I often find myself observing patterns in the church. Whether it’s the dynamics of church politics, the tendencies of certain personalities, or my favorite, our responses to the sins of others, especially church leaders.
Let’s get one thing straight: Being a pastor or elder in the church is not an easy calling. Often leaders are targets of projection (think punching bag for life’s hurts) and hostages to unreasonable demands. This comes with the territory.
Often, when a pastor is broiled in controversy, our responses to their downfalls are polarized. Either individuals and congregations respond with a naive (cheap) grace that lacks shrewd accountability and honest discussion, or there is an extreme and overly harsh response outright condemning the poor soul. The middle ground is often lost.
Those who respond out of cheap grace (usually those closest to the person under scrutiny) typically say things like: “Who are we to judge?” or “We just need to love him/her right now”—in other words, we just need to cut this person some slack. Sometimes, because the dynamic is such that relational longevity and intense loyalty have cultivated a dynamic of enablement leading to a certain blindness, those responding of out cheap grace will deny that anything is wrong at all. Basically, to them, protecting the image of their leader is probably seen as more important than protecting the well-being of the community as a whole.
And then there’s those who intend to crucify people in leadership for their follies. Vehement hostility and an intent to divide can never solve the problems of sin among leadership ranks of the church—as hurtful as it is to see people in power abuse and misuse that power.
But where is the middle ground in dealing with the sins of church leaders? It begins with how we see sin—it begins with our theology of sin.
Whether we are talking run-of-the-mill type stuff like sexual misconduct or more elusive vices like arrogance or emotional abuse, human sin is never an isolated phenomenon. It impacts the whole Christian community—the entirety of Christ’s body. This is often lost in our individualistic society today.
We read in 1 Corinthians 11: 18-22, that a division of haves and have-nots began to develop in the church at Corinth. This bothered Paul deeply because it was opposed to the very heart of Christian fellowship. He writes,
In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
He later adds, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 11: 30).
Being people immersed in an individualistic society, we often misread this passage and apply that misreading to our experiences today. We come to conclude from Paul’s word of judgment that the consequences of sin are isolated to the individuals who commit them.
But is that what Paul is saying? Absolutely not. He is actually saying the exact opposite.
He asks: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (v. 22). What Paul is saying, and we need to get this right, is that the “actions of some have dishonored the entire community,” say Richards & O’Brien, in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. In other words, the effects of sin are corporate, not isolated to the individuals who commit them.
The authors of the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes correct our misunderstanding of sin and set us on a correct path that is rooted in biblical theology:
The thought that should guide our conduct is that we are representatives of both Christ and the community that bears his name. As such, we must be careful to live in such a way that brings honor, and not shame, on Christ’s name and his family. We deceive ourselves when we think sin is individual and independent of a community’s honor. Our individualism feeds the false sense that sin is merely an inner wrong—the private business between me and God, to be worked out on judgment day. Paul thought otherwise.
So when we are talking about finding the middle ground in how we respond to human sin in the church, we must follow Paul’s lead. He didn’t turn a blind eye to the misuse and abuse of power, nor did he outright condemn those who were in the wrong. That’s because human sin is never only about the person in the wrong. Rather, he focused on how sin impacts the community as a whole. He didn’t shy away from calling the church out, as isolating as that can be for those who risk doing so. He wasn’t afraid to engage the church in honest discussion about sin, because he realized that was a necessary and crucial step in bringing the community back into step with God’s heart.
When the church experiences systemic sin among its leadership ranks in an age of instant media coverage, the negative effect on the Christian community is only intensified and magnified. This has the tendency to tarnish the beauty of God’s community in a world that is already skeptical of religion.
The middle ground is found in the Bible—where Paul gets at the heart of the matter: It’s not about protecting the image or standing of those in power who sin or mismanage God’s church nor is it about destroying their image. Rather, it’s about protecting the beauty of the community who Christ created through His costly death and triumphant resurrection. When sin debilitates the church, grace isn’t so much seen in turning a blind eye or withholding judgment. Rather, it’s about upholding the integrity of the community which is sustained through God’s (costly and triumphant) grace in Christ.
The middle ground says that individual sin affects all of us. As such, we can never again bury our heads in the sand or allow anger to divide us when the sins of a few cast a shadow on the church as a whole. Also, the middle ground is not about shaming the sinner, but about making sure local congregations have appropriate lines of communication for dealing with sin (especially among its leaders)—in whatever form it might manifest. Like Paul, we are called to engage people with honesty (not with cheap and flimsy avoidance) and a tone that reveals our intent is about honoring God’s costly grace in Christ. Indeed, in the famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” This costly grace creates and sustains the Church—Christ’s precious and beautiful bride.
Finding the middle ground when responding to human sin means taking actions that will ensure the church continues to radiate Christ’s beauty to the world.
Afterall, as Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.”