Thursday, October 18, 2012

Persecuting and Hurting the Faithful

Persecution, Pain, and Jesus

Rejoice and Be Exceeding Glad? A Christian woman recently posted this as her Facebook status: “I am finally starting to understand what the Bible says when it says we will be persecuted for what we believe. I always thought it meant our enemies. It hurts worse because it ends up being our friends...”. 

One reality is that very few Christians in the United States experience persecution of the sort Jesus warned us to expect – persecution by an unbelieving and hostile world. It may well come to that in the future, but it has not yet. 

A second reality is that the only persecution many Christians have ever known is persecution by their fellow believers. Let me be clear. I am not referring to persecution of Protestants by Roman Catholics or persecution of conservative Christians by liberal Christians. I am talking about what conservative evangelicals, yea even confessional Presbyterians, experience among themselves.  To give one example, I am not talking about how the Presbyterian Church USA treated Machen but how those who left with Machen treated Machen. 

A third reality is that those receiving the persecution almost always perceive themselves as sincerely serving God and his kingdom and those who do the persecuting almost always perceive themselves as a serving the causes of righteousness and truth. 

What I am describing is different from the reality that some of the most acute and chronic relational hurts Christians experience is within the believing community. Here the family metaphor and analogy can help.  We get an explanation and understanding from relational dynamics within marriages and families. Family members often find that both the greatest joys and the greatest pains are experienced within the family. Husbands and wives know that these joys and pains come from the same person.  Within the same family we can experience loyalty and betrayal, understanding and indifference, support and abandonment. To put it succinctly both love and hatred can be experienced within a marriage and a family. Some marriages and some families are more dysfunctional than others, but the potential for hurt is universal.

But pain inflicted by one believer on another or by congregation on one or some of its members is not the same thing as persecution of believers by believers. As a campus minister, I am certain I experienced persecution by Christians including friends. I expect that over the course years there are those, including some of those I think persecuted me, who feel I have been the persecutor. Isn't this persecution of believers by believers, to put it mildly, a problem for us? But what to do with it, to quote Jeff Bridges, singing as Bad Blake, “I don’t know.” How do you even pray on either side of the persecuting? I do wish we could somehow do more provoking of one another to love and good deeds and less persecuting one another for the welfare the kingdom.

All One Body We? Dr. Sinclair Ferguson has a helpful piece addressing the curious case of Christians who engage in the contradiction of saying they love Jesus but do not love his church. He writes words nearly every pastor would like to speak to his people. He notes that most Christians do love the church, particularly those of his own beloved congregation, and then goes on:

But there are exceptions—perhaps here, certainly elsewhere. After all, people say, “How can I be expected to ‘love my church’ when ‘these things are happening/going wrong/failing badly?’ ”
When friends say that, the best thing to do is to raise one eyebrow and ask: “Really? 
What about the fellowship fall-out at Rome, the moral problems in Corinth, the confusion in Galatia, the disagreement among the women of the church in Philippi, the misunderstanding of the Christian life at Colossae, the difficulties in Thessalonica? These were the churches Paul loved, because these were the churches Jesus loved.
That’s why it is such a contradiction in terms to be a Christian who doesn’t love the church, and who, instead, makes the failures of his or her church a reason for distancing herself or himself from the basic life and disciplines of Jesus’ family: worship, the ministry of the word, the fellowship of the Lord’s Table and people, corporate prayer, and so on.
Beyond hearty agreement with these comments, two thoughts occur to me:

(1) Dr. Ferguson is writing about the relationship of members to the local congregation. In this case, what are members to do when pastors, elders, and churches neglect, fail, or inflict unjustified hurt on them? When leaders indicate to their members in good standing that they would just as they soon move on to another church? These are not hypothetical but all too real cases. Some of those who experience these things dropout. For the present at least they just can’t “deal with it.” It’s one of those cases where one is faced with what one should do and what one can do, with one feels and what one knows, and concludes, “I just can’t do it. I can’t go to church – not now.”  Most, however, will at some point in the progress of the experience of disconnection for their congregation move on to another congregation without any “dropout time.” But often the disillusionment with “the church” is carried with the member, and sometimes continuing pain affects the person’s relationship with any church. From time to time we meet Christians suffering from church caused PTSD. We see it in their faces and hear it in their stories. Should these Christians love the church no matter, just because Jesus loves both that Christian and his church despite the woeful failures of both? Of course. But that does not diminish the need of congregations, sessions, ministers to man up and mother their people?

(2) What does this say about our relationship as churches, ruling elders, and ministers to denominations? At least at the time of writing Paul considered the congregations listed by Dr. Ferguson to be churches and their members to be believers. It is something of an understatement to say that the doctrinal, moral, liturgical, and organizational issues at Corinth were serious. And, if the traditional Protestant understanding of the Galatian problem is correct, the danger there was grave. What does this say to those of us who left the PCUS almost 40 years ago? I am all but certain out staying would not have affected the long term outcome, but that does not answer the question of whether we should have departed in 1973? What about Lloyd-Jones call for evangelicals to leave the Church of England? Did Packer and Stott do the right or the wrong thing? What about those who now in various contexts wrestling now with whether to go or stay? Again, "I don't know."

The only thing I know for sure is that it is very hard to love the church, which makes Jesus' love for her all the more astounding.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Bill, when you and I were campus ministers together I generally understood the old saying that "Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded". After over 30 years of serving the local church I have come to see that it is much worse than that. Christians (often especially confessional Presbyterians) think that it is not enough to shoot the wounded, individuals, pastors, sessions and sometimes even presbyteries will shoot those who are not wound but these various individual groups or individuals think should be wounded.

This is more of a serious problem than most PCA folks are willing to admit. The idea is that you just tell them "this is what the pastor says" or "this is what the session says" you just need to get in line. But the problems is that these folks have really been damaged (spiritually, emotionally, Biblically) by all of this harshness. More than we know are just dropping out. Some do not come back. Some simply come to worship hoping that the faithful use of the ministry of the word and sacrament will be enough to equip them spiritually to (as Steve Brown says) "get them home before dark".

Over the last 10 years of my ministry I have met more people damaged by various churches, pastors, individuals all "ministering in the name of Jesus" (wide variety of churches here in Middle Tennessee) at at times all I could do with these people is cry with them.