Ignoring Error

When I took a year of computer programming, we were always tasked with trying to figure out all the wrong ways to use a program. For example, let’s say our program was designed to add two whole number between 1 and 99. I might test my program by entering ‘-3’ and ‘.045’ or ‘q’ and ‘z’ or ‘eat’ and ‘bat’ to see what it does. A good programmer will have thought about such things and added a subroutine that tells users to choose another number, between 1 and 99 only before telling the program to actually add the variables. One should never underestimate the human capacity for error. My school used a program that was notoriously badly programmed. If one hit the ‘x’ button on the log-in screen, they could crash the entire server. This usually resulted in this message being aired on the intercom: “Please log out of the system for the server reset… The server has been reset. You may log into the system now.” Some teachers only made that mistake once, others made that mistake once a day.

When it comes to Christianity, I find that there’s an unwillingness to consider the human capacity for error. In a few churches, they’ve begun to switch to plurality of elders as their leadership, but they very rarely put any thought into how that can go wrong. After all, how could three grandpas steer a church wrong? Turns out it’s easier than you think; ask any scammer who specializes in the art. A little bit of misinformation goes a long way and does a lot of damage. One example of that is the danger of the consensus, when all of them agree then none of them have the ability to see if they’ve gone wrong or where they went wrong. Elders who are ‘yes men’ tend to let errant pastors get their way without opposition.

But we also have to think about the individual’s capacity for error, one person who might be especially susceptible to the temptation of power and authority should never make the short list of the best candidates. In one of my churches, the deacon’s pet doctrine was put on the top of the list of teachings to emphasize. Something had to be demoted or denied so that his dream could be realized. It felt less like the House of God and more like the Temple of the Deacon where we were molded into his image and theology.

Sometimes when churches ignore the capacity for human error, it’s because there’s a spectacular amount of human error in progress with the leadership that they would much rather hide than deal with. A video I saw the other day was the story of a deacon who was also abusive to his wife. His church knew about it and instead of recognizing that he was disqualified from the position, they begged him to stay on and let them deal with it. They Biblically counseled his wife to be more submissive, but that only made things worse. It wasn’t until the deacon and his wife began going to another church that they got some real counseling that helped them to restore their relationship. If a church’s leadership protects one of it’s leaders from the consequences of his actions, how might they treat problems that their congregations bring to them? Will they recognize who needs help and know the best way to help them? If the leadership ignores it’s own errors, then it does not bode well for the church – the people who go to them for help might not get any at all.

Recognizing the human capacity for error isn’t about making sure sinners don’t have a second chance, it’s understanding the best way to help them overcome sin in their life. There’s a saying about not taking an alcoholic to a bar, this ought to work the same way in theory. Not setting a pot-luck supper before a glutton. Not giving a power-hungry soul the keys to controlling people. Only when you’ve limited all the ways how things can go wrong, can you really make progress in all the ways that things can go right.

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Moral Failures

“You can’t play fast and loose with these New Testament commandments – remember what Paul warned the Corinthians? ‘For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.’ Those gluttons and drunkards paid for their disorderly worship with their health and their lives. Isn’t that much more of a warning to be certain that we obey every single commandment there is?” Someone warned me in a recent conversation. To drive the point home, he finished the thought: “If you continue to disregard these commandments, then God is well within his rights to make you weak or sick or let you fall asleep before your time.”

Thinking about that logic – that moral failure leads to physical maladies can also be viewed as physical maladies are caused by moral failures. That was the sort of thinking in the ancient world. If one is unhealthy, sin is to blame. Isn’t that more or less the theme of Job? (“What terrible sin did you do to bring this judgement upon you?” Job’s three friends asked him.) When Jesus met a blind man, the question “Who sinned that this man was born blind, his parents or him?” was raised. Think about that for a moment – it was a legitimate question for the day. If a child was born unable to see, hear, speak, walk normally, or act normally, then it was quite possible that before that child was even born he or she sinned or his or her parents might have sinned and their punishment resulted in the child’s condition. Jesus said that neither one sinned. Being born blind was not caused by sin.

My cousin was born with a hole in her heart. My other cousin’s son was born with a hole in his heart. We would recognize such things as birth defects. Such a concept didn’t exist back in Jesus’ day. And yet, there’s still a tendency for people to blame themselves when their baby is not born perfect. After all, we now know that Down’s Syndrome occurs when there is a full or partial copy of chromosome 21. No amount of sin can cause that and no amount of righteous behavior can fix it. It just happens. (And there are dozens, possibly hundreds of different birth defects that can happen and result in all sorts of unexpected outcomes.) You’ll notice that at most healing tent meetings that people come to be cured or diseases or healed of injuries – but there’s not many stories of conditions like Down’s Syndrome being reversed or left-handed people being converted into right-handed people through the power of prayer. I guess it just doesn’t work that way.

Which is why Storm’s words struck me as a powerful thought in X3, “There’s nothing to cure. Nothing’s wrong with you; or any of us, for that matter.” Turns out the actress, Halle Berry has a nephew with Down’s Syndrome. If my cousin’s heart hadn’t been repaired, she would have died as an infant. If Down’s Syndrome (or Autism) was cured, then thousands of people would lose that special outlook on life and live normally. Doctors have the tough task of choosing when to save lives and when to improve the quality of life. Who am I to tell a person that they’re born the wrong way? That they’re supposed to be one way and not the other? Who am I say that their sin or their parents sin caused whatever malady they are experiencing?

Weakness, sickness, and death is the natural end of life – being a morally perfect person does not mean that you will not know one or more these three things. So what is the point? I think we’re supposed to follow Jesus’ example, to comfort the mourning, to be there for the dying, to care for the ill, and to help those who are weak – to be compassionate people. Because one day will be our very last day and being preached at how if we had sinned a little less we might have lived a little longer is really unhelpful.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Loveless

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our Biblical morality …”

In the last several months, I’ve been told that it’s loving to warn people that their sin is sending them to hell. Not only that, Christians don’t want to be complicit in the sins of others, so much so they refuse goods and services to sinners in the name of conscience. I’ve already discussed though, that they don’t refuse all sinners the use of their goods or services, just ones that claim their sin to be their identity.

It’s long been said, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ But this presupposes that people have the ability to seperate the two. “Love the thief, hate their thievery.” But they are thieves, to hate thievery, you’d have to hate thieving thieves. So how does one hate the sin that sinning sinners sin, but love the sinning sinners that people are?

Perhaps the better question is: “Why can’t we love one another?” Let’s say that Christian X walks into church and realizes that a homosexual couple is sitting in the front row. If he or she does not want to complicit in their sins, then he or she really can’t love them. If Christian X loved them, that would be accepting something in them that is contrary to their beliefs. Not only that, but one of them might be attracted to him or her, and that’s causing them to sin even more by putting a stumbling block in their path and by being complicit in their sins. So the most loving thing Christian X can do is to not love them to keep them from sinning even more. In the process, Christian X fails to keep the second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Just what did Jesus die for? Did he wash away clean the stain of all sins, past, present, and future, only to fail here and now? Has all that power been spent on the generations before us? Jesus partied with the lowest of the low, he reached out to the untouchable, and were he around today he would love the unlovable.

In all of this sin, we forget grace. The way that some people teach it, the less the sin, the less grace we have use to up – so we can save it for when we really need it. We can count on ourselves to not murder, to not steal, to not commit adultery because we are just that good. We don’t need grace for that. But is our New Testament Law keepable? We have two commandments: Love God and Love everyone else.

“The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 5:20-21

Loving people is not the equivalent of being complicit in their sin. It’s not sinful to wish that a dying person had one more day, one more week, one more year, or one more decade to spend all that time sinning, rather, the time is to allow the grace of God to work and for them to come to faith. It’s not sinful to wish a couple to have a happy and smooth relationship together as they live in sin, rather, it is to make it easier to allow the grace of God to work in their lives and save both of them together. After all, God wants everyone to have the opportunity to believe in Jesus, Christians aren’t making that easy if they go around telling people how much God hates them.

If we truely love one another, then whoever walks into our church, whatever they claim to be, whichever denomination they belong to doesn’t determine how much or how little we love them, accept them, or how well we treat them. They are our brothers and our sisters. We don’t always have to agree on every detail of how to live the Christian life, but we are supposed to be loving.

Christians, we have it all wrong. We shouldn’t create a New Testament Legalism where we create and keep laws of righteousness. That would seem to say: “We have the ability to keep these laws on our own power, we don’t need Jesus’ grace to forgive us for failing to keep them.” When we do that, we fail to keep the debt of love that we owe everyone. And so we fail to do the very think we claim that we are doing.

Paul knows what the next logical question would be: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” His answer: “By the death and ressurection, we have been set free from sin … you are not under law, but under grace.” Let us learn to extend that grace to everyone we meet.

There’s only grace
There’s only love
There’s only mercy
And believe me it’s enough
Your sins are gone
Without a trace
There’s nothing left now
There’s only grace

Requesting Forgiveness

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

In my last post, I pointed out the hypocrisy in store for any business owner who applies this verse to everybody who commits a visible sin that enters their business doors. Biblically speaking, a believer is justified in not serving food to a glutton who is a believer, but a believer is not justified in not serving food to a glutton who is not a believer. Since no business turns away hungry customers or questions customers as to their religious stance, it’s quite normal for Christians to break these verses day in and day out.

It is, after all, such an inconvenient verse – one teacher advises: “I’m not talking about immoral people in the world, I’m talking about immoral people where? In the church. You’ve got to deal with those people. They’ll pollute the fellowship. They’re like leaven. You’ve got to put them out, you’ve got to turn them over to Satan, you’ve got to deal with them, don’t eat with them. If they’re heretics, admonish them a few times and then dismiss them.”

Can you imagine the heartbreak if churches took these verses literally? How do you decide who is right and who is wrong? Who administers the discipline if everybody seems to be immoral in some way, shape, or form? Note that Paul here is quoting from Deuteronomy. I find it intriguing that he calls for an Old Testament punishment. But is this the end of it? No!

By the time 2 Corinthians is written, Paul calls for forgiveness, comfort, and reaffirmation of love. He’s writing this mostly to the church, not to the expelled aforementioned brother asking him to do anything beyond what he has already endured – whatever the punishment inflicted by the majority was. This is where far too many modern churches fail; inflicting punishment is fun, going the distance to forgive – not so much.

I never understood how casting out a wayward brother or sister was meant to restore them to the faith when they were cut off from any source of truth, any source love, or any source of help from the church. It’s like kicking your worst player off of the team so that they can get better at the game so they can join you later on when they get better. Isn’t it a far better idea to keep them on the team and assign to them helpers during practice to correct their form and encourage them to continue? If your people are as good as you think they are, then it is quite unlikely the bad player’s bad form will be contagious.

But our modern church doesn’t like to do anything that’s inconvenient, like investing in others. It’s far easier to decide that: (1) I am always right about my theology. (2) Anybody that agrees with me is also right. (3) Anybody that disagrees with me is wrong, they must be heretics. (4) I’d better educate heretics so that they turn to my way of thinking and will be saved. (5) This heretic is stubbornly refusing to come around, therefore they ought to be encouraged to go to some other church.

The obvious problem is that If the person who is the judge of theology is incorrect, they’re punishing people who are more likely more right, or at least, less mistaken than they are. Churches tend to excel at discipline so far as it means kicking out people that don’t match up with the rest, but they fail miserably at the restoration and forgiveness part of the process. if you’ve stalled out on the restoration phase, might I suggest two simple phrases: “I’m sorry” and “I love you” to get you started again?

“Take your business elsewhere. I won’t serve you!”

Growing up, there was one small sign on the door of every business that  always read: “No shoes, No shirt, No service.” It seems that in recent  years, Christians have added: “and No sinners!” to that sign.

But they don’t mean ‘No sinners’ in the general context, or they would  have no one to do business with – they mean “no homosexuals.” Which discriminates against one particular kind of sinner and ignores all the rest.

This brings up the question whether or not all sins are equal – after all, if there are worse sins, then it would be wiser to specifically deny that sort of sinner service as well. And if all sins are indeed equal, then it seems wrong to provide services for all the other kinds of
sinners.

That’s when I stumbled across one well-known Christian personality who claimed that all sins were not equal because the Old Testament declared different punishments for different sins. Now we have to categorize these unequal sins by degree of severity – but the problem is that while we might not have a problem with a little white lie, a bold lie would be worse – yet they both fall under the category of lying and you have to choose if that’s worse than theft (in the face of hunger), theft (to support an addiction) or theft (boredom). There is always the danger that whatever system of categorization we use, what sounds reasonable to us might not be right according to God’s definition.

Since ‘sin is lawlessness’, we have to consider what is usually meant by ‘the law’; it’s the Old Testament commandments that were laid down at the time the Israelites wandered through the wilderness and re-established when King Solomon built the first temple. However, Christians are not required to be circumcised, eat kosher food, or wear clothing of only one kind of cloth. During the Council of Jerusalem, christians came together to decide the issues and decided that these laws were the only ones that gentiles should keep: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” – Acts 15:28-29

But the ‘wages of sin is death’, which seems to indicate that ultimately, they all have the same punishment. Sure, we can commit small sins and be punished on earth, but that does not mean that we will get out of the eternal punishment of sins. So perhaps the answer to the question of whether or not all sins are equal is yes and no; no they are not equal in life where it remains possible to be forgiven for them, but they are all equal in death where forgiveness cannot be secured. Even so, there’s no biblical rule that allows for Christians to deny services to people on the basis of one particular sin.

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

So long as you don’t know whether a person is or isn’t a Christian, you should never deny them the services of their business because there are two possible outcomes; either you refuse to associate with sexually immoral Christians as the Bible says you should, or you refuse to associate with sexually immoral non-Christians as the Bible says you should not judge them. But let’s remember that while ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is used in this passage, it means a believer you are close to. Trying to correct Christians you don’t know is more likely to cause offense than to restore their relationship with God.

It’s a fine line to walk – you can associate with all sorts of sinners as long as they aren’t believers, but once they do become a brother or sister in the faith, you have a problem. Either fold them in gently, over time helping them to overcome sin (which I’m not entirely conviced is something that believers can do for one another, some things are beyond us as humans) or outright refuse to associate with them as it’s clear that they’re still sinning Christians. Just be careful not to sin yourself, and not to sin against your newfound brother or sister in the faith. That’s why we were warned to watch out for legalism. But it’s one thing to talk about sin in general when you don’t know a person who sins in that way. Most people have this attitude of “It’s so easy for me, I don’t get why it’s hard for you.” which persists in church. It seems as if many Christians have forgotten how to extend grace because they try to exist in a way where they don’t need others to be graceful to them. If you walk in love and in grace, then the law becomes a bit of a grey zone.

Besides, sexually immoral is such a general term, it rules out not just one particular type of sinner, but a great many. The difference is that most people don’t have such a visible sort of sexual sin. It’s not as if all people on a list of offenders have to wear something that identifies them as such or all adulturers and divorced individuals have to wear As or Ds. So it just adds to the hypocrisy to single out one sort of sin and one sort of sexual immorality while serving all the rest. It seems to me that the simplest solution is to always serve all customers to the best of your ability without reguard to religious belief or percieved sins. To pick and choose might be making a stand, but it could very well be making the wrong stand and sending the wrong message.