Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sanctification and Old Biddies

Sin, Status, Sanctification

I became aware of an instance of criminal sin at a time when the the senior minister with whom I served was out of the country. Something had to be done now. I sought counsel from an attorney within the congregation and consulted with several elders. Within a day or two I with the attorney at my side was on the phone with the authorities to report the crime. There was an arrest, a grand jury inquiry, and a plea followed by a prison sentence. 

It was a wrenching decision. At stake was the safety of very vulnerable person, the life of the perpetrator, and the survival of a family as well as the name of Christ and the good of the church. What to do in such a situation is much clearer now than it was then. Today what to do would be a no-brainer. The law makes clear that a minister must report such crimes, regardless of any "priest-penitent" relationship or clergy confidentiality privileges. The church itself has become much more sensitive to victims and clear about its obligations to report. 

I thought about that case today when I read
Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman's Blog (Here) on the current dust-up about sanctification. He helps us to see what is stake more clearly by directing our attention away from the abstract to the practical and pastoral:
I want to take the debate out of the lecture theatre and the partisan point scoring by asking a pointedly practical question: How do you pastor people engaged in serious repeated sin? That is where our theology is truly tested and where the differences in approach to the matter take on urgency.
He does this by asking us to think not about "ordinary sins" but serious sins such as serial adultery and horrendous ones such as child sexual abuse. Even assuming, as we must, that in cases of crime the police are notified, it simply won't do in addressing the offender to point him or her to God's one way love, to how our sin magnifies that love, and to our need to grasp and appropriate that love. That must be done, else the person caught, exposed, and under conviction of sin may despair, but more must be done. In other words, something more must be done for the sake of the sinner than to point him or her to the truth of justification by faith alone. 

Then Dr. Trueman makes an extremely important observation that must not be missed:
As recent events have shown, churches contain perverts. Churches contain perverts who are Christians. Churches contain perverts who are Christians who do real harm to others and to themselves in their sin. And pastors are called to confront such people, to protect the flock, and to ensure that civil authorities deal with them. But they are also called to pastor such perverts, to call them to repentance, to faith, and to lives that reflect their status in Christ. How is that done? Our theology of the Christian life needs to be able to address all Christians in their sin in a consistent manner. (Emphases added)
It is this reality that I fear may be missed or, worse, denied. There are true Christians who are involved in repeated, chronic, really horrible sins. It is the very possibility of this which some will deny. They might allow that a Christian could commit once a horrible act of sin. But if sin is chronic and repeated, if it is shameful in itself and embarrassing to the church, then that person is not a Christian. No person who is born again, who is united to Christ, who has a living faith, who has heart experience of Christ could be the kind of person Dr. Trueman describes. 

Appeal is made to 1 Corinthians 6: 9: "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." This text is taken to refer to present experience not to present status. This is asserted despite the telling fact that "justified" comes not at the beginning or in the middle but after "washed" and "sanctified". It is maintained despite the kinds of sins that were present among the members of "the church of God that is in Corinth" who are "sanctified in Christ Jesus" and "called to be saints."

I have served as a voluntary prosecutor. I have served on at least one judicial commission. I have in presbyteries voted on guilt and for the imposition of sanctions. Perhaps more important, I have been involved where it can be truly costly to practice discipline - a number of cases in the exercise of discipline in local church. 

But I have never been comfortable with the kind of prissy, old biddy response that characterizes some men who have to deal with others' sin. I have, I think consistently, sought the mildest form of discipline appropriate. Sometimes I have been able to persuade, sometimes not. In the same congregation in which I reported a crime there was a case of admitted adultery, and the censure imposed by a commission I moderated was admonition before the tribunal. In one presbytery I argued against suspending a man from the ministry who admitted a non-adulterous indiscretion and who was no longer serving the congregation. In that case I had to resign from a committee that was to deal with the situation because I could not agree with way the brother was treated. In another I argued against suspending from the Lord's Supper a man who did not deny his sin or assert his intention to persist and watched later as the same court exposed him to nothing short of intentional public shaming and humiliation. I have watched ministers and ruling elders get their panties into a wad over the sins of ministers while exercising no discpline whatsoever in their local congregations.  I have through the years seen sin inexcusably ignored. This is shameful. And I have seen it addressed in the harshest manner possible. This is ugly.

There is a practical issue Dr. Trueman mentions that I trust he (and perhaps others) will flesh out for us.
Our theology of the Christian life needs to be able to address all Christians in their sin in a consistent manner.
Our theology needs not simply to explain why people do such terrible things but also guide us in how to discipline and counsel them in such circumstances.
How in these circumstances do we actually help the offender? What do we say? What do we do? What hope is their of effecting change in the kinds of cases Dr. Trueman so necessarily graphically describes? This is among the most pressing pastoral problems ministers, churches, and sinners must face. And we do very much need help.

Another gratuitous picture
of Anglican in seersucker

Below is a list of Blogs I have written over the last 4 years that touch on sin, sinners, justification, sanctification, and the church beginning with the first and ending with the most recent.

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