I know that I am a sinner. I have often thought in recent years of a theology lecture I heard in seminary. The professor was dealing with the notion of “sinless perfection.” He was in his late 60s and, during the course of his lecture, he paused in a personally poignant moment to say, “The longer I am alive, the more aware I am of my sin.”
I know that I am a sinner. I resonate with the words of the Apostle Paul who called himself “the chief of sinners.” I listen with intensity to Romans 7:14-25, echoing Paul’s sentiment in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am!” In concert with the Reformed theologians I admire, I know that all the decisions I make and all the actions I undertake are tainted by my sin nature and frequently directed by my “own evil desires” (James 1:14). Trust me: I know that I am a sinner.
So, when I stumble in major ways, I am never completely surprised. Of course the word “stumble” might seem an attempt to soften the impact of one’s sinful missteps. Perhaps so. But I think that many of us, much of the time, are limping along through life anyway. Stumbling is what we do–sometimes others see it; oft times they don’t.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of any particular stumble, a “stumbler” can feel like the embodiment of an expression I encountered years before while in the Air Force. And it demonstrates, I think, how far short the Christian community can fall from the biblical mark with respect to treatment of those who stumble.
The expression in question goes something like this: “One Aw Sh** wipes out a thousand Atta Boys.” Former military readers will immediately understand. For others, let me explain.
The military is a place that is intentional about the recognition of jobs well done. But it is also an institution that has few tangible ways to reward folks when they do well. You can’t give raises or bonuses; you can’t immediately promote people; you can’t even excuse them from facing hostile fire the next day. What you can do is pause during the action long enough to say, “Well done! Good job! Thanks for serving your nation so faithfully!” When I was in the military we called those kinds of expressions “Atta Boys” (Yes, women are also recipients, “Atta Girl!”) “Atta Boys” come in several varieties (medals, letters, etc.), but they are key instruments of reward and recognition in any commander’s leadership tool kit.
However “Atta Boys” have an evil big brother: The “Aw Sh**.” The “Aw Sh**” is often a knee-jerk response to some gross error in judgment on the part of the offending military member. The power of the “Aw Sh**” is overwhelming. If an “Atta Boy” is a shiny package, dressed with a bow on Christmas morning, then the “Aw Sh**” is September 11th–towering careers simply collapse. I grant that the stakes are unusually high in the military, but I have seen one “Aw Sh**” take down officers in the middle of stellar careers, people who had accumulated a mountain of “Atta Boys” over the course of decades of service to their nation.
Now, what does this have to do with sinful stumbles in the Body of Christ? This: everything a person has been or striven to be as a Christian can easily be swallowed up in one “Aw Sh**.” I know the biblical standards for church leaders and the heavy investment in character the Scriptures mandate; I am not diminishing any of that. What I am saying is that, particularly in moments of crisis, when church leaders are struggling with appropriate responses to failure, we must take the whole person into account. Otherwise we may discard people as if they are so much septic tank toxic waste.
Jesus was heavily invested in the recycling business, but some reflective observation leads me to believe that church leaders often quickly bypass the recycle bin and head straight to the dumpster. It is sometimes the case that an entire body of work, life, and ministry is compressed so tightly as to be seen through the lens of one episode of failure.
I believe that grace is “sloppy.” The legalists own the bright lines in the sand and the sharp-edged shades of black and white. Agents of grace, those who carry the name of Christ, and who believe that His model in dealing with sinners was gentle restoration, often color in more nuanced shades and move with less clear lines drawn in the sand. Look with me at a few episodes from Jesus’ ministry.
I think one of my favorites is John 21:15-25. Peter, the leader of the “remedial boys,” had committed the seemingly transcendent sin: at a key moment in Jesus’ journey toward the cross, Peter had looked over at Jesus and said, “I don’t know the man!” Surely Peter’s action is a contender for the unpardonable sin. Jesus: Messiah, Lord, Master, Teacher, Healer, Miracle Worker, The Son of the Living God (by Peter’s own confession), had been denied. How much worse can it get? All the sins packed into all the sin lists in Scripture seemingly fade away into nothingness in the face of this monstrous thing.
And yet, post-Resurrection, when Jesus encounters Peter on the Sea of Galilee shore, He deals with Peter in a supremely gracious way. Jesus uses simple math (one statement of love to match each statement of denial) to restore Peter to first among equals within the gang of (then) eleven. Peter was so deeply moved he said something goofy–again (see verse 21). I think this passage has transfixed everyone who has carefully read it. It particularly stirs my heart because of the spiritual and emotional distance Jesus traveled to restore Peter, the fallen leader.
A second favorite episode involves the little tree climber, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was not a leader among Jesus’ followers. He was a notorious “sinner”–a “chief” tax collector no less, one of those men responsible for the weight of fiscal oppression felt by the populace of Galilee and Judea. Zacchaeus was short in stature and short on character. But he had heard that Jesus was coming and wanted to see Him. We don’t know what Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus or what Zacchaeus thought of what he had heard; we just know that he wanted to see Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree to secure a better view of Jesus. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus among the tree branches and said that He wanted to go to Zacchaeus’s house. Of course this caused the crowd to grumble; they knew Zacchaeus and they wondered why Jesus would want to hang out with such a dishonored man.
Yet Jesus did want to hang out with this particular sinner. And, because Jesus chose to join Zacchaeus in his home, sometime during the course of that visit, Zacchaeus mended his ways and decided to make restitution to those he had cheated. All this occurred without Jesus having done anything more than being a house guest. Merely being in the presence of Jesus was enough to restore Zacchaeus to wholeness and “spur him on toward good deeds.”
I think the culminating episode is the account of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11). This pericope is not well attested in early Greek manuscripts. But something about it demands its continued inclusion in English Bible translations. The elements of the episode resonate with everything we know about Jesus and His compassion and His grace. Many questions surround this story: How did it come to be that she was caught? Was she set up as a test case for Jesus? Where’s the guy with whom she must have been caught? Was that guy in collusion with those who wanted to test Jesus? Was there no one in the crowd who felt any mercy toward her besides Jesus?
We don’t have the answers to those questions. What we do have is Jesus dealing with a horrific situation in a way that transcends the legalistic impulses of that day and time. Because, on one level, the legalists were right–this woman’s offense demanded the Mosaic death penalty. That is perhaps the most dangerous part of legalism: on one level, legalists are often right. But Jesus doesn’t operate on the level of “I’m right; you’re wrong” or self-righteousness. He operates at the level of genuine righteousness. And His genuine righteousness is always fully flavored by grace. After Jesus challenges those in the crowd to assess their capacity to throw the “first stone,” He looks at the woman and says she is not the object of His condemnation; she is the object of His forgiveness. He challenges her to live rightly and He restores her–right there; right then.
Those episodes from the Gospels are typical of Jesus and several things strike me about the way He dealt with those who stumbled. The most significant is that Jesus was never in the “Aw Sh**” business. No one failure, indeed no pattern of failure, was large enough to eliminate people from life with Him or even leadership in the Kingdom. Peter was not left in the throes of his betrayal, consigned to some structured rehabilitation period; he was fully, completely, and immediately restored to his leadership role. Zacchaeus had his eternal inclusion in the Abrahamic heritage emphasized for the doubters in the crowd. And the woman caught in adultery heard those most precious words from Jesus, “neither do I condemn you.”
The second thing that strikes me is that Jesus had total awareness of the nuances of each and every situation. Of course, He’s Jesus and, being fully human and fully divine, He had thoroughgoing information about the hearts and minds of people. When Jesus made judgments, and He made many, He made them in that fullness of understanding. Church leaders will never have that complete understanding of the behavioral particulars, emotional dynamics, and spiritual complexities of situations of sinful failure.
The third thing that strikes me about how Jesus dealt with the failures of those around Him is that He didn’t have to worry about Paul’s caution in Galatians 6:1. There, Paul reminds his readers, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit (NIV, “you who are spiritual”) should restore that person gently.”
Since those charged with church leadership are not Jesus, I have five suggestions for those of us who act in His name on behalf of His Church.
My first suggestion flows from James 1:19. Especially when dealing with life altering consequences and the potential for shattered lives, leaders must be “quick to listen; slow to speak; slow to become angry.” In the middle of what appears to be (and may likely be) gross failure, leaders must understand, as best we can, exactly what has transpired. That need for understanding demands extraordinary listening, careful investigation, and avoidance of rushes to conclusions or penalties. We are, I think (at least I know I often am), too quick to assess a situation and draw conclusions. I think that my ministry experience tends toward rapid diagnosis and response. I am usually wrong–or at least incomplete–with both. Each case is unique and demands meticulous attention. We need to listen; we must resist the temptation to speak too quickly. We need to not think of people as their “category of failure” and think of them as, well, people. This need to “cruise” in a lower gear is a factor in the next suggestion as well.
My second suggestion is simple, yet close to impossible: we need to ensure that we are “spiritual” in the Galatians 6 sense. Jesus didn’t have this problem, but contemporary church leaders surely do. Certainly the Bible is full of admonitions about sinful patterns of behavior, prescriptions for leadership responsibilities, and outlines of restoration processes. But what I want to know is: Where are “those who are spiritual?” Because they are the only ones commissioned as agents of graceful restoration.
Looking back over the course of my ministry, I’m convinced that I haven’t really met many “spiritual” people capable of this restorative task. Perhaps I have been hanging out with the wrong crowd. I have met many who thought they were “spiritual” and I have participated in leadership meetings where we all thought we were. But I am not sure many (maybe any) of us were. And–I would be so bold as to say that if we think we are spiritual, we are probably not. For myself, I am convinced that I was rarely among “those who are spiritual” when I was attempting restorative stewardship of the flocks assigned to my care.
I am not completely certain as to a conclusion about this business of spirituality. Fallen, sinful, stumbling church leaders do, indeed, have this task of reconciliation and restoration. I suppose I would simply flash a giant, yellow caution light in front of all who undertake this task. Slow is the way to go.
Third: We must realize that we can never have all the information we need to make the kinds of weighty judgments we will be making. Omniscience is a non-communicable attribute of deity. We cannot and we do not know all things. Therefore we must be more tentative, less dogmatic, and more graceful in the application of consequences based on our assessments. We must choose our words carefully, knowing that they have immense power to further wound the already wounded.
Fourth: We need to ask, “How does this fit with the rest of what I know about this person?” In order to avoid an “Aw Sh**” situation, we must carefully put anyone’s failure in the larger context of their whole person, refusing to simply see the last thing (particularly if it’s a failure) as the totality of truth about that person. It simply cannot be the case (most of the time) that an accumulated lifetime of service is so fragile as to be destroyed in a single instance of failure (*Please see Postscript below). And, as leaders, we need the maturity to see past immediate circumstances in order to bring to bear our wider understanding of the lives we hold in our hands and the issues with which we wrestle.
Finally, I think we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, involvement rather than disconnection. There are places in the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1-5) where a period of exclusion from fellowship is discussed as a means of restoration. Two things seem to be true about this practice. The first is that we mere humans inevitably get this wrong. If the subsequent reference in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 is to the same person discussed in 1 Corinthians 5, the Corinthian church had let the whole thing go on way too long.
The other issue connected to exclusion is that I believe we often seriously misinterpret Jesus’ own words about the restoration process. Jesus’ prescription for restoration does not, I believe, involve exclusion. Matthew 18:17 is not, I contend, about excommunication or shunning or other exclusionary tactics. It is exactly what it says: a call to treat those who persist in stumbling the way Jesus treated Peter, Zacchaeus, and the unnamed woman–with grace and mercy and an invitation to Christ’s own presence.
I spoke earlier of “sloppy grace.” What does sloppy grace look like? As in all things Christian, I think it simply looks like Jesus; no condemnation (except, perhaps, for the legalists), gentle restoration, the realization that Jesus’ mere presence would be enough to spur folks on toward good deeds (Zacchaeus). The cure for all things that ail stumbling believers is more time in His presence. Jesus will help us kill our “Aw Sh**” tendencies and He will help prevent our discard of precious Kingdom citizens, but only if we watch Him in action and take our cues from His approach to people who stumble.
[*Postscript–Caveat & Alert: There are particularly egregious failures (child sexual abuse as an example) that require: immediate removal of the person from any situation in which they can inflict further harm, a root level analysis of any person’s future leadership potential, extended periods of rehabilitation, and great caution so as to not create other opportunities for those who fail to wound additional innocents. But even those failures, I believe, require an intentionality and purposefulness about restoration to some expression of Christian fellowship (not necessarily leadership) modeled after Jesus’ dealing with the failures around Him.]