4.02.2007

Church as a Hospital

We acknowledge lots of good beliefs, but when it comes time to live them out, life gets harder. Consider this passage:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." - Luke 5:27-32
In theory, easy to agree with. In practice, harder. In the news around Indianapolis lately, a good-sized church is being surrounded in controversy because they're trying to live out this very passage. There has been a tragedy among them, and an elder in the church, while babysitting a young girl, molested her. The girl's family also attended the church. The man has confessed and repented, and a trial is scheduled. What's a church to do? This church, one I have very much respect for and have good friends who attend, decided that they are "a hospital for sinners." and have chosen to support both the child's family and that of the molester. This made the child's family angry, and they left the church. The father said in the article, "It's a disgrace that the church would embrace a criminal". Others have left the church over this issue. One former member said [this] situation was "the last straw,", adding church leaders had "lost their ability to discern right from wrong. ... The (child's) family has been treated like they're overreacting," The church is putting in place obvious precautions, informing the children's ministry of the situation and not allowing the accused in the building without an escort.

An 'expert' in the field, Phillip Goff, director of IUPUI's Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, believes that the support for the accused is only happening because he was an elder in the church, and, otherwise, the church's response would be harsher: "There are times when you can see religious leaders put aside what they might otherwise talk about with justice, and (instead) talk about mercy because religiously they're on the same side as the person"

The counseling director at the church is proud of their response: "I've been in churches where things like this would happen and no attempt would be made to minister (to the accused), which is a shame," he said. "They're pushed out the door and made to go away, and I, for one, am very proud to be part of a church family that isn't afraid to go into the trenches."

What's the right answer? Should this man have been turned out of the church, expelled or asked to go elsewhere for the sake of the victim's family? Or are churches "hospitals" for sick sinners who want to get well? How do these "hospitals" deal with hurting victims as well as hurting sinners, who may worship under one roof?

It's hard to say that the victim's family is wrong for resenting the church and not 'loving their enemy', because none of us can imagine the deep hurt that they are feeling. At the same time, we see scripture, which tells us Jesus came for and hung out with sinners. His harsh words were always for those who perceived themselves without sin, and his kind words were for those who knew they were sinners. We're told to love and pray for our enemies. We're told to expel church members who have been shown their sin and refuse to repent, but that is not the case here. This is a situation that, if I were in church leadership, would be unimaginably hard to deal with, but I think it has been dealt with as well as possible. It makes me sad that there has been such a backlash, especially from people claiming to also be Christ-followers. This is just yet another case of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus not making sense in our culture.

* As a side note, to clarify, the article mentions the former pastor of the church. Everyone who has spoken of him to me, including Josh, highly respects him, and he was forced to step down from his position because of serious health problems. The article, by saying "He resigned in December... because he didn't believe he could fulfill his pastoral duties." implies that his stepping down had something to do with the case. It didn't.

2 comments:

Ashley said...

This is a really interesting topic you bring up, and an extremely difficult decision.

I visited a friend about a year ago and went to church with her. Their pastor had just resigned for some sin that my friend didn't share with me. The guy who spoke at the service had a really powerful message (I thought).

He said, "The church is the only organization that shoots its wounded."

That sentence resonated with me. Why? Would Jesus do that? How far would He go to embrace the sinners? How far would He go to support the victim? How far would He go to protect the church's clean image?

Of course, I can't imagine what the girl and her family are going through. But I can imagine a similar situation (you know what I'm talking about). Sometimes I think we are so hooked on the idea of "justice" that we forget that the only way for our hearts to heal is from within, with the help of Christ. No amount of shunning or jail time is going to make the hurt less. And sometimes, I think that trying to get justice through the legal system is not the answer... of course, I'm not talking about this situation... It would take too long to explain it here.

So in short, yes, I agree with what the church is doing now. They have some wounded people - the wife is not responsible for her husband's actions. She needs love and support just as much as the family of the girl, especially since she will essentially lose her husband to jail. It IS a difficult situation for the family of the girl. I can imagine that their level of trust with any elder has been broken. However... I can't help but feeling that it wouldn't be right for a church to "shun" the family of the elder in this situation. What would Jesus do?

I have been reading a blog called "A Dusty Frame" that is written by a wife whose husband is in jail (for what, I don't know). Reading it has really opened my eyes to what families go through where one member is in prison. It breaks my heart to hear her struggles, but I realize how easily it is to assume that criminals are "very bad people" - and their families must be as well. As Jesus said, are we here for the healthy or the sick? And if we're here for the sick, then why do we not want to associate with them?

Okay this comment is long enough. I think you have touched on a topic near my heart! Thanks for bringing it up! Hope you enjoyed your trip to Michigan. :-)

Matt said...

I'll say little, in hopes that I say even less that is wrong. :-)

Yes, yes, yes, the church should embrace the man when he stumbles. But what a mess to try to discern what the right kind of embrace is! Should the man remain an elder? Is it healthy for him, or anyone else, to keep him in a high profile position?

Removing someone from duty and high profile doesn't equate to casting them out of your community. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, you don't go back to hammering with that thumb. You wrap it up and keep off it for a while! It's still intimately connected to the hand, but it's not pretending to be a healthy thumb. It's also cautiously reintroduced to service. If the wound was bad enough, it may never resume the service it was in before.

We have to look at the struggles and failures of our church family the same way. It's not shameful for someone to be removed from duty if they are suffering. The steadfastness of a friend isn't going to be newsworthy enough to get mention in whatever article we read about church scandal. So as news readers, we can't really know the extent of the intimate connection to the body that is provided for an injured member unless we are very closely involved with the incident.

So all I'm trying to say is, we hear about the demotion, but we don't know what that means in the care for the wounded. If I am ever in a situation like that, I hope I will be compassionate enough to offer support and brotherly love.

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