The church is famous for kicking sinners out, even though they are the very people the church is designed to serve! Like I said last week, I think troubled people need extra grace; they don’t need to be cut off just when they are in their deepest trouble. I think most churches are trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve dared to make our solutions to sin a feature of who we are. Some of our ideas seem so new to people, it has not been unusual for our approach to conflict to cause conflict!
This incident I want to tell you about, even though I’m not worrying about remembering all the facts perfectly, helped us create a useful approach to the kind of conflict that endangers people and threatens the whole church. We sum it up in our statement: Forgiveness and Containment.
A couple popped up from our South Philly neighborhood. Each of them were in a cell group. They seemed excited that she was pregnant and they wanted to get married. They were emotionally needy but both seemed to be gaining new faith. They wanted to become covenant members rather spontaneously and so we said, “Why not?” We baptized them, married them and made them covenant members on the same day! The week after they joined our covenant, their marriage went into a dramatic meltdown. Violence. Midnight phone calls. She locked him out and he stayed at his cell leader’s house. Come to find out she had a restraining order on him even as they were getting married and making a covenant! It was a spectacularly messy situation.
The people who cared for these newcomers spontaneously formed a circle around them. They quite consciously saw an opportunity to act as white corpuscles rushing through the body of Christ’s bloodstream to get to the wound. They formed what we later named a “container.”
How much choosing is really involved in sinning?
We realized we had a conviction about acting out Matthew 18 (read it!), since we are way Anabaptist and we think the Bible should be lived, not litigated. So embracing all these sinners, as we tend to do, was very educational!
There are many kinds of sinners – like all of us reading this. I do think some, like the people at the top of our leadership pyramid in the U.S., actually practice sinning, like lying and cheating, exploiting the poor, causing war, perpetuating racism, stirring up hatred and strife etc, etc. They choose to sin because it is practical and because they have the power to get away with it and they think that’s how it should be. But I think those kind of people might be rare.
Since I began practicing some psychotherapy, I’ve become even more convinced even sociopaths and people with a narcissistic personality disorder are doing a lot less choosing than I wish they were. If they were making choices all day, it would be easier to judge them – and I often wish I could forget Romans 14 and 15 and just condemn people. Many people are not choosing to sin, they think behavior Jesus followers might name sin is normal – even after they follow Jesus! They do less choosing than they do following their perverted desires and deeply-installed false gods that everyone around them names as good. It should not be too surprising if they made a covenant before God with someone on whom they have a restraining order!
Glenda Jackson retired from being a member of the British parliament and came back to the stage in the past few years. She had a bit to say about the ascendant sense that choosing is what being human is about. (In the picture you can see her choosing to play King Lear on Broadway). She is famous for saying:
In coming to the basis of Thatcherism, I come to the spiritual part of what I regard as the desperately wrong track down which Thatcherism took this country. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees, all these were the way forward.
Like Glenda Jackson, I don’t believe we get to reconciliation if it all depends on individuals choosing it like they choose a make of car or brand of cigarettes. Righteousness happens in the context of relationship with God and others, not just in our personal choices. I don’t think Jesus calls us to jump into “disciplining” people when someone cannot hold themselves together, as if they just made a mistake. They need to be transformed, not just taught or forced to make better choices.
I think many people have an arrogant sense of their own responsibility and so that of others. People are bound in sin long before they come to some kind of realization that they can make other choices. Feeling sorry for their condition makes me sound soft on sin – but I honestly think people accused Jesus (Matt. 9) and Paul of the very same thing (see Romans 5:20-1 for why). I sometimes feel compelled to tell people, “I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in your sin. He already died because of it. His interest is forgiveness and restoration, not judgment. His choice and not yours is what is important.”
Our choice to be preoccupied with our sin and with the sin of others, makes a mockery of the Lord’s work. What we should be obsessed with is redemption and the possibilities of resurrection life — if I am not so preoccupied, I am not sure I am even a Jesus follower. He did not die so I would keep believing that my choices are what makes the universe happen, or worse, that my choices are what is ruining it.
The focus of Jesus is a new creation. Like Paul says, “Nothing counts but love and a new creation.” The Lord’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 18 about forgiveness and reconciliation are among the most practical things he says about what he is after. It is teaching as fundamental as “Love your enemies” and “Love one another as I have loved you.” His teaching: “When you are sinned against, win your brother or sister back,” is basic to the new creation.
Create an atmosphere bent on reconciliation
Like I said, we kind of bumped into a means to work on reconciliation in the most damaging of circumstances when that young couple blew their marriage to smithereens and began to infect the church with their fury, neediness and demands. They were more than willing to get people on their side and fight it out. And they did not know how damaging they were being — and with a baby on the way! They needed to be contained so they would not infect the church. And they needed to be contained so the church would not naturally cleanse itself of them before they got a chance to come to their senses, be healed and be reconciled to God and one another.
In our statement, Forgiveness and Containment, we start by convincing people that forgiveness is essential. Most people believe this theoretically, but they don’t act like it is fundamental to their lifestyle. Any “discipline of correction” from Jesus begins with forgiveness. Jesus is correcting our lack of forgiveness by pouring grace on us. I won’t go into all we say about forgiveness except to say this: Conflict is inevitable in community. There is invariably trouble. Without forgiveness, community is only possible where people are superficial.
Many churches are devoid of real connection because people solve the sinning problem by outlawing conflicts instead of learning to be redeemed by our endless involvement in them. The best they do with problems is to say, “No problem” (or get away even quicker with “NP”), and pretend they are not angry. As a bad but persistent evangelist, I can tell you that many people don’t want to touch the church with a ten foot pole because Christians can’t do conflict, can’t be trusted, and seem to love drawing lines that cause conflict. In our neck of the woods, winning the culture war battles is definitely losing the cause of redemption because it is about having a lot of conflict while pretending nothing is happening personally.
What a cell should be best at is healthy conflict. But I dare say you don’t trust us enough to speak freely and wouldn’t have much of a life-giving strategy to process conflict should it happen during the next cell meeting or the next half hour. And if you came across a person who couldn’t feel, couldn’t budge, was visibly angry, what would happen?
Most of us would cut that person off. In the short run, it seems far easier to simply “forget” than to forgive. Saying, “No problem,” often effectively means, “You are dead to me.” However, the mind is rarely so accommodating. It is very difficult for us to forget experiences and the feelings that go with them. If we make a practice of sweeping hurt under the rug, one day we will undoubtedly trip over the bump. In the long run, we need deep and penetrating acts of forgiveness to be free.
So Matthew 18 is a crucial primer on the practical work of forgiveness, which is the central feature of an authentic church that loves like Jesus loves – Jesus who we gladly proclaim died as an act of forgiveness among other things. How do we get there when these sin-ridden people blow themselves up in the middle of our perpetual Easter worship? I am going to say one more thing about creating an atmosphere of reconciliation. You can read our strategy for what to do when pollution threatens that atmosphere by looking over Forgiveness and Containment.
Making and keeping a covenant is central to an atmosphere of reconciliation
When we got going, we decided to double down on what other churches were deserting: the covenant. At the center of our body are the covenant keepers — whose yes is yes and publicly stated. People in covenant agree to live reconciled. They agree to agree. That’s the main thing. Additionally, in our marriages there is a covenant. And in our cells there is an implicit covenant even if the cell does not write it down. We work on all those relationships as basic.
People come to the church with an expectation of being ideally loved, often much better than they love or were loved in their families growing up. Mostly, they relate according to the self-defensive rules they learned by the time they were six. So you can see how there is going to be trouble unless someone is doggedly nurturing an environment where self-giving love like Jesus’ can be learned. Our covenant love needs to lead us, not just the discipline hit squad.
Suppose you have a person in your cell who avoids another person in the church because they can’t stand being in the same room with them? What am I to do? Most people give up on such people, or even forget about them. But they are here are in my cell and I love them. Maybe I should throw them out because they are choosing to sin. But I never do. Instead, I keep them in the covenant where I hope they will get over their immaturity and be reconciled.
What we want to do is get to reconciliation. So we need to pay attention to how we can recover from covenant-breaking and pay attention to how the covenant breakers can get back into an experience of our love. I think Matthew 18 works best with a clear breech like these:
- I expected you to take care of my children but you yelled an obscenity at one of them and they are still traumatized.
- I expected you to be trustworthy but you took money from the team’s checkbook to buy groceries because you were too ashamed to ask for help.
- I expected you to share money with the common fund like you said you would when you made a covenant and you didn’t.
- I found out you have been approaching women and threatening them with your overtly sexual behavior.
Those are all easier. And they are probably the kind of things the Lord is mainly talking about.
Covenant breaking is probably not,
- I was offended by your body language
- You ignored what I was saying
- I am really tired of your psychological foibles
- I thought you said you would do the dishes.
Those experiences will all require some forgiveness, but I don’t think every day conflicts need to go directly to sin. Regardless, Matthew 18 works if you are just offended, too. It helps you create an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a main skill I try to build in couples therapy. If you are upset, own your feeling and tell your story. Listen to each other and understand. That may be enough to get to forgiveness.
There is a lot more to a life bent towards reconciliation. I have been thinking and writing about it so much, I realized I could put together a reading list for a group I was teaching. See if it helps you learn more about the revolutionary traits Jesus frees us to exercise. They transform the world: Readings on reconciliation.