While a student at UIUC, I went to a talk given by a brilliant, internationally renowned classicist. He had begun his academic career as a mathematician, but decided to dabble in Greek and Latin in his senior year of undergrad. He is now a leading authority on Aristotle. As Greek philosophy is not my forte, being a rather far cry from Latin epic, I am not familiar with any of this scholar’s many publications. But I did go to another talk of his just last week, on whether Aristotle recognized ‘aesthetic emotions.’
I digress. The talk he gave at Illinois in 2010 concerned pre-New Testament, Greek conceptualizations of forgiveness. While secular in its outlook, this presentation inspired a radical shift in my previously waffly thought on forgiveness in Christianity. In the few years prior to 2010, since two Big Events in which I and other loved ones had been hurt by people I trusted, I’d been considering what forgiveness actually was, what Christ and the biblical authors meant when they used the term, and whether it was what some Christians who talked to me about forgiveness—when discussed the Events and their ‘perpetrators’–believed it to be.
My notes from that talk are probably long since lost in subsequent moves, or else tucked away with other seminar handouts which would take me hours to sort through. I will sum up what was to me the most important effect of the man’s thesis: I came away from the seminar with the conviction that forgiveness is somehow a transaction.
Now it is 7 years later, and I have recently begun—and read most of—a book by Chris Brauns called Unpacking Forgiveness. I have discussed the meritorious thesis and arguments of this book with both my father and sister, particularly as it relates to the nightmare detailed in this blog.
Things are not right between me and several people in the visible church. Ditto for my dad and these same several people, and in turn for my sister and those who have mistreated her. What are we Christians–we and those we believe to have offended us, and with whom our spiritual unity in Christ has been disrupted–supposed to do about this?
Within a couple of weeks after I bought and started reading Unpacking Forgiveness, Simon Templar drove to the Michigan lake shore and sought out 21 in his new church (some pastors in Northern Michigan are permitted to leave their calling churches and seek out other pastures without being terminated—shocking, I know). This rendezvous—described in the essay below—occurred on a Sunday in late March.
In early April, I sent the following unsolicited article to the Banner. It was not accepted, and so I include it here, as submitted, for online readers. I toyed with the idea of asking my contact at the Banner whether there were certain criteria for publication which the article did not meet. I decided not to—I very cynically assumed the theme was just not as ‘relevant’ as ‘white privilege’ (there was an article on this dubious concept on the magazine’s website at the time I submitted the article). As much as ‘forgiveness’ might be a buzzword in the church, I doubt my take on it has a hashtag phrase on Twitter.
Those of you familiar with the story on the blog will know who is meant by ‘Nicholas’ and ‘Ralph’. Those of you who are merely interested in reading about the practical fallout of doctrinal disagreements about forgiveness do not need the two men to be identified for the point of the article to be clear.
A Small Matter of Forgiveness: Where Faulty Doctrine has Left Two CRC Pastors.
A year and a half ago, a close relative, a pastor in the CRC, was dismissed from his church via an Article 17a. This is a provision in the church order which allows for a separation of a pastor and his calling church when there are issues such as “irreconcilable differences” and the like (readers unfamiliar with this bit of CRC church order may find information on the denomination’s website). The reasons were, as so sadly frequent in church disasters, petty. This Article 17, pushed by some members of the church’s council, was a tremendous shock to most in the fellowship. It was fast-moving, messy, and caused a lot of damage and heartache, and not only to the pastor’s family.1 But I have written a fairly full account of this elsewhere.
In my experience, Christians don’t handle conflict in a biblical way in general; if those involved in the situation just described had done so, perhaps the Article 17 wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Matthew 18:15-20 is not much discussed in the church as a guiding text for how Christians should approach dealing with offense and attempting to bring about resolution: namely, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is thus not surprising that this significant text was thoroughly ignored as a procedural template in the Article 17 situation at my relative’s church.
At the same time, “forgiveness” is a word that is frequently bandied about both in the church and in the secular culture around us. Since, as I’ve observed, Christians don’t seem to deal with interpersonal problems in a biblical way, perhaps it is worth asking the following question: how do, or rather, how should believers deal with the issues of lingering offense and the need for forgiveness in the aftermath of a conflict? Consideration of this question is the focus of the rest of this article.
I was first wrestling with this issue during the few weeks of controversy that preceded the above-mentioned Article 17, and I have continued to do so in the months that have followed. More recently, conversations with other Christians got me thinking seriously about what forgiveness is– one in particular concerned an incident that happened on a recent Sunday morning. I just couldn’t buy that it is about ‘letting go of anger and bitterness’. This almost-clichéd definition is, in essence, a form of emotional self-preservation that, ontologically, has nothing to do with the person whom you believe has wronged you.
Our forgiveness of one another in the church is supposed to mirror God’s forgiveness of us. And God’s forgiveness both comes at a price, and has practical effects. It doesn’t simply serve to make Him feel better. I have found Chris Brauns’ book Unpacking Forgiveness to be very helpful in exploring the meaning and implications of forgiveness in an honest, challenging way, and with a biblical foundation and focus.2 I do recommend this book for its solid argument that forgiveness doesn’t happen without repentance, while noting that this doesn’t get the wronged person off the hook: he or she is obligated to offer forgiveness freely, and to seek reconciliation with the offender. The relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation is something Brauns also helpfully establishes and defines.
As I noted, the matter of forgiveness is highly relevant to the incident I mentioned above. Please permit me to provide some background information: a Church Visitor assigned to mediate the situation at the church of my relative (we’ll call my relative Nicholas) helped those on the council who were in a hurry to dismiss Nicholas to the point that he actually drafted the Article 17 Request document for them. In this process, “Ralph” did several things which offended Nicholas. While it is a poor excuse, it must be admitted that he did not really know the situation, and thus did not altogether know what he was doing.
On a Sunday in March of this year, Pastor Nicholas went to Pastor Ralph’s church. By this time, Pastor Ralph had taken a call in a church in a different city, over a hundred miles away in a different classis. Pastor Ralph approached and greeted Pastor Nicholas after the service, when the sanctuary was nearly empty. Pastor Nicholas explained why he had come: to ask Pastor Ralph to sit down with him, sometime in the near future, to discuss what had happened, to try to understand each other’s perspective, and, in sum, to right the relationship between two brothers in the Lord. It seems that Pastor Ralph did not think this was important. It is his professed unwillingness to meet that brings me to this conclusion, for his answer was a definite, and definitive, “No.”
That is the concise account. Pastor Nicholas had come to ask for a meeting, not to hash things out then and there. Pastor Ralph, however, may have assumed Nicholas was seeking an apology at that moment, for Ralph asserted that he knew it “wouldn’t do any good” to discuss it, and that he wouldn’t have done anything differently. At any rate, whether that makes sense, he concluded that Nicholas—who had just told him he had been offended by Pastor Ralph’s words and actions as a Church Visitor—must “just forgive” Pastor Ralph without any discussion. Because there wouldn’t be any.
This is sad. I am saddened. We should be saddened, even dismayed, by this.
I myself am familiar with Pastor Ralph’s way of thinking from his writing, that is, from the articles he has written for the very magazine you hold in your hand. He writes with a clear awareness of the current weight granted (legitimate or not) to emotional experience by contemporary society, both within the church and outside it. Pastor Ralph appears to be quite comfortable with the vocabulary and categories from what can best be termed the “therapeutic culture”.3
I believe that the dismissal of a fellow pastor seeking reconciliation, along with some measure of “closure” (a psychological need long recognized for its importance), in the sacred space of a sanctuary, is a testifying moment. I’ll leave the reader to decide what I mean by that.
One says, “We need to make things right between us.”
The other says, “I’ve moved on already. I won’t discuss it with you; you’ll just have to forgive me in prayer without us working on it.”
What is this kind of “forgiveness” Pastor Ralph is talking about? Isn’t it just another way for the person who has moved on—and out—to demand that the other move on as well,4 without even going through the motions described by Jesus himself in the Gospels, which both these pastors were trained at seminary to preach? These two men didn’t even come to the point of asking the question of whether one or both of them had something of which to repent. One summoned the courage to approach the other in his church. He was rejected. And told to just forgive. On his own.5
Is this what forgiveness looks like in Scripture? Is there forgiveness for Christians without some measure of dialogue, some attempt at reconciliation, even if restoration is not complete in this life?
This kind of unilateral forgiveness posited by Pastor Ralph, and by many others—a forgiveness that only affects, and maybe is all about, only one of two or more parties—is not that forgiveness that our God extends to us. This unilateral forgiveness is, and accomplishes, nothing. I refer the reader to Chris Brauns’ book and to other writers more qualified than I for further discussion on this topic.
Here are two questions: if Pastor Ralph does not think he has done anything wrong, why should he expect or suggest that Pastor Nicholas forgive him? And, if forgiveness happens without admission of wrong-doing and without attempts from both sides to repair a relationship, why didn’t Pastor Ralph simply advise the members of Pastor Nicholas’ church who had grievances to just forgive him, rather than deploying an Article 17, and moving to evict Nicholas from the church parsonage at Christmastime?
What I’m getting at here are the practical, real-life implications and consequences of this confusion about forgiveness. One pastor wants resolution. The other won’t even talk about it. And yet both would stress the importance of forgiveness. Where does this leave the pastor who desires healing, especially since it goes beyond the personal? His career will forever be affected by the blot on his record; see this publication’s own article on the professional damage done by the Article 17 in “The Scarlet Number”, from February 2012.
A pastor (Ralph) believes that forgiveness is unilateral, and can or even should be enacted by someone else with respect to, and yet separately from, him, even when Ralph himself doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong (wouldn’t forgiveness then be unnecessary?). But apparently, unilateral forgiveness is only demanded from some people. Others can punish a person with whom they have grievances, using, for instance, an Article 17. No wonder I’m confused! There is at least one flawed understanding in play here.
Christ’s work on the cross to effect forgiveness and reconciliation was the realization of the abstract that is grace.
Grace, that much-beloved doctrine, particularly among Reformed believers! Yet forgiveness in the Bible has a natural and necessary consequence, reconciliation (though what that looks like takes different forms depending on the situation). God doesn’t forgive His people without being reconciled to them. This is at the heart of our faith. Pastor Ralph talks about “forgiveness”, but ignores reconciliation. I would argue that this is addressing only half of the matter, and it is a meagre half, because forgiveness itself can’t be properly defined, and done, without its necessary counterpart. To talk up forgiveness without reconciliation is what we call “paying lip service.”
When a pastor, it seems, can’t make the connection between the two parts of the “story”, how are the sheep, for whom he stands as an example, supposed to see it? And without understanding how it works, how are they supposed to “do” it?
Finally, I will confess one thing: I am one of those millennials the church is desperate to keep. What am I sticking around for? What wondrous love is there to be found in the midst of such confusion about one of the most central tenets—in terms of both faith and practice—in the Christian religion?6 And even if there is disagreement between pastors about what constitutes forgiveness, what is a young person supposed to think when a rift between pastors troubles one, but not the other? When one wants to go through the process of reconciliation, and the other doesn’t have time, and doesn’t even see the need?
I’m grateful that God’s forgiveness is meaningful and effective, and that by His Spirit He enables us to repent, accept His grace and be reconciled to Himself. But the church’s leadership apparently doesn’t agree on what that dynamic should look like within the household of faith. Lack of clarity causes confusion, and disagreements have consequences. The result here, I would argue, is suffering, and perhaps worse, an excuse for callousness.
1 Just in the first week after the Article 17 was submitted, 6 people who had been in the church for decades, some for over 60 years, left. So, for as much spiritual and emotional pain as it caused for the pastor, I’m not sure it left the small, rural church in better shape than it was before.
2 One of his most striking passages is one in which he discusses the dangers of “cheap grace”, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds (2008) Crossway, 69ff.
3 See recent books by David Wells for discussion of this and its impact on the church and Christian thought, especially God in the Whirlwind: how the Holy-Love of God Reorients our World (2014) Crossway.
4 There is an aspect of this that suggests exercise of power rather than humility…
5 My point here is that this “forgiveness” seems to be something a person does independently of anyone and anything else.
6 It is a central tenet, as well as, I would argue, a unique phenomenon in human religious and cultural history. Christian forgiveness is unlike anything other world religions have to offer.