Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring the complexities of implementing an ethic of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in an age of outrage. This week, I want to continue our conversation by exploring some practical scenarios where forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration might be called for.
By selecting these specific scenarios, I am not claiming that they represent every possible challenge that we might encounter when we try to forgive, reconcile, and restore. I do think, though, that they present us with a significant number of those challenges. Moreover, they are realistic scenarios in that people face them on a regular basis.
Nor am I claiming that my approach to each scenario is the best. Rather, I see each scenario as an opportunity for me to illustrate how some of the things that I have been talking about might work out in a real world situation. It is also an opportunity for me to reveal some of my own struggles in this area. As such, I hope that these scenarios will be an opportunity for the people of God to come together, encourage one another, and call out the best from one another as we seek to follow Christ’s example.
Scenario #1: Murdered Family Member
For a long time, I have been fascinated by documentaries about the criminal justice system. Shows like Cold Case Files and The First 48 remind us that evil is real and that evil has a real impact on our society. Victims of violent crime (and their families) turn to our police, prosecutors, courts, and juries to make things right, and although everyone agrees that our criminal justice system is imperfect, it is better than having no such system at all.
It is difficult to imagine what the family members of a murder victim must go through as the system does its work. On the one hand, I am troubled by the vindictiveness that I see from some of those who make victim impact statements. And yet, not everyone who has lost someone to violent crime reacts in this way. I am often inspired by the forgiveness that family members extend to wrongdoers, and I hope that these wrongdoers appreciate the precious gift that they have been given.
So how would I react in such a situation? It is a question that I have thought about for a long time. Obviously, there is no way to know for sure what I would do unless I experience such a loss, and, frankly, that is an experience that I would prefer never to have. So, I don’t think I can answer this question with any credibility.
What I can say is how I hope I would respond. I hope that I would spend most of my time in a victim impact statement memorializing the person that I lost, not decrying the person who took her or him from me. Then, I hope that I would turn to the perpetrator and offer him forgiveness. As I have already noted, I don’t think that forgiveness is something that I can simply confer on someone who has committed such an outrageous act, especially if his act impacts more than just me and the person I lost (as murders often do). More importantly, I think that it is vital for the perpetrator’s soul that I draw him out of himself and into a situation where he has to interact with another person.
For this reason, my offer of forgiveness would come with some relatively strict stipulations. I am convinced that, for a crime of this magnitude, it is extremely important for the perpetrator to demonstrate that he is genuinely sorry for what he has done, not just sorry that he got caught. To me, this means that the perpetrator needs to throw aside his attorney’s counsel and confess to the court what he has done. It also means that he needs to accept the court’s sentence, even if it is death. This is the kind of contrition that cannot be faked.
I hope that I would also, right there on the witness stand, plead with him to turn to Christ. I believe that justice in this world is important, but that does not mean that I want him to experience justice in the next. I hope that, even in my despondency and rage, I would have the spiritual and emotional resources to still want this man to be saved.
If, and only if, the perpetrator publicly repudiated his crimes and turned to Christ would I consider taking the next step towards reconciliation. He does not have to do it in the sentencing hearing; I don’t believe that God puts a time limit on forgiveness, so neither will I. But he has to do it at some point. I would also be clear up front that I will not work to see his sentence lessened. This may seem harsh, especially to those who oppose capital punishment, but I think that it is a necessary deterrent to manipulation for selfish ends. I do think, however, that it would be important for me, if God were to give me the strength, to offer the perpetrator comfort and encouragement as he faced the consequences of his actions.
There is one issue related to this scenario that I have not yet worked out. What happens if the perpetrator, for whatever reason, is incapable of relating to the pain of others? What if, in other words, he is a sociopath? Can God heal this person, or is this person a tool to demonstrate God’s wrath and mercy to others (cf. Romans 9:14-29)? What if the perpetrator wants to feel remorse but simply cannot? These questions are beyond my ability to work out. All I can do is put myself in a posture of forgiveness—and pray that I never face such an extreme test of my resolve.
Scenario #2: Adulterous Pastor
The previous scenario is theologically significant because it mirrors the situation faced by the Father when Christ died on the cross. Our second scenario—the pastor caught in adultery—is theologically significant because of the way that Paul uses marriage as a symbol for Christ’s relationship to the church (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33) and because adultery is universally condemned in the strongest of terms throughout the Bible.
So let’s be clear about what we are discussing. We aren’t talking about a youth minister that confesses to having premarital sex with his college sweetheart. We aren’t talking about an associate pastor with a pornography addiction. These are certainly serious problems, but they pale in comparison to the problems that are presented when a lead pastor has an adulterous affair, especially if the affair involves a member of the congregation. And the question at hand is, as a Christianity Today article from 2015 pointed out, can such a pastor ever serve in pastoral ministry again?
Now, let me explain why I make the distinction that I do above. We all sin, and most of us sin in some pretty serious ways. We need to be forgiven, and, yes, we need to be restored. Still, the church must also consider the collateral damage that results from our transgression. The youth minister and associate pastor that I describe above weaken their own credibility by their actions, and their actions may also harm members of their family. But they are not likely to divide the church’s loyalties. By contrast, the pastor’s actions will likely have precisely that effect. Both because of the nature of the pastor’s actions and because of his (or her) position, members of the congregation will be put in the unfortunate situation of deciding who is really at fault for his fall. Moreover, the pastor in this scenario has betrayed the trust of both his (or her) spouse and the congregation—especially if the other party in the illicit relationship is a member of the congregation or a member of its staff.
For these reasons, I am not sure how I feel about the fact that the vast majority of evangelical leaders believe that a pastor who has committed adultery can be restored to pastoral ministry. I spend a lot of my time studying and thinking about the early church, and these people were really serious about avoiding sin. Sometimes, their writings make me squeamish about my own salvation, much less my fitness for ministry leadership. And I have not had an adulterous affair.
On the other hand, I am a sinner, and I serve God’s people as an instructor of ministers. Someone could easily find reason to revoke my ordination and exclude me from service. It is hard to throw rocks at others when you yourself should be stoned.
So, how are we to work our way through such a difficult dilemma? There are three principles that I think ought to guide our thinking
- The affair itself is the result of a long process,and it will take a long time for the minister to recover from it—if he (or she) ever does.
- It might be better if we can find a related vocation for a minister to pursue, rather than bringing him (or her) back into pastoral ministry. If he (or she) does return to ministry, perhaps it would be best if he (or she) was not the lead pastor of a congregation (or perhaps a congregational authority figure).
- Under no circumstances should the pastor return to the church in which the affair was committed. The betrayal of trust was simply too great.
It heartens me that there are ministries designed to help pastors who have had moral failings or other breakdowns. These ministries could open up a whole new world of possibilities for pastors who have committed serious indiscretions. Perhaps more pastors will be able to recover their careers, but the most important outcome of these ministries are the lives they save, the hearts they heal, and the families that they bring together.
Scenario #3: Thoughtless and/or Disrespectful Speech
Our third scenario may not have as much theological significance as the first two, but it has become a centerpiece of public discourse in recent months. What do we do when it is discovered that someone has spoken in ways that are no longer considered to be acceptable? We are not talking about abusive behavior in this case; that is an entirely different topic. We are also not talking about intentionally malevolent speech. We are talking about the kind of speech that is not intended to harm anyone but that people, especially in later times, might find offensive.
It might seem that this is an easy one to resolve. “Just get over it,” some would argue. “Life isn’t going to be easy, and there will always be neanderthals.” But as any African-American who has dealt with insensitive white people, any woman who has dealt with overly sexualized or insecure men, or any disabled person who has had to explain their disability to thoughtless bystanders can attest, “getting over” the things that people say can be a more difficult task than one might imagine.
And yet, it is all too easy for us to use the transgressions of others as a weapon against them. Nearly all of us have said something that was, to put it gently, impolitic at some point in our lives. I’ll never forget being in a church choir practice one time and getting frustrated at my inability to learn a part. Out loud, I called myself a “retard.” Now, I of all people ought to know better than to use such a demeaning term (even if I was using it about myself), but in a moment of frustration, I said something that I knew better than to say. We all have those moments when anger, arousal, or some other emotion clouds our judgement and brings out the worst in us.
Moreover, as has been observed a lot recently, we all evolve in our thinking over time. Hopefully, this evolution leads us to a more correct and more mature view of the world. But that also means that some of our former views were less correct and less mature. Thus, it only stands to reason that those of us who write or talk for a living might have written or said something in the past that would be considered ignorant or even offensive today.
So how should we deal with the problem of regrettable speech. I think that Ed Stetzer is right when he argues that apologies go a long way. I can count on one hand the number of times that someone other than my wife has offered me a heartfelt apology, and I always appreciate it. I also appreciate it when someone really tries to understand where I am coming from on a particular issue. How would things in our culture be different if, when a man notices that his awkward attempt to compliment a woman has had the opposite effect, he immediately apologized? What would happen if white people actually sat down and listened to the African-Americans in their lives, and what if African-Americans did the same? What if public figures were proactive about bringing to light the dumb things that they have said and took the initiative to point out why those things are wrong?
I know that this all sounds trite and naive. But I really do think that restoring public civility, restoring trust in our institutions, and restoring relationships between people of different races, sexes, etc. really does boil down to the simple things. Treating one another with respect really can short-circuit the cycle of transgression and retribution that seems to have taken over our society, and it can bring us into a better understanding of our own brokenness.
But what do we do when people don’t want to play nicely with others and are unwilling to apologize for their lapses in judgement? Our goal should be to balance the need for justice against the requirement to show mercy. We have to be humble enough to admit that we, too, could find ourselves in the wrong with no clear way to get out. But we also need to recognize that institutionalized injustice has a way of replicating itself if it is not dealt with. Striking this balance is hard work, and I wish that I could provide more practical guidance as to how it is done. But sometimes we just have to use the wisdom that God has given us and hope that it leads us in the right direction.
A Note of Humility and a Call to Unity
As Christians, we have a responsibility to live out the good news that forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are available in Christ even when that message is not popular in our culture. I confess that I am not always sure how we do these things, and I reserve the right to change my mind about anything that I have written in this blog. I hope that we can all have this attitude. It will help us work together to be more like Christ in a world that desperately needs the truth of his message and the healing of his touch.