I’ve been a part of the Church most of my life, and over that time I’ve seen some pretty goofy things. Humans do weird stuff in general, but religious folks have a unique ability to take weird stuff into the truly bizarre. If you’re interested in seeing this side of a Christian community, get one of their leaders to fail and you will hear people in church say the craziest things: ‘You know, I’ve been having dreams about bananas, and I just knew that meant pastor was looking at pornography,’ (someone seriously said that to me) or ‘We just don’t know if the financial downfall of the church hasn’t been brought about by his immoral relationship,’ (said to me during the Great Recession). By far the most common is some form of ‘We’re going to punish this man to bring him to repentance.’
The first two sound bizarre, but are pretty harmless in the end. The last one sounds like a typical Focus on the Family parenting strategy, but it is a lie straight from the pit of hell and it is destroying the Church. Christians, particularly those of the conservative (read Fundamentalist) ilk, love to punish other Christians when they fail. But in doing so, they are literally saying that the work Jesus did on the cross was not enough – so we need to add to it by taking his job away, and publicly humiliating him in front of the church – as if somehow this is going to make their awful situation better.
The reality is that Jesus took the punishment for all of our sins on the cross and paid that price once and for all. This means that God isn’t in the business of punishing us anymore (doesn’t that sound like good news???), but yet we still choose to punish our brothers and sisters. Now I’m not saying there aren’t consequences for our sin, but consequences are far different than punishments. For an excellent treatment of this topic take a look at Danny Silk’s Unpunishable where he deals with this more in depth.
When we choose to punish our fallen pastor, we communicate to everyone who is watching – including the future replacement – that they need to keep their sins quiet or else…..and by in large people do. And the consequences of this are destroying the church. Because the only way to really deal with the brokenness in our lives is by bringing it out into the light. And people won’t do it if they know they’re going to be punished.
This means that the typical pastor has to pay someone in order to get what is theirs by right as a member of God’s family. When they can’t, that sin festers in the darkness until it boils over into a public crisis, which then brings about the punishment that kept them afraid of telling the truth in the first place.
It should not be this way.
Once the public flogging has taken place, there are very few people who will ever choose to come back from it. The pain and the shame are just too much. Punishment doesn’t prepare someone for restoration, it prepares them for isolation. Our love of punishment makes it impossible for our pastors to come forward and deal honestly with their struggles. It’s also creating a situation where they have no hope of restoration.
As a college student dealing with a mental health/faith crisis of my own, I chose to work at a Christian camp one summer in hopes of finding a safe place to gain some stability. But as I shared what was going on in my life, I found that the Christian leaders with whom I had shared were uncomfortable with my my pain, and embarrassed by my doubts. Now, to their credit, I was a mess. And I’m sure my presence was at best, challenging. But they decided about half-way through the summer that they couldn’t handle me and asked me to leave. They actually cited as one of the reasons that I had ‘Told (my) your 7th grade boys that they could get third degree burns by lighting their farts.’ I thought it was pertinent advice and they thought it was crass.
I actually don’t know that they made the wrong decision. But to boot a kid who is really struggling out of a Christian camp (punishment) and never bother to call him, follow up with him, or make any effort to ensure he was safe is pastoral malpractice – and unfortunately a regular occurrence. I believe that shepherds are equipped with a rod and a staff, for discipline and for restoration. They are designed to be used together.
Please tune in to the podcast for an extended conversation about this topic. It is SO important.