The church teaches, in fact demands, honesty. But in many instances church is not a place for honesty. Of course, I do not speak of the whole of the Christian church, only that which I know by observation and experience. (Let the reader understand.) The church’s response to honesty can reveal it is not well-equipped to handle full-disclosure honesty. While the church requires honesty, it may show it does not know quite what to do when there is transparent honesty.
Honesty is particularly dangerous when Christians admit to two struggles – struggles with doubt and struggles with sin.
I believe in truth – transcendent, timeless, universal, propositional truth. But, I also believe in doubt as a reality of human and Christian experience. Perhaps it is because the church believes in truth and certainty that it has so much trouble dealing with doubt – sometimes ignoring it, sometimes denying its existence, seldom inviting its expression. Doubt is an ugly step-child in the church.
There are those who know little, perhaps nothing, of doubt. For them all things are clear and certain. God is there. He is good. The Bible is God’s Word. Jesus is their Savior. They are going to heaven when they die.
In some cases I think this certainty is a gift of temperament. In other cases I believe it is a blessed gift of grace. But I know it is not a universal bestowal of nature or of grace. I also know that when such certainty walks through the valley of the shadow of prolonged illness, devastating defeat, severe depression, or death it sometimes stumbles. For others nothing daunts such faith. For some doubt grows into strong faith. For others doubt is a constant companion.These differences are aspects of the mysteries of human existence and God’s providence.
There are different kinds of doubt. There are doubts about the big truths and ultimate things – the existence of God, the problem of evil, the reality of heaven. There are doubts about lesser things – secondary and tertiary doctrines, thorny ethical dilemmas, science and revelation, Bible anthropology and soteriology in relation to psychology/psychiatry. Then there are doubts about oneself – as to whether one’s faith is saving faith, as to whether one’s obedience is gospel and not legal obedience, as to whether one’s experience is genuine.
My guess is that there are not a few doubters within the church. Probably more than the church knows. But they do not “come out” because the church may not be a safe place to be honest about such things. Doubt can be considered tantamount to unbelief, to joining the serpent’s question: “Hath God said?”
So doubters hide. They nod their heads and smile; they say the right and expected things; or they keep grim silence. They may feel as though they there is no one else with questions and uncertainties in their Bible believing church, that their faith is utterly strange and unique, if it is faith at all. Eventually they may slip away. Doubt is the secret that is best not revealed by Christians to Christians and never, ever by presbyters to presbyters.
The mainline churches seem to say: Bring your doubts inside. Check your faith at the door. But what of conservative churches? You might be able to say to Jesus, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” But it may be best not to say it to the church.
I believe in righteousness – Biblical, law-affirming, faith-expressing righteousness. During my days of active ministry I served in a presbytery as a voluntary prosecutor of a minister who fled the process, and in churches I guided Sessions through disciplinary process several times. On the other hand, I resigned as a member of a pastoral committee in the same presbytery because I believed the presbytery’s response to a minister who faced up to his sin was too harsh.
I know that there are struggling sinners in church. My guess is that there are many more than those whose sins have become sufficiently public and produced enough trouble as to not allow them to remain in hiding. But church is too often not a good place to acknowledge struggles.
There are differences in the way Christian communicants deal with their sins. Some seem to act as though sin is their right and no one has any business calling them to account as these things are between themselves and God, their own consciences taking the role of God. Others do not take their sins very seriously and are surprised when others do. Some hide their sins from God, the church, and themselves. Some despair because they have been so often defeated. It is this last group about whom I am primarily concerned here.
There are differences of Christian experience with the sin. Some will testify that they were forgiven and set free at the same moment. Others will think they are free only to find that there are still sins that so easily beset them. Some struggle with sins, but of the “ordinary” variety, while others struggle with some really "big" ones. Some will say, “I am not the person I should be, but I am most certainly not the person I was,” and it is true of them. Others will say, “I do not love my sin and wish I could be free, but my sins and defeats are many, and my only hope is in free and full forgiveness and an imputed righteousness, not in my transforming experience.”
There are differences in the way sin is treated by ministers and churches. Some preach grace in such an unbalanced way that their message may be taken as allowing sin that grace may abound. Others preach strongly against sin, but practice no discipline of their members, including their officers. Some punish sin in one context but not another. Some are against sin, but would rather not know about it. Others denounce sin and show little in the way of mercy toward sinners. It is this last tendency I want to address here.
A rebellious Christian may come home at last and say to his heavenly Father, “Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight,” and be welcomed with embrace and kisses, clothes, shoes, and a ring, and, and have a party thrown by a Father who had compassion before the son ever got close enough to say a word. But what could what would happen to him at church? I wonder if it might take awhile to earn the robe, shoes, ring, and party. There may be immediate celebrating in heaven, but not down here. The Father may forgive 70 times 7, even as often as the sinner repents, but will the brothers who are called to be like their Father in heaven? Perhaps the more likely response of brothers is to begin to question the sincerity somewhere around the 3rd or 4th time. A holy apostle might be able to say, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” But dare a minister say it to his presbytery?
Mainline churches may seem to say, “Bring your sins, if you want to call them sins, right on in but check your concerns for righteousness at the door.” But what of conservative churches? You can say to your Father in heaven, “Father here I am again, asking for forgiveness and restoration to your favor because of the same old, same old sins.” But you might be wise not to say it to the church.
I don’t like what most of the mainline churches have become. It seems that all are welcome except those who believe the Creed and the commandments. But I am not happy with what many conservative churches give the appearance of being and too often are – open to those who have it together or soon will, but probably not for those who continue to struggle. It seems me the church should be a place and a body where doubters and sinners are welcome – where you come with all your doubts and failures and join with a community of faith to confess your faith and your sins and to receive Christ in Word and sacrament