When the Church gets messy
We need to take the time to discern before passing judgement
It only takes a few seconds to share that tweet or tap out a Facebook message skewering someone for their “unforgivable” mistake. And if the message goes viral, as we’ve seen in recent days in the North American media, the perpetrators will pay with their reputations and even their jobs.
We can take a lesson from history here.
The persecution that took place under Roman emperor Diocletian (284 to 305 CE) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith was very difficult, especially when they were priests or even bishops.
Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, it could only be after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and bishops could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and bishops could also return to their ministries.
St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.
I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us.
We act in this way because we want a pure Church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to His Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.
When the behaviour of believers becomes a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs time to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates a prophet, a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.
What is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.
Instead of skewering someone online for their latest failure, leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.
Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.
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