A Few Practical Questions

A Few Practical Questions

Given the furore surrounding the issue of sanctification, 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.

I wonder if the theology of grace being offered by some is in some sense structurally analogous to so much trendy transformationalism: it generally works well with the post-boomers in the comfortable middle-class world within whose horizons it by and large operates.   Struggle a little with greed when eating out at the local Michelin starred French restaurant?  Occasionally lose your temper with the check-out girl at the organic food counter while buying your soy latte?  Covet the uber-cool neighbour's Jaguar E-Type as he parks it at the golf club?  Take a second glance at the young designer wife next door as she jogs past in her lycra shorts?  Even visit the occasional dodgy webpage on your MacBook Air when no-one's looking?  Do not worry: it's all about one way love.   In such circumstances, the stakes perhaps do not seem very high.  Nobody else is being hurt, after all.

But what if the person is not sinning those common sins but is addicted to adultery?  Or visiting prostitutes?  What does pastoral counsel look like in such circumstances?  Should you just declare to the man who has cheated on his wife for the twentieth time, "It's all about One Way Love because you are a Glorious Ruin."  If he goes out and immediately does it for the twenty-first time, do you simply shout that refrain even louder, like some ignorant British tourist in a bar in Malaga yelling at the waiter, convinced that the fact he brought you paella when you clearly ordered fish and chips is simply down to lack of volume?   

Or let's raise the stakes even higher and move outside of the bounds of the transgressions of the Updikean suburbs.  What if the person is compulsively sodomising children?  Or remorselessly beating the billy-oh out of his wife?  Or stalking and raping women after dark?  Or indulging in child pornography?  What do you say to them?  Do you only point them back to their justification, to one way love, to the fact they are a glorious ruin?  Is that what Paul's command to  'put to death the deeds of the body' means?  And if you tell them to stop it, do you tell them to do so simply because their behaviour breaks the civil law code?  I do not believe that any of the critics of pastors like Mark Jones would actually do that in such a situation.  They would surely know that such is clearly inadequate.   But if they would not do so, why not?  How would they counsel the child rapist?  And would such counsel apply only in cases of extreme public sin as society sees it?

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.

When a man comes to your office and tells you he's just violated a little girl and left her bleeding and half dead in a gutter, yes, you immediately phone the police.  He has got to be punished by the civil authorities and taken out of society for the protection of the innocent.  But then, when you visit him in prison as his pastor and he tells you he feels this compulsion that will make him commit the same crime if he is ever released, does your advice simply amount to encouraging him to reflect in deeper ways on the love of God and simply remember he is a magnificent ruin?  I do hope not.  And do you have more resources for him than simply telling him to reflect in deeper ways on his justification?  I do hope so.  The New Testament seems to offer a few.

Of course, we need to make sure that we do not allow the extremity of such a situation to lead us to fall into the error of teaching salvation by works. We should all know and make it clear that no-one goes to heaven just because he has ceased to indulge in internet pornography or to rape little girls or to kick his wife's teeth down her throat.  But is 'Don't think that not being a violent psychopath will save you' all that the New Testament has to say to such a church member?  I do not believe it is.

Christians commit horrendous sins.   I was licensed to preach at a Presbytery meeting where the very next item on the agenda was the excommunication of a minister for longstanding horrific and violent behaviour towards others.  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.

I believe my MoS collaborator has some further thoughts on this.  Over to you, Aimee.