, self examination, and prayer. Those who must deal with it will end up doing more weeping perhaps than the one to whom it is being dealt. Just as in these stories, we must first recognize our own sin. And we must consider all those whose lives will be affected by what we are about to do. Discipline will be painful to every single person it touches, and every institution involved. Every time I hear it discussed, it scares me. Yet sometimes it must happen at one level or another.

  3. Damaris –

    Send the book “in the love of Christ.”

    The problem with the story of Mars Hill and the young man they “disciplined” is that if you asked those involved from the Mars Hill camp, you might find that they believe they were acting “in love.” I don’t know if this kind of love is tied to their harsh masculine manliness themes or some other issue, but in the end it is a very legalistic way to deal with a person who came to them of his own free will when he had been convicted in his conscience with what he had done. They should have rejoiced at the work of God in his life that brought him to repentance and then quietly dealt with the consequences and safeguards to help him not fall into that place of sin again.

  4. Damaris…

    Thanks so much for the post. Henri Nouwen’s “Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry” is one of my all-time favorite reads, and is filled with anecdotes about the humility and sacrifice of the Desert Fathers.

    I think it would be a great idea to send a copy, but the question is, would it even be acknowledged? Unfortunately, Driscoll’s brand of faith would likely disregard any church history from the period prior to the reformation. Unfortunately, for him, and for his flock. There is much to be learned from the Fathers…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Driscoll’s brand of faith would likely disregard any church history from the period prior to Driscoll and Mars Hill Seattle.

      • That’s probably at the root of the problem; when you toss out tradition as being vain, then you lose the experience that comes with it. A couple of centuries (or millenia) of dealing with church discipline and making a mess of it along the way means you have a lot of examples of how not to do it that inform your present practice.

        I think the church meant well, but taking the raw material from the epistle of Paul (without the knowledge of how that actually worked on the ground) on how to discipline the impenitent meant that zealousness trumped mercy.

        • zealousness trumped mercy

          You hit it square on. This, along with the tendency to redefine love as something narrow and conditional, is at the heart of why it’s so difficult to have a conversation or honest exchange with some of the uber-calvinist/fundagelical crowd. It also goes hand in hand with the literalism that often prevents them from seeing stories as a source of great truth.

          • zealousness trumped mercy

            When I read that, James 2:12-13 immediately jumped to mind.

            “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            And why the Hypercalvinist/Fundagelical crowd always reminds me of classic Communists. Purity of Ideology and Party Line. Just this Party Line is cosmically justified by God’s Will instead of the Inevitable Dialectic. EES PARTY LINE, COMRADE!

            And they can be just as nasty and abusive to Traitors/Thought-Criminals/Dissidents.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          That’s probably at the root of the problem; when you toss out tradition as being vain, then you lose the experience that comes with it.

          And a lot of these have the same view of history and tradition as the Mormons and JWs: Christ founded the Church in 33 AD and it was just like ours today; then everything went Apostate (into Romish Popery) almost immediately (or via Constantine) and every so-called “Christian” was false and dead in their sins in the False Apostate “Church” until Our Founder Joseph Smith/Charles Taze Russel/Apostle Joe Soap re-founded the True New Testament Church (i.e. us and us alone…)

  5. Much wisdom in what you say, Damaris, thank you. I don’t think Driscoll’s church as a whole would appreciate the book, but if it’s an act of charity you’re looking for, I’d love to have a copy! ;-D

  6. Paul says, “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:28-29). Depending on how you read that, he could be saying that his concern and love and empathy for his fellow Christians is so great that when they stumble, his response is not anger or self-righteousness, but rather a sadness as if he himself were the one who has failed. That verse came to mind when I was reading the second story.

    Actually, on a very practical level I’ve found that if I see a friend of mine behaving in a way that might be sinful or destructive or unhealthy, one of the gentlest and best ways to approach them about it is by telling a story from my own life of how I struggle with that very thing – it gives them a chance to say “me too” and to approach whatever it is together as companion penitents seeking God’s grace.

    I’m not sure I would actually lie to accomplish that, but there have definitely been times when I’ve willingly let someone believe I was more “sinful” in some area than I actually am, in order to be able to meet them in that place. That’s sort of what Jesus did when he died a criminal’s death in our place, after all. And it’s certainly more helpful than responding, say, to someone confessing sexual sin by saying, “Oh, I’m a virgin, too bad you’re not” – in that case, at the very least you should just be quiet about yourself instead of trumpeting your own righteousness.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      However, in that example you gave someone’s a lot more likely to “trumpet your own righteousness” if they’ve caught hell over and over for being a virgin.

  7. The early church remembered a very touching story about John the Apostle, who is said to have come after a boy who left the church to lead a band of robbers, and restored him.

  8. A few years ago while studying the history of the Rosary, I discovered the medieval practice of the Rosary guilds, where (in a VERY short summary) monks promised to pray the Rosary for departed members so that the merit of the prayers of the living would apply to the release from purgatory of their departed friends. Now, as a protestant, the whole idea at first glance is difficult to understand; but what is astonishing is the connection of members to each other, that the fate of one is the fate and burden of all. In the culture of American cowboy/wild, wild, west/self-dependence/life’s not fair/ “you lose, good day sir” mentality, this makes absolutely no sense, but how can one not look at it with a longing for such fellowship? The Marines might believe in “no one left behind”, but in evangelicalism, “shoot your wounded” seems to be our motto.

    It’s just strange how in a society of entitlement mercy is in such short supply.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I discovered the medieval practice of the Rosary guilds, where (in a VERY short summary) monks promised to pray the Rosary for departed members so that the merit of the prayers of the living would apply to the release from purgatory of their departed friends.

      Which reminds me I’m way behind on commissioning masses for the dead. And my dead list increases every year, from those I knew in fandom or gaming to the daughters an old Mormon gamer friend had to bury to my favorite classic SF authors.

      It’s just strange how in a society of entitlement mercy is in such short supply.

      Not strange at all. Mercy is something that has to be extended to someone else and a society of entitlement is all about MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!! (“I’M ENTITLED! YOU GOTTA GIMME!”)

      • Perhaps it’s best to keep the middle ages behind us, but why can’t we do the same with seventeenth century me-and-Jesus pietism?

  9. The church mentioned above is big on community. I suspect they meant well in confronting what they perceived as sin. They seem to have missed something the above passage suggests community only exists in love and bearing one another’s burdens.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I have heard of churches “big on community” whose ideal of community is The Borg Cube. Total conformity. “I Want to Be a Clone.”

    • One of the problems with many churches is that the leaders think they can somehow create community top down, and do so in a short time, when in reality all they can realistically do is create opportunities for community to develop on its own as people get to know and trust each other, and that can (and I would argue, should) take a rather long time. I’ve seen church leaders talk endlessly about community when what they should have done wasshut up and have a barbecue or or picnic for everyone and just let people get to know each other.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’ve seen church leaders talk endlessly about community when what they should have done …

        Sounds like a variant on “Analyzing it to Death”.

  10. Ken Anwari says:

    Matthew 18: 17 “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

    And how did Jesus himself treat pagans and tax collectors? By damning & shunning them or relating to them redemptively. True, they were not part of the people of God. But this did not prevent Him from ministering to them & calling them to faith in God. (I received this wisdom from a cross cultural minister colleague 33 years ago, & have never forgotten it.)

  11. “Now, as a protestant, the whole idea at first glance is difficult to understand; but what is astonishing is the connection of members to each other, that the fate of one is the fate and burden of all.”

    And isn’t this the point of Christ as the head of the body and we as all his members?

    But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. [b]If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.[/b]

    When we take seriously the communion of saints, we show the world who we truly are as Christians.

  12. I stumbled on this website following links from I-forget-where and it has helped to restore my faith in the possibility of Christian unity. So far I’ve only read a couple of posts together with the comments and I simply want to commend you all for your civility. Sadly that’s a rare thing even on “Christian” websites. What a breath of fresh air to read so many well-considered responses from such a wide array of points of view without any sharp words or personal attacks. If I weren’t already inclined to believe (albeit with a sad lack of substantiation) that there can be such a thing as intelligent, constructive conversation between Jesus-followers from a variety of persuasions this website would certainly have helped persuade me that it’s not just an idealistic dream of mine. Carry on…