The Church as a Hospital
Two things have struck me over the years about the church and sin. The first is that the church too often ignores sin’s reality, because dealing with sin can be messy and costly. In other words, there is no discipline even in cases of open, high-handed sin. On the other hand, the church is often ill-equipped to deal with sinners who need help. Though the Bible and experience teach us otherwise, we seem to be shocked by sin. We are uncomfortable when the worldly sinner ventures among us, and we are ready to write off the churchly sinner who struggles with something other than “ordinary” sins.
During my seven years as a campus minister, there were two different women in our ministry who became pregnant out of wedlock. In these cases, since they were associated with a group of students, it was among those students that they had most of their relationships. Of course, a campus ministry group is not a church, though in the practice of it in which I was involved, it was self-consciously a ministry of the church to students. In any case, for these students most of their experience fellowship took place among the group of students.
One situation was far more difficult than the other because, at first, abortion was considered by the woman, and because her parents were quite upset that she did not take that route. But in both cases, the Lord granted these women the gift of repentance.
What happened? In both situations, these young women bravely spoke to their fellow students, acknowledging the reality of their conditions and expressing their sorrow for their sin. They did not grovel, and afterwards, they did not do the modern equivalent of sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But their sincerity was credible then, and it has been proved credible by time.
In both cases the students responded without shock, self-righteousness, or withdrawal, but with love, encouragement and support. They responded also with acceptance, not of the sin, but of the person and her repentance. My memories of these things have faded over the long years since they occurred, but I can remember enough to say it was a beautiful thing to see, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
In both cases, these women were taken in by a church, which responded in much the same way the students did.
Of course, the church included adults who were earning a living and a number of women who were good wives and mothers. So the church (and to some extent the broader Christian community) was able to respond with money, counsel, and encouragement that was beyond the students’ abilities and experiences. This, too, was a wonderful thing to behold. In both cases the women married, neither to the father of her child. In both cases those marriages are still intact.
In these situations, taking the local congregation and the campus group together, we saw the church acting as the church - with compassion and help, while not trying to pretend sin had not occurred. One thing that made it work was having the situations acknowledged. That allowed everyone to get past the awkwardness, and to relate to one another as Christian believers.
Now what is the point? It is this - one way to look at the church is as a hospital for sinners. We are all sinners, who need to find forgiveness from God and his people. And, we need to find the strength to fight our sins.
In comparing sin to sickness and the church to a hospital, I am intentionally not speaking the language of addiction self-help groups or the rehab industry, which speaks of some sins as literal sickness. I am speaking of sin metaphorically, as does the Bible.
I cannot sort all this out in terms of differentiating in experience what it means, but the basic way of looking at the need for strength to fight sin as I understand the Bible is this: When a person is united to Christ by faith, that person is united to Christ in the power of his death and resurrection, which means for the sinner power to die to sin and to live a new life to God. But sin does not go away completely. Some of the disease remains, and there are relapses - some of them severe.
One way we might illustrate it is this: Suppose a person has a case of cancer that is treatable and controllable, but not curable. That person, when initially diagnosed, gets treatment that, in a sense, “knocks the cancer down.” But the person still has cancer cells, and from time to time they begin to grow again and need more rounds of treatment. Some of the relapses are rather minor, some are major (indeed life-threatening if not addressed), but in the big picture the disease can be dealt with by the treatment.
There are two questions with regard to the Christian and the sin-disease:
First, is there any case that is beyond hope? The Biblical answer is, “No.” All sin may be forgiven, and all sin can be fought once the faith-connection with Christ is established. Where does the church come in? The church has got to act toward sinners in accord with this reality. All sinners are welcome to seek treatment from the church-hospital, and in every case the church will do all it can to help the sinner, no matter what the sin, in terms of nature and number. And the church will do that, believing that God can and will, if he pleases, give that person the healing he or she needs - both forgiveness of the old life and strength to live a new life.
The second question is: What does the church do about relapses that become known to it? (Of course, we all know that there are many relapses that are not known to the whole church, and, in some cases, to any other human.) When the church-hospital becomes aware of the problem, it does not pretend that the problem does not exist. It tells the patient the truth, and it urges treatment. But the church-hospital does not discharge the person as a hopeless case either. It doesn’t matter how frequent or how serious the relapses are, so long as the patient submits to the treatment offered. The treatment, of course, is the means of grace, and the effects are fresh forgiveness and renewal of the new way of life.
When Jerry Falwell rode in on his white horse to try to save the situation with Jim and Tammy Baker, he made the observation that, “The church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” I am somewhat doubtful his observation applied in that situation, but I have seen some in which it does apply. One of the saddest things I have done as a minister had to do with one of the girls mentioned above. I had to tell her that the church she was attending did not want her there any longer because of her sin. Thank God, another church was ready to accept her and did.
Sometimes “patients” (sinners) and “hospitals” (churches) act as though they think some sins are beyond “treatment” (forgiveness and renewal of new life). But that is not true. The only “incurable case” is that of the patient who will not acknowledge the “illness” and seek and accept the “treatment.” All others will be “admitted,” given hope, and treated.