Let them curse, but you will bless.
Let my assailants be put to shame; may your servant be glad.
– Psalm 109:28
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
– Romans 12:17
Lately it seems I’ve been spending more time with lawyers than with pastors or elders. A week ago, I spent Wednesday with the Sheriff and Friday at court, on two different issues.
When I have mentioned this to others, they sometimes assume it’s due to some problem within the church. The recent report on sex abuse by clergy in Pennsylvania gives credence to such assumptions. So I guess the one good thing about these cases is that neither situation was caused by conflict within the body, but by persistent, malicious attempts to take advantage of our churches.
Indeed, this may be the first time I’ve encountered such intentional persecution. All my life I’ve joked that I’m a walking security risk because I’ve been pretty trusting, and thank God I’ve had plenty of reasons to think the best of others. I’ve left purses in shops and restaurants only to have people run to bring them to me, and I’ve left keys in the doors of cars and houses, yet I’ve never faced the kinds of concerted campaigns to persecute us as we’re dealing with now.
Even with conflicts within the church, I tend to believe that the opponents are trying to be faithful, but they have differing perspectives or kinds of brokenness that distort a virtuous intent.
So as I continue to battle these forces that persevere in defrauding or stealing property entrusted to our churches, I am also battling to discern Christ’s way in facing these attackers.
My response so far is evolving, and by no means do I share this as some perfect model of Christian ethics in action, but it is important for us to examine how life’s challenges affect us and our faith, and how our faith guides our responses to life’s challenges.
Since both of these issues have required action in civil law, it is easy to feel helpless and dependent on the experts, our attorneys. We have two attorneys working with us. Both are dedicated Christians; one is an elder who is married to a pastor, and the other is taking seminary classes. But in a past situation, I had to deal with an attorney who charged forward like a raging bull without concern for preserving relationships, Christ’s call for mercy, or for that matter depleting our financial, spiritual, and human resources. My experience back from my “Managers and the Law” class at Apple Computer is that while lawyers counsel the client, it’s ultimately the client’s decision whether to follow the lawyer’s advice. [The other important learning from that class was the immense respect our system has for separation of church and state—so civil courts do not want to interfere with church governance, as long as the church follows its written policies. Good advice for us, to have written policies we can live with, and to follow them.] Thank God for attorneys who can hear our peculiar understanding of mercy as well as justice. For instance, our current corporate president wanted to shield some people who were caught up in one conflict; it was the attorney who remembered to make a point of making that happen with the court.
Another common response to violations against us is to seek revenge, or become overly protective in the future. Of course the prayer Jesus taught us includes the plea to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—or “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” So while we Christians are called to forgive, we are tempted to close up our churches and our hearts from anyone else who might do us harm. One of the great challenges to church growth is our attempts to protect our churches from those we believe to be risky, which may include those who look like someone who has hurt us in the past, or someone who behaves or dresses in an unusual manner, or whose language or background are unfamiliar. What about those we know to have done harm in the past?
When I was a Stated Clerk, I held an annual training for the clerks of session, and gave a little quiz. My favorite trick question was “True or False: The Book of Order states that no person shall be denied membership to a church unless they are deemed to be dangerous to the welfare or unity of the congregation.” I was impressed that some clerks knew this to be false. G-1.0302 states:
No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.
This mandate causes us to welcome, among other people, registered sex offenders. So the savvy clerks shared how their churches have developed methods to protect their churches while also welcoming those who have been known to do harm to others.
In my experience, this is the crux of our problem: how do we combine forgiveness with accountability? Too often I have counseled churches with elders or staff who have been problematic, and the session’s response has been to either look the other way, or to seek exclusion. It’s hard to take the third way of addressing the issue directly, respectfully, compassionately, and decisively. To look the other way for fear of conflict gives the offender—and the rest of the church—the signal that the negative behavior (such as bullying or gossiping) is acceptable, even effective. Abusive husbands who were “forgiven” by a conflict-avoiding church have said this allowed them to continue their abusive behavior. To exclude those who offend us denies our call to be forgiving and welcoming.
Remember, all are welcome, but not all have the gifts to lead. And all are welcome, but no one has the right to break the sacredness of the church as sanctuary, as refuge.
So how do we as Christians welcome all, forgive even those who sin against us, but also care for all that have been entrusted to us? As our world becomes increasingly diverse, as our church traditions go through fundamental change, and as more and more people have less and less respect for the church, we all must consider how to deal with this challenge. We can look to the early church for guidance, when Jews were expected to welcome Gentiles, ex-slaves were asked to forgive their masters, and Christians came to be led by one who tried to kill them. While the early church did not have the task and benefit of stewarding the abundant wealth of the PC(USA), Jesus told several parables about servants being entrusted with property. So we do have guidance, and ancestors in faith to learn from.
May we live out our faith as welcoming, caring, forgiving people to all we encounter. May we have the perseverance to protect and use wisely the gifts entrusted to us. And may we always look to Christ for guidance and salvation, as we continue to seek to serve him in a world that does not know him.
Blessings, and prayers for you and your churches,