Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Shun and Sham

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:15-20

Love your neighbor.


But what if your neighbor is a jerk?

And who gets to define what a jerk is?

Jesus was clear that a jerk is someone who sins against you. But if further clarification was needed, he told the sinned-against to have a heart-to-heart with the alleged sinner. If that didn’t resolve it, call in witnesses. If all else fails, Jesus said, take it to the congregation.


That seems like a nice churchy approach. But, Jesus, it never works. Not among us self-righteous, disapproving, narcissistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, or homophobic sinners. (I think that includes most of us.) It only makes a bigger mess.

Most of the churches I have attended were well-meaning simulations of the beloved community. Not perfect, but they tried. There were minor schisms over the blend of coffee or the selection of hymns or the pastor’s polysyllabic obscurities in sermons. But for the most part they got along like extended families. No better, but no worse.

Congregations can get along for years until some headstrong adelphos (Greek for “brother,” translated “member of the church” in Matthew 18) figures he has a serious bone to pick. Sometimes the trigger is a loud disagreement in adult class over the nature of substitutionary atonement. More likely it’s an overheard whisper that a baby in church is ugly, noisy, and smells like poop. 

These disputes are best handled in private. Things can get nasty if one offended sinner calls in witnesses to gang up on another. As is well known, most parents believe anyone who criticizes their screechy, ugly, stinking baby has either blasphemed against the Holy Spirit or joined a Wicca coven. 

If such accusations are allowed to escalate, rumors will circulate in the congregation that the offender is dangerously unchristian, apostate, mentally unbalanced, and unfit to take up pew space. In the final confrontation, the offender will be shown the door amid dubious assurances that “we love you and will be praying for you.” 

This is an extreme form of shunning, and fortunately not the most common. Many sinners avoid unpleasant confrontations by never joining the congregation in the first place. 

Many congregations would consider themselves sinned against by crying babies, same-sex couples, transsexuals, homeless persons, or persons in the wrong racial, language, or economic demographic. These membership limits are unwritten for the most part, but it doesn’t require divine discernment to know who is welcome and who isn’t.

It may be that Jesus’ guidelines for confronting persons who sin against us need to be reinterpreted in the light of his uncompromising commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love your enemy.

There are no loopholes in these commandments that would permit us to ban anyone from our congregations.

Most churches have figured this out even if they have been unable to carry it out. And of course many churches throw open their doors to everyone.

The United Church of Christ – a historic amalgamation of Reformed, evangelical, and Congregational roots– is especially clever in extending their unconditional invitation. The church has created television ads to make the point that their congregations shun no one. 

One of my favorites shows a congregation in which various undesirables are unceremoniously snatched from their pews: a mother with a crying baby, a same-sex couple, a Middle Eastern looking man. A voiceover declares, “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we. The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on God’s journey, you’re welcome here.” 

Granted, there may be some on God’s journey with whom you would not wish to sit shoulder to shoulder in church. Perhaps not the Joker. Perhaps not Jeffrey Dahmer. Perhaps not Osama bin Laden.

But Jesus has not suggested that we are free to shun and reject even the most contemptible of sinners. Judging them is up to God. The role God has assigned to us, as appalling as it seems, is to love them. 

That’s why Christianity is no Sunday school picnic.

Jesus’ guidelines for dealing with church members who sin against us may well be applied to homicidal maniacs, murderous deviants, and megalomaniacal terrorists. We should love them, perhaps, but we are also permitted to keep them at a safe distance.

For other members of the congregation – the mothers with crying babies, the redolent homeless, the visibly other – Jesus’ guidelines should be followed with the utmost caution and compassion.

And always in the context of God’s unconditional love.

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