I preface this blog by admitting that I’m no theologian. All I have to go by is my limited knowledge of what the Bible says and my own life experiences. But lately I’ve been struggling on exactly how we apply grace and discipline to sin in the church, especially when it involves leadership.
I was trapped in a sin with my pastor for ten years. I went to him for counseling, and he took advantage of my vulnerability to meet his own needs. I, on the other hand, own the fact that I didn’t put up much of a struggle and followed him straight into the ditch.
Almost a year ago, I confessed to my counselor in our very first meeting about the relationship I had been involved in. She told me that what had been happening was called spiritual abuse. I knew in my heart that she was right, and I made the decision to confess to my current pastor what I’d been involved in.
To make a very long story short, my former pastor was quickly deposed from the ministry. If you want to read more click on My Story. I was also asked to resign from my position as administrative assistant at the church.
I was thankful my former pastor was deposed, because I recognized how harmful what he’d done had been to me and my family, and I wasn’t so sure it hadn’t happened to someone else. I found comfort in knowing that this kind of sin would not be tolerated in the church. Grace isn’t grace if the innocent aren’t protected. God cares about the vulnerable and will not tolerate them being abused. Therefore discipline is a must.
However, I was extremely upset that I was asked to leave my own job after I’d repented and confessed. I’d hoped to receive more grace. But no matter what the circumstances, I had taken advantage of my position and used it as an opportunity for sin. So maybe those consequences were justified.
I think the real problem I had with the process of discipline in the church wasn’t that it was implemented, but rather the judgement on the part of those disciplining. They were so quick to point out my sin without the humility of admitting their own. They wanted to have a congregational meeting and expose the sin and the sinners, because that was just the right thing to do to protect the church from gossip. I think that was where the real problem was. It was more about keeping up appearances than helping those harmed. There seemed to be no concern on their part that revealing my identity in that meeting would send the message to anyone else who might have been abused would be exposed as well. The whole thing was so very confusing and it still is.
And the question I find myself asking is what could have made it better? How could the church discipline and protect the weak, as well as show grace to those trapped in sin. I have some thoughts.
1. Humility. Every leader needs to acknowledge the logs in their own eyes before attempting to remove anything from their brother’s eye. When one recognizes the depths of evil in their own hearts and what God has saved them from, they are motivated to treat others with the same mercy they’d like to receive. They also can’t even see their brother’s sin clearly when they are blinded by their own sin. Obviously my former pastor was held to a higher accountability because of his role, but so were the leaders making the decision. They’d be wise to recognize that except for the grace of God they might be in the same place. When God says we’ll be judged by the same measure that we judge others, He does that in kindness to spare us painful circumstances. Every circumstance is different and some pastors may need to be deposed and others may not, and the only way to make a good decision is from a position of humility.
2. Kindness. It’s the kindness of God that brings others to repentance. The first step of repentance is agreeing with God that His way is best. I had acknowledged this and stood transparent before the elders in my church telling everything that happened. It was the hardest thing I ever did. Why they felt it necessary to tell me that I’d admitted my turning away from God and therefore needed to have my sin revealed to the whole congregation didn’t show the kindness of God. I’m not quite sure what it revealed. But it certainly didn’t cause me to want to do anything but leave the church. Had it not been for God, my husband, my counselor and Steve Brown’s support I’d have left the faith all together.
3. Patience. Scripture is clear that love is patient. There was a mad rush to get the sin dealt with quickly before gossip started. Meetings were held. Phone calls were made. Votes were cast. The pastor was deposed. I was asked to resign. The advice given by counseling professionals that dealt with spiritual abuse was mostly disregarded. My letter to the congregation was edited without my permission. It was clear everyone wanted the mess behind them as quickly as possible. I think love would have allowed time for everyone’s stories to be heard.
4. Education. This harmful relationship being exposed was a real opportunity to educate others and for darkness to be transformed into light. Diane Langberg and her counseling group have tremendously helpful materials on the subject of spiritual abuse and sexual abuse that can be used to educate the church. My own counselor, Sharon Hersh, also provides years of experience in helping victims deal with abuse as well as leaders in the church. The organization GRACE will come alongside and help any church dealing with abuse. Every pastor needs to be well educated on these subjects before he attempts to help others in the church. I’d even go so far as to say they should be required to take classes regularly or refer members to a licensed professional. On the other side, the pastor needs support and education on his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He needs a safe place to deal with those weaknesses without being judged. Steve Brown has a great website dedicated to pastors called Pooped Pastors.
The reality is, in the church we are always going to be dealing with sin, because we are sinners! The key is making the church like Steve Brown says in his blog Repent Now a safe place to repent.
The biggest problem with Christians is that we don’t feel free to repent. We can’t repent to God because we don’t trust him and what he says about his love. We can’t repent to one another because we know that, if we repent, they will know and we will no longer be a respected part of the church, the fellowship or our circle of Christian friends. We can’t even repent to ourselves because we simply wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves. So we lie. It’s the only option we think (usually subconsciously) we have. Lying to God, to our friends and to ourselves may feel comfortable at first, but it robs us of our power.
The only way for this to start to happen in the church is to begin by being honest about our own brokenness. And to stop jumping on the judgmental bandwagon every time someone sins. If you don’t know what I’m talking about just scroll through social media next time a well known Christian sins. From my own experiences, I have learned that sin is progressive. If I’d felt comfortable that someone would show me grace early on for what I was struggling with, it may very well have prevented me from falling into such a major sin. But the truth was I didn’t know one person that I didn’t think wouldn’t judge me and attempt to fix what was wrong with me. So I hid, and my sin grew in the dark. And my former pastor told me early on before any major lines were crossed that no one would understand his feelings for me, and that we must not tell anyone about the fact that he had hugged me! He was either determined to keep his sinful desires a secret or he truly didn’t believe he had anywhere to go for help either.
A meeting was held around this time last year to reveal my sin and my pastor’s sin to all the visitors and members at my church. It was to keep people from gossiping. And it revealed to everyone that sin in the church would not be tolerated. But what if instead of that meeting our leaders had held a Wednesday night prayer meeting where they admitted their own brokenness and gave people permission to repent? What if someone was brave enough to be honest and others followed suit? What if we loved and forgave and washed one another’s feet? It would certainly get the community talking and what might result is revival!
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.