Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cheap Repentance Isn't Repentance

by: Katie

There's a lot of talk these past few years of repentance and forgiveness, particularly as it concerns high profile Christian leaders such as Josh Duggar and Tulian Tchividian, but also relating back as far as Bill Gothard, the Bob Jones GRACE Report, Jim Berg, R. C. Sproul, Sovereign Grace, and many other delicate situations of the past few years.  It's become nearly formulaic in the pattern that these situations follow.  Pretty much anyone who has followed enough of them could predict how the next one will turn out. Deny. Exposed. "Repent" in public. Damage control. Lie low. Move onto new ministry/job. Wait two years. Deny.

Sadly, while many of these situations vary in their specifics, the general response to each remains pretty much the same.  No matter what is revealed a large majority of people consider any apology sufficient (even when it blames the victim or is full of conditional statements).  They don't take into account the fact that the apology only came once the crimes/sins were exposed by someone else.  They don't take into account the fact that they are focusing all their energies and compassion on the perpetrator rather than the victim(s).  They want to move on as quickly as possible and simultaneously pretend it's not happening.  But there's a lot we could say about how people respond to public apologies.  What I find most troubling in this trend is throwing around Christianese buzzwords like "repentance" and "forgiveness" without actually seeing any reality behind it.

For example, I see a lot of people claim they've repented and demand everyone else's forgiveness.  However, their claims are not backed up by any action, and they just use those words to marginalize the true victims of their actions.  A half-hearted "I'm sorry if you felt that I might have hurt you..." is a sign of someone refusing to take responsibility, not a sign of true repentance.  It's sad to see so many people today who demand we grant "forgiveness" (i.e. stop holding these people and institutions accountable for their actions) because of what they view as repentance, but is this really repentance?  Here are a few tips for spotting cheap repentance after a scandal breaks:

1. Perpetrator's "apology" references his pain and how the situation affects him more than anyone else.

2. The perpetrator categorically denies any wrongdoing until it is revealed by someone else and there is no choice.

3. Public apology is full of conditional modifiers (such as: I'm sorry if you felt I did something wrong) rather than actually apologizing for real wrongdoing.

4. Apology blames the victims and makes the perpetrator a victim of circumstances.

5. Perpetrator and supporters try to quiet victims and dissenters from being honest about past issues by playing the "bitterness" card.

Genuine Repentance

I could list more, but I think it's more productive in the long run to try to describe what genuine repentance should look like rather than give examples of all the people featuring cheap repentance right now.

Genuine repentance grieves for the victims more than the loss of reputation or position.  This looks like a pastor who is more heartbroken over the pain and hurt he has caused his victims, his God, and his family and church than he is about holding on to his pulpit or reputation.  It should not require someone else to break the news to the church.  Someone who is truly repentant will confess instead of trying to cover it up and get away with it

True repentance acknowledges personal responsibility without making the entire situation about himself.  It is important to take responsibility for your actions, but it does not mean that every statement and every sentence needs to center on you, your actions, and your feelings.  Not every situation is about you.  This makes me continue to wonder about ministries where the first response is always self-preservation rather than concern for the victims.

Real repentance works toward restoration.  This can be tricky, because it looks so different to different people. This does not always mean a restored relationship, especially in cases of abuse.  Sometimes transparency is the best you can achieve in those cases.  However, on a very general level, you could say that for an institution that has hurt entire generations of students, it will take a lot more effort and public transparency than for one person who has injured one other person in private.  This is more than just words.  Saying you want reconciliation is not enough, you need to actually put action to that desire.  If they are wounded from your actions, you should be the first to support their process of healing.  Sadly, we are seeing the opposite for many Christians who have been devastated by leaders or institutions or churches.  Once they are wounded they are outcasts, troublemakers, lepers.  Whatever it takes to preserve the group mentality.  That group or leader is the last one to support their recovery, but true repentance demands that we support the recovery of victims.

This might seem basic, but from the way things are going I will say it anyway.  True repentance stops hurting people.  This should be self-evident, but apparently it's not to everyone.  When you realize you're hurting people, you should stop.  How do you know if you're hurting people? One simple way is when multiple people come to you with no apparent ulterior motive and tell you that you are or that you have in the past.  If you don't stop, we are not going to believe you have legitimately repented.  We will quite simply not take anything you say seriously again.

There's a lot more to say about this.  It seems like there always is.  But perhaps you can pause for a moment and see why sometimes just issuing a public "apology" isn't actual proof of repentance, it's just proof that you got caught.  It is not fair to demand blanket forgiveness from victims and at the same time shield their perpetrators from accountability.

Cheap repentance is not repentance, and too often cheap repentance is all we're being offered.  Let's stop bartering in cheap repentance.  Let's stop accepting that as proof of a changed life and start holding leaders, institutions, churches, and ourselves accountable for actions.  It's time someone did.  

Friday, September 11, 2015

The dangers of legalism: my story of shame in the IFBC

by: Nicole

My church didn’t intentionally try to hurt me. I look back now and know that, although I questioned it many times growing up. It was a legit gospel preaching, revival hosting, evangelistic church with a full list of what gospel-living looked like for its members. Modest dress, conservative music, and prohibition were prominently on that list. Along with strong condemnation against extra-marital affairs, remarriage, and God-forbid divorce. Those were the three unmentionable sins. Homosexuality hadn’t been invented yet.

I remember clearly a time where my family was at the pinnacle of church approval. My dad led the teen group, was a deacon, and every Sunday led the worship service and directed the choir. My mom was the perfect stay-at-home mother of three, then four sparkling children and managed to teach Sunday School and sing in the choir. I remember feeling so proud of our family every Sunday. We were highlighted by my parents’ obvious presence doing for the good of our church. I was bathed in love and acceptance. It was the happiest time of our lives.

But after my parents’ marriage fell apart and we were living in a different state, but going to a similar church all shame broke loose on my family. Not the embarrassed-because-I-didn’t-sing-the-right-words-to-the-song kind of shame, but the shame that still follows me with anxiety and nausea around churches. The shame I can’t seem to let go of. What if they find out who I really am? Who my family is? That kind of shame.

The gist of our family’s story is that my dad slowly abandoned my family over a period of years and left the faith. But in doing so, he left behind a wife and four children devastated by his choices. I wish I could say that our church family sheltered us during that time. That they loved on us and poured their hearts into us. That they affirmed that what my dad did was wrong, but that his decisions didn’t make us a less valuable part of the church. But they didn’t. At least not from my perspective.

The message from the pulpit, but even more importantly from the people was that my family didn’t belong unless we could play the part. Sin was denounced and no one in the congregation spoke up about the sin in their families; fear of disclosure silenced everyone. The only stories of similar sin I heard about were the whispered conversations of gossip. Godly people didn’t come from messed up families. If they did, they learned to hide it. I certainly learned to hide.

Shaming came in two categories: Direct and Indirect.

Direct shame was obvious. My mom was no longer the woman that other women wanted to get advice from or build a relationship with. She was that woman. We weren’t invited into social spheres any more. We could come to church, but no one wanted to actually associate themselves with us.

Indirectly we were shamed by well-intentioned caring people. I remember many people coming up to me as a little girl and asking me if I missed my daddy. A fair question, but not an empathetic one. Of course I missed him. But their concern was still wrapped around a carefully constructed list of “Do” that my family by its very nature could not uphold. They didn’t offer me grace. They gawked at me like I was an exotic exhibit. Their family didn’t go through that kind of pain. Their family was sin-free. No one told their stories. I know now that they had them buried in closets, but in our legalistic church there was no room for honest transparency and admitting brokenness.

So we grieved. Alone. In silence. With great shame and no help.

In sharing my story I do not want to bring vengeance against the system I grew up under. Rather I want to share to warn against the deceitful trappings of legalism.

 And I want to note that over the years that particular church morphed and changed with different pastors and different perspectives. The problem wasn’t with our church necessarily, or with any group of people within our church. The problem was and still is the legalism that has plagued believers since the beginning of the church.

Legalism places a list of man-made rules on top of Scripture. At its best it calls them “standards” and doesn’t require others to live by that same list. But even then, legalistic churches applaud those with the highest standards: “We waited until marriage to kiss!” “We only listen to Christian music where both the words and the music are not secular.” “We are always in church every week for every service.” Standards are a matter of the heart, that’s for sure, and I have some myself, we all do. But a church that applauds the highest standards is in essence saying: “The highest standards are the most godly standards” and “God loves those who live by the most rigid rules the most.”

Legalism then uses shame as its key tool in controlling its adherents. Legalism says that it will withhold respect, compassion, and understanding from those that disagree with its list whether in philosophy or practice. 

For my family this is where it got particularly difficult. We kept all the rules, except the significant ones my dad broke. I mean we were all there (except my dad) at EVERY service, we wore the correct dress code at all times, my mom was involved in multiple church ministries, we only listened to approved music, and I memorized all my AWANA verses. But we didn’t make the cut because there was obviously a problem in our home when my dad never showed up at church. And I felt that if the church knew all that went on behind our closed doors—oh goodness—no one would have talked to us again. My dad wasn’t breaking some odd church rules; he was clearly breaking God’s law, and there was no way to redeem that, not even by keeping all the rules of the church.

Fundamentally, legalism says that God’s grace isn’t enough. Once saved you must do something to earn God’s favor. Paul spoke out so adamantly about legalism throughout the New Testament because it makes less of Jesus. His death is insufficient—for the approval of the church and God—rules must be followed.

What happened to being justified (declared righteous) before God because of Jesus dying in our place, not because of any work that we have done or will ever do?! All a believer has to stand on is Jesus’ death and resurrection. My works—no matter how good, even in keeping the law of God, cannot save, nor do they earn me “brownie points.” Paul says it best: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2/ Rom 3)

What does grace practically change? When I am around believers who understand that it’s not their works that save them, nor is it their effort that perfects them, I have the freedom to be a sinner saved by grace. I have the freedom to express the deep pain I went through as a little girl. I have the freedom to rejoice in God’s saving work. And I have the freedom to reach out towards whoever enters my life: the LGBT community, the divorced/remarried family, the liar, the orphan, the sexual abuser, the drunk because I can say as Paul did: And such was I, but I have been washed, I have been sanctified, I have been justified. 

Within the bounds of grace I am and forever will be on equal footing with them. I am a sinner saved by grace! I am a sinner. And by none of my own working, I am a redeemed child of God.