Church, Sin, Southern Baptist/SBC

“Wayback Wednesday” ~ Preventative Measures: 6 Steps SBC Churches Can Take to Prevent Sexual Abuse

(I had to flip flop Bible study with Throwback Thursday due to some scheduling issues. Our next lesson in The Sermon on the Mount study is coming tomorrow.)

Originally published February 22, 2019

The state I live in is heavily Catholic and Southern Baptist. For many years, journalists and others have been delving into the gobsmacking number – thousands – of pedophile and sexually abusive Catholic clergy across the globe, and, in recent months, my own local paper has been tackling the issue as it pertains to priests and other Catholic leaders in our area who have been revealed as abusers. So I was kind of prepared for the Southern Baptist Convention to be the next entity to be investigated. My guess is that either Presbyterians or Mormons will be next.

It’s absolutely appropriate that the news media conducted this kind of investigation into the SBC. What’s not appropriate is that SBC leadership appeared not to be ready for it because – at least from my perspective as the average person in the pew – it’s not something the Convention has a history of policing itself on in any appreciable way. SBC leadership should have been ready and eager to fling the doors wide open and transparently welcome any sort of investigation by the media, demonstrating whatever progress has been made in dealing with perverts in our pulpits. Instead, they seemed to be caught virtually unprepared despite the fact that the signs of the times should have indicated to them that this was coming.

In my opinion, the Houston Chronicle did an excellent job of exposing the problems with abuse in the SBC in its three-part series of articles, even taking the time to explain the crucial point of church autonomy, which sets SBC churches apart from the governing structure of Catholicism and other organizations, and which has, in many cases enabled abusers to move from church to church undetected. SBC leaders who have explained that they have no authority to force churches to participate in any sort of registry of abusers and the credibly accused are correct (but couldn’t it be voluntary?). SBC leadership, unfortunately, has no such authority over individual churches. Each church has to set its own standards and methods for preventing abuse. So what can individual, autonomous churches do to prevent abuse?

1.
Preach the Gospel

That might sound pretty basic, but it’s one of the basics we desperately need to get back to. We need to be churches who hammer on the gospel – the wretchedness of sin, the supreme holiness of God, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness – week in and week out. Not only is that…well…it’s just what any biblical church is supposed to do, but my guess is that the vast majority of the perpetrators in these abuse cases are not actually Christians – despite what they may claim or what office they might hold – they are false converts because a lot of churches they’ve been part of have neglected their duty to preach the gospel.

Too many SBC churches teach an easy – “Just repeat this quick little prayer, and boom, you’re in!” – believism that unrepentant sinners hang their eternal hats on as a “Get out of Hell, Free!” card. They’ve never found themselves filthy and undone before an unfathomably holy God because they’ve never been confronted by that God or that characterization of their sin in the preaching and teaching of their churches. Could some of these perpetrators be genuinely regenerated Christians? It’s possible, but not likely. By and large, true Christians are not out there abusing others – it’s the false converts.

2.
Meaningful Membership

Some churches have done away with formal membership altogether. Everybody’s welcome, come and go whenever you want, if you want, no requirements, no accountability. That’s not biblical, nor is it how the church has handled membership over the course of church history.

Traditionally there have been three main ways to join a SBC church: a newly saved person makes a public profession of his faith to the church body and is baptized into membership, or membership can be transferred from one church to another. You can transfer your membership by promise of letter (your previous church sends a letter to your current church recommending or not recommending that you be accepted for membership) or by statement (when obtaining a letter from a previous church isn’t possible, this is an “honor system” personal testimony that you are a baptized Believer).

Promise of letter in particular is a decent and biblical system that needs to be upheld, adhered to, and taken gravely seriously rather than just waving every Tom, Dick, and Harry through the wide open doors of the church. And in the case of new church members and new staff members (new staff members have to transfer their membership, too), it could help curb abuse if both the sending and receiving churches would look upon it as far more than a mere formality.

One of the very valid problems the Chronicle articles cite is that sending churches (the churches the abusers came from) did not inform subsequent churches of the problems with the abuser. They silently foisted people they knew were dangerous onto unsuspecting congregations. If sending churches would respond honestly to inquiries from receiving churches (the churches the abusers are going to) about their former staff and members, and if receiving churches would ask probing, personal questions rather than sending out perfunctory form letters, that would be a good start to making more headway on preventing abuse.

Furthermore, meaningful membership makes it harder for people to anonymously breeze in to the church, abuse, and slip out before anybody realizes what’s going on. There are sexual abusers out there who find and attend churches with loosey-goosey membership policies for the express purpose of cultivating a pool of victims. They know these churches are blindly and ignorantly trusting, so they show up for a couple of weeks, talk a good game, and promptly volunteer to work in the nursery or with the youth. If your church has a firm membership policy, required membership class, requires members to sign a church covenant, only allows church members (not just anybody who wants to or seems talented) to serve in any office, task, role, or capacity – and only after they have been members for a specified amount of time (ex: must have been a faithful member for at least six months to teach, serve on a committee, etc.), that sort of abuser isn’t going to waste his time or chance being caught by attending your church.

3.
Church Discipline

One of the failings of far too many SBC (and other) churches is sweeping sin under the rug and refusing to biblically exercise church discipline before it’s too late and calamity strikes. Church discipline isn’t just for the “big” sins like a pastor who commits adultery. Church discipline is for all observable, unrepentant, biblically defined sin. If we have verifiable knowledge that a brother or sister in our church is sinning, we have the obligation not to please ourselves by turning a blind eye and avoiding a confrontation, but to lovingly go to that person and plead with her, for her own restoration and reconciliation to Christ, to repent and walk blamelessly. Often (hopefully), that first step in the church discipline process precludes the need for the remaining two.

Churches that consistently, lovingly, and biblically practice church discipline help prevent abuse in four ways:

First of all, nobody wakes up one morning and decides to start sexually abusing others. There are always “smaller” sins leading up to abuse – obscene comments, dirty jokes, leering, pornography, inappropriate touching in public. If we would address those “smaller” sins when we see them happening, we might just prevent the potential abuser from continually hardening his heart by getting away with sin, bring the gospel to bear on his life, and keep him from becoming an abuser in the first place. He might actually get saved, which is one of the goals of church discipline.

Second, if a church cultivates an atmosphere of practicing church discipline, unrepentant abusers aren’t going to hang around long. They don’t want to be caught.

Third, if a church ends up having to go through all the steps of church discipline with an unrepentant potential abuser, the last step – bringing this person before the church to remove him from membership – is public. Church members are made aware of the problems with this person so they can avoid being victimized by him and the procedure of removing the potential abuser from church membership goes into the church records. When he then goes to a new church, that receiving church should inquire of the sending church about him (see “Meaningful Membership” above). The sending church can then provide the record of his removal so the receiving church will be aware of the problems with this person.

Fourth, if we practice church discipline on the “smaller” sins with an unrepentant abuser, he is likely to be removed from membership in the church before he gets to the point of abusing someone.

Another aspect of church discipline is tightening up the rolls and removing members who are dead (no, I’m not kidding), have moved away, have stopped attending, or are no longer members in good standing for other reasons. This may not prevent someone from abusing, but at least if he does abuse, the media won’t be able to report that he’s (still) a member of your church, thus tarnishing your church’s, and possibly God’s, good name.

4.
Take Biblical Requirements for Leadership Seriously

It’s not like the Bible doesn’t tell us what kind of man should be a pastor, elder, or deacon. It’s right there, in black and white, twice, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And yet there are churches who barely give those requirements a glance in favor of “more important” qualities they want in a pastor: Does he have at least a master’s degree from seminary? Is he a certain age? Does he rub elbows with Christian celebrities? Does he have a track record of successful building programs, fundraising, and attracting lots of new members? Is he charismatic and a dynamic speaker? None of those things are inherently bad unless they take precedence over the biblical qualifications.

But when churches are hiring men as pastors, youth directors, etc., whom they know have been in prison for abuse, as the Chronicle articles cited, we have to think some other factor is more important to those churches than the biblical requirements. Because someone who has been accused, tried, convicted, and imprisoned by worldly courts for sexual abuse is no longer “above reproach” – the very first requirement in both passages (and Titus mentions it twice for emphasis) – he is not “respectable”, and he is not “well thought of by outsiders”. The very existence of the Chronicle’s articles proves that. It boggles the mind that something like this has to be said to professing Christians who are supposedly spiritually mature and biblically knowledgeable enough to be on the pastor search committees for their churches, but people who have criminal records as sex abusers are permanently disqualified from professional ministry because they no longer meet these biblical requirements. (And just as an aside, if your church has a “no hire” policy for men who have ever been divorced for any reason but yet you’ll hire a convicted sexual abuser…well…I’m just at a loss for words at that level of hypocrisy. OK, maybe one word: repent.)

But, “forgiveness for repentant sinners!” I can hear compassionate Christians cry out. Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a loved one who was radically and genuinely saved while he was in prison for child molestation. God can and does save sexual abusers, and those forgiven Christians need a church home just like everybody else does. We lovingly welcome into membership repentant sinners who are transparent with the church about their previous sin and who volunteer to be kept accountable. But we do not put them back into the position of pastor, elder, deacon, etc., first because they are biblically disqualified, and second, because it is not loving to that person nor to the rest of the church to allow him access to facets of church life that would tempt him back into sin. And it is putting God to the test to intentionally put such a person into a tempting situation as some sort of way of “proving” that God has really saved this person. We would not make a convicted embezzler the church treasurer and we should not be putting sexual abusers in positions that would tempt or allow them to abuse again – even volunteer positions. That doesn’t mean we doubt their salvation or the work God has done in their hearts, that means we recognize that Satan is cruel and crafty and we humbly admit that we still succumb to temptations to sin. It’s not holding a grudge or unforgiveness, it’s exercising biblical wisdom.

5.
Stop Being Afraid

When we allow the fear of man to determine our actions instead of the fear of God, we are in grave spiritual error. Peter and the apostles stood up to the authorities who threatened and imprisoned them, insisted on obeying God’s Word, boldly declared, “We must obey God rather than men,” took their licks like men, went away rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name, and kept right on trucking in obedience to God. How far have we fallen when we won’t even address a brother’s sin with him because we’re afraid of confrontation? When we cover up a predator’s behavior and unleash him on others because we’re afraid of a defamation lawsuit? When we must obey men rather than God because we’re more afraid of the earthly consequences than spiritual consequences – because we don’t trust God to take care of us or His church?

Brothers and sisters, this must not be.

Should we act wisely? Of course. Make sure we’re obeying the law and not hurting anyone as far as we’re able? Certainly. Get some legal advice? Absolutely. But when the rubber meets the road of choosing what’s right in God’s eyes versus what’s safe or comfortable in our own eyes, we choose what’s right in God’s eyes every time and we trust Him with the outcome. The God who parts seas, cools furnaces, and raises the dead is powerful enough to handle court cases and the ire of sinful men. Let us say with the Psalms and the Proverbs:

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
Proverbs 29:25

…in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?
Psalm 56:11

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
Psalm 118:6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
Proverbs 3:5-7

6.
Practical Wisdom

Do the practical stuff. God has given us brains, experience, resources, and promises us wisdom. We would be failing to honor Him if we did not make use of all of those blessings in order to protect our churches from predators.

Perform criminal background checks on all staff members and on anyone who works with children, the disabled, or vulnerable adults regardless of how well you know them or how trustworthy you think they are.

Check references on every employee from the pastor to the janitor. Do it thoroughly and diligently, not flippantly.

Put accountability measures in place such as requiring at least two adults to be present in children’s and youth activities and classes at all times. No teen or adult – including the pastor, youth pastor or any other staff member – should ever be alone with a child on church property or at church functions.

Hold training sessions for the whole church on your church’s security measures, and how to report suspicious behavior and suspected abuse. Specifically address parents on the issue of trusting other adults in the church. Time after time, we hear that children are victimized because parents have left their child alone with a pastor or other Christian adult assuming that person was trustworthy. Teach them instead to assume that any adult – regardless of his title or position – who seeks to be alone with a child is untrustworthy.

Explore the services of organizations like Ministry Safe and others who can help you make your church a safer place. Pick the brains of sister churches who have put precautions in place for helpful suggestions and resources.

In the aftermath of bombshell news of abuse, the most common line of reasoning is, “How can we fix this? What can we do?”. Thoughts turn to practical solutions. That’s not wrong. In fact, it’s very, very right. We should make every effort to put pragmatic safeguards in place. But we can’t focus on the practical and tangible and leave out the spiritual. Because abuse is a spiritual issue way before it’s a safety issue. And if we get the spiritual part of it right from the get go, we drastically reduce the chances that we’ll have to fall back on practical safety measures. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a church striving to uphold the highest Scriptural standards of holiness will find itself fortified with tons of both.

Sanctification, Sin

Guilt and Shame- Burden or Blessing?

 

I agree with what you’re saying, I’m just afraid it might arouse guilt and shame in newer believers, as well as those with sensitive consciences,” a follower recently said in response to a statement of biblical truth I posted on social media. I’ve been pondering that ever since she said it. It was good food for thought.

Guilt and shame are not subjects we often talk about outright. Rather, they seem to be a taboo silently woven into the fabric of our collective consciousness in 21st century Western culture – even in evangelicalism. It’s an unspoken law with the direst of consequences: “Thou shalt never say or do anything that causes anyone to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices she has made or the way she lives her life.” If you do, cancel culture will hunt you down and publicly eviscerate you. You’ll be shunned, and you can kiss your reputation goodbye. Why? Because our society tells us that guilt and shame are the absolute worst things someone can feel.

But is that really true? Or could it be that the prince of the power of the air is lying to us yet again?

While the church has historically done a stellar job of sharing the good news that Christ took away our guilt and shame on the cross, it has not always done a good job of explaining what the emotions¹ of guilt and shame are or the proper function they are to serve in the lives of both Believers and unbelievers.

There are two kinds of emotional guilt and shame: biblically appropriate and biblically inappropriate. Biblically appropriate guilt and shame is when you feel guilty and ashamed as a result of doing something wrong. Biblically inappropriate guilt and shame is when you feel guilty and ashamed when you haven’t done anything wrong.

Biblically appropriate guilt and shame are good gifts from God. They are like a fever that tells you you’re sick and need to take some medicine. Lost or saved, new Believer or seasoned Saint, sensitive conscience or not, if someone is sinning, she should feel guilt and shame, because she has transgressed a holy God. For the lost person, that guilt and shame is an internal reminder that she stands forensically (legally) guilty before God and needs a Savior. For the Believer, that guilt and shame is the conviction of the Holy Spirit leading her to repent and obey Christ instead of sinning. Biblically appropriate guilt and shame are biblically appropriate because your feelings about what you’ve done match the facts of what you’ve done. You feel guilty and ashamed because you are guilty of doing something shameful: sin.

The warning sign of guilt and shame is a blessing from a good, kind, and merciful God calling us to repent immediately and return to Him before we dig ourselves into a deeper pit of sin. Like a loving father who starts with a stern look when his child first misbehaves and then progressively moves on to increasing levels of discipline, God does not pour out the full fury of His wrath at our first bobble toward sin. He starts with the “stern look” of guilt and shame.

Have you ever read the Old Testament and explored some of the more drastic warning signs God had to send His people, and the pagans they lived among, when they sinned and hardened their hearts against the guilt and shame He blessed them with? Have you contemplated the horrors of eternal conscious torment in Hell, lately? When we consider…

  • how dangerous sin is for us in this life,
  • how petrifying the prospect of what God could do to us, has every right to do to us in His anger over our sin if He were so inclined,
  • how the heart of God is not to punish and destroy, but to redeem and reconcile

…it is much easier to recognize biblically appropriate guilt and shame as an act of unfathomable love from God.

If a professing Christian doesn’t normally feel guilt and shame when she has clearly sinned, she should be extremely concerned. That is usually the fruit of someone who is unregenerate, not someone who is saved, and she would do well to follow Scripture’s mandate to examine herself against rightly handled Scripture to see if she is indeed in the faith.

But what about experiencing biblically inappropriate shame and guilt? In the life of a genuinely regenerated Christian, biblically inappropriate shame and guilt mainly takes one of two forms:

  • feeling shame and guilt for your own pre-salvation sins, or post-salvation sins you’ve already repented of
  • feeling shame and guilt for someone else’s sin or for something else outside your control

This kind of shame and guilt is inappropriate because it is misapplied. God intended shame and guilt to bring you to repentance for your sin, not to haunt you for sin you’ve already repented of or for someone else’s sin or something outside your control.

If you have bowed the knee to Christ in repentance and faith that His death on the cross, burial, and resurrection paid the penalty for your sin, then God’s good gift of guilt and shame has done its job. It’s over. Christ took your guilt and shame and sin, nailed it all to the cross – and it died there. It did not come down off the cross with Jesus, and it was not resurrected with Him. You have the glorious privilege as one robed in the righteousness of Christ, to rebuke those feelings of guilt and shame over past sins any time they rear their ugly heads, armed with the knowledge that you are forgiven and free. Christ paid with His blood to give you the right not to have to feel those feelings. Send them packing by praising God for His wonderful gift of grace and mercy to you in Christ.

And what about feeling guilt and shame for someone else’s sin? Perhaps you did your best to raise your child in a godly way, but he grew up to become a rapist or murderer, and you feel guilty. Maybe someone committed the sin of abuse against you and you’re dying of shame inside. If I just hadn’t done this, or if I had only done that, he wouldn’t have done what he did. It’s my fault.

May I make a suggestion? Do a good, long, hard study of Ezekiel 18. God is crystal clear – in such a loving and comforting way – that He does not hold you responsible for anyone’s sin but your own. You are – not as a matter of subjective opinion or feelings, but as a matter of forensic, objective fact – not guilty of that person’s sin. So if you’re feeling guilt and shame, your feelings don’t match the facts. Your feelings are boldly and brashly lying to you in the face of what God says is true about you. He says you’re not guilty. Your feelings say you are. Who are you going to believe?

That’s why it’s incredibly important that we believe God’s objectively true written Word over and above our feelings. It’s also why it makes me so angry when seeker driven churches and women’s “Bible” study materials focus on your personal feelings, opinions, preferences, and life experiences instead of properly teaching you the Bible. How can you believe God’s Word over your feelings if you don’t even know God’s Word? When all you know is your raw emotions and not what God says, that leaves you trapped, a slave to your con artist feelings, when you could be completely set free from the shame and guilt God never intended for you to feel for someone else’s sin.

And, finally, you could be feeling biblically inappropriate guilt for an accident or something else outside your control. If we had just bought a different house, we wouldn’t have been living in this one when the tornado hit, and my husband would still be alive. If I had just taken a different route, I wouldn’t have encountered that unexpected traffic accident and missed my daughter’s senior recital.

There’s a key truth all Christians need to come to grips with here: God is sovereign over every atom and event in the universe. You are not. God knows the future. You do not. God is God. You are not. When you feel guilty for things you had no way of knowing, preventing, or avoiding, you are essentially saying you should have God’s omnipotence and omniscience. You’re feeling guilty for not being God.

And your feelings of guilt over something like this are also saying that God was wrong for allowing what happened to happen, because if you were God, you wouldn’t have let it happen. Take a moment and let that sink in. Your feelings of guilt over something unforeseen and unavoidable say that you think you could do a better job of being God than He can. Well, let me tell you what we both already know. You can’t.

God determined from the foundations of the earth exactly which day, and how, and where, your husband was going to die. If it wasn’t God’s will that he die in a tornado on that day, in that house, he wouldn’t have. If God wanted you at your daughter’s recital, you would have been there.

You don’t have control. Control is an illusion. God has control. (And that’s good. Because God knows faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar better than we do the right thing to do in every situation.) And if you don’t have control, then you didn’t do anything wrong. And if you didn’t do anything wrong, feeling guilty is biblically inappropriate, a) because God’s purpose for guilt is to draw you to repentance over your sin, not for failing to achieve Godhood, and b) because your feelings (“I’m guilty!”) don’t match the facts (you’re not).

God is sovereign. He always does what is right and best in every situation, even if you can’t see it and don’t understand. And because He always does what is right and best, you can trust Him in those terrible incomprehensible situations. Take some time to study what God’s Word says about trusting Him.

 

A major problem in evangelicalism today is that we have followed the world’s lead and made people’s feelings into a god. We are more worried about hurting people’s feelings than providing them actual biblical help. And we all, including me, need to repent of that and stop it. It is infinitely better to fleetingly hurt someone’s feelings with biblical truth that leads her to Christ, than to allow her feelings to be an untouchable idol that keeps her in sin.

There has to be something higher, more important, than protecting someone from feeling biblically appropriate guilt and shame. There has to be something lofty enough to rescue people out of biblically inappropriate guilt and shame.

There is: God and His Word.

Exalting God and His Word to their proper and deserved place of preeminence and authority, and submitting to them in our hearts, minds, churches, and relationships is not simplistic, it’s foundational. And when it comes to the veneration of people’s feelings (and far too many other issues) we have become the foolish man who has traded a foundation on the rock of God’s truth and His ways for one on the enticingly sandy beach of worldly “wisdom”.

And, y’all…

…it’s starting to rain.

 


¹There is also a forensic definition of guilt. For example, if you rob a bank, you are forensically (legally), objectively guilty of the crime of robbery regardless of how you feel about it. This article deals mainly with the emotion of guilt– feeling guilty, or having a guilty conscience.
Sin

Throwback Thursday ~ Repeating Wrongs Renders Right?

Originally published September 17, 2013.repeating wrongs

“Four hundred thirty seven”

“Sorry, that’s not right. Try again, Buddy.”

scribble scribble scribble

“Oh, ok. Four hundred thirty seven.

“No, Honey. You just said that, and I just told you it was wrong. Give it another try.”

“But it’s 437!”

“Son, I have the answer book right here in front of me. The answer is not 437. Repeating the wrong answer over and over again doesn’t magically make it right.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation -nearly verbatim- with each of my four children in the fourteen years I’ve been home schooling.

But I can tell you that this morning was the first time I realized that this is the same way many people relate to God and the Bible.

When this dialogue takes place between my child and me, it is because the child has done something wrong. He has forgotten to carry the one. Confused a peninsula with an isthmus. Mistaken an adverb for an adjective.

But he can’t see what he’s done wrong, or indeed, that he’s done anything wrong. And because he’s blind to his wrongness, his default position is to assume that he is right and I am wrong. Forget that he’s in fifth grade and I have a bachelor’s degree, half a master’s degree, and nearly two decades of teaching experience. Never mind that this is the fourth time I’ve taught fifth grade from this very same book. Completely disregarded is the fact that I have the teacher key right in front of me that shows exactly what he did wrong and what the right answer is.

No. He’s right. I’m wrong. The book is wrong. Math is stupid.

Foolishness is indeed bound up in the heart of a child.

But foolishness is bound up in all of our hearts when it comes to sin:

“My husband annoys me. God wouldn’t want me to be
miserable for the rest of my life, so my
relationship 
with the guy at work is just fine.”

“What the Bible says about
homosexuality only had to do
with male cult prostitutes, so my
monogamous homosexual relationship
with my partner isn’t a sin.”

“I’ve gone to church all my life.
Once, I even repeated a ‘sinner’s
prayer’ and was baptized. It doesn’t
matter what my life looks like now,
I’m sure I’m saved because of that.”

“The Bible says women aren’t
to instruct men in the church?
But I feel that God has called me
to be a pastor, so that verse must
not mean what it clearly says.”

Over and over we say it, hoping to convince ourselves, to drown out God’s law that’s written on our hearts, and to shout down anyone who would call us to repentance. Because we’re blind to our wrongness, our default position is to assume that we’re right and God, and His word, are wrong. Never mind the fact that He’s God -Creator of the entire universe, knows everything, sees everything, has power over everything, and is perfect in holiness- and we’re, well… not.

No. We’re right. He’s wrong. The Bible is wrong. People who agree with God’s word are just haters.

But, just like I tell my children: repeating the wrong answer over and over again doesn’t magically make it right.  When each of us stands before God on the day of judgment, it’s not going to matter how many times we’ve tried to convince ourselves, others, and God that our way is right. It’s only going to matter what God says is right.

There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.
Proverbs 14:12

Sin

Throwback Thursday ~ 9 Things that Are Still Sins Whether We Agree or Not

Originally published June 19, 20159 still sins

 

I do it all the time, Mother, and I’ve decided something-
it’s not a sin.

I heard this line several years ago on a popular sitcom, spoken by an adult daughter to her Christian mother about a behavior the Bible unambiguously calls a sin. I mean, it’s right smack dab in the middle of the Big 10; “thou shalt not” and everything.

It’s one thing to say, “I know it’s a sin, but I don’t care. I’m going to do it anyway,” but how depraved is the world when they think they – in God’s place – are the ones who get to define what sin is? And what’s even worse is that the church has begun to adopt this audacious depravity as well, whether approving of sin by fiat or by simply ignoring God’s word and letting sin slide without rebuke.

When it comes to what’s a sin and what’s not, God made up His mind a long time ago. And He’s not changing it, regardless of what you or I or Joe Politician or Jane Celebrity might think. Maybe we all need a remedial course in hamartiology, so let’s start with the basics. These things are all still sins whether the world and the church agree with God or not:

1. Homosexuality

Let’s just get it out of the way right up front. I don’t care how many celebrity “pastors” and “Christian” authors twist God’s word to say otherwise, or how many people declare themselves to be (unrepentant, practicing) “gay Christians,” or how many homosexuals declare that God made them that way, God’s word is clear: homosexual lust and behavior are sins.

2. Abortion

Abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. We don’t murder people because they’re small or sick or inconvenient or will hinder our sucess. God didn’t say, “You shall not murder, except when…” He said, “You shall not murder.” Period.

3. Extra-Marital (Heterosexual) Sex

Adultery, fornication, whatever form it might take, if you’re not legally married to the person you’re engaging in sexual activity – up to and including actual intercourse – with, you’re sinning.

4. Cohabitation

See #3. And don’t try to whitewash it by saying you’re living together but not sleeping together. A) The Bible says we’re to flee temptation, not move in with it, and B) we’re supposed to avoid every form of evil, even the appearance of it. If you call yourself a Christian and you’re shacking up, you’re living in sin (that’s why they call it “living in sin”). Repent and move out or marry up.

5. Divorce

Yep, still a sin, except in two cases: unfaithfulness or an unsaved spouse leaving a saved spouse. In those two cases the spouse who was wronged is not sinning and is free to marry again.

6. Swearing

The air is saturated with it. Foul language coming from our TVs, music, movies, social media, and the people we’re around all day. But expletives have no place in the vocabulary of a Christian. Is your potty mouth on Saturday the same one you praise God with on Sunday?

7. Taking God’s Name in Vain

It’s gotten to the point where we think so little of casually punctuating our sentences with, “Oh my G-d,”  or using the name of Jesus as an exclamation that pastors are even doing so from the pulpit these days. God’s name is high and holy and should be spoken only reverently and worshipfully. How can we look people in the eye and call them to repentance and faith in a Person whose name we use as a cuss word?

8. Gluttony

We have almost completely amputated gluttony from the spiritual realm by cordoning it off as merely a physical or medical issue. We’ve renamed it “overeating,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sin. God created good food for us to enjoy, but just as with all the other good gifts He gives us, He expects us to exercise Spirit-enabled self control when we receive it.

9. Female Usurpation

God makes it abundantly clear in His word that women are not to instruct men in the Scriptures or hold authority over them in the church. Women sin when they pastor churches, preach sermons in church, teach men in Sunday School classes, and hold other positions of authority over men in the church. Men, however, bear the primarily responsibility for this when they sin by failing to rebuke usurping women, or when women feel they have no other choice but to take on male responsibilities in the church because men are shirking their own duties before God.

 

We don’t get to decide what sin is. That’s God’s job. And all of us – whether we’ve committed one of these nine sins or not – are guilty of sinning against Him. That’s the bad news.

But, in Christianity, we never give the bad news without following it up with the good news. And, oh what wonderfully good news it is: forgiveness. Jesus paid for our sin at Calvary so that if we will only turn from it and trust Him, He will forgive us for all nine of these sins and countless others.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9

Christian women, Complementarianism, Ministry, Sin

Throwback Thursday ~ Women Preaching: It’s Not a Secondary Doctrinal Issue

Originally published August 3, 2018

When it comes to Christianity, are the specifics of what people believe important?

I think most of us would answer a resounding “yes” to that question. Of course, the various concepts we believe are important. You can’t just believe anything you like and still be a Christian. There are certain things you must believe in order to become a Christian at all, and there are certain things you will come to believe because you are a genuinely regenerated Christian. But what are those things, and how do we know which is which?

Maybe you’ve heard the terms “essential doctrines” or “primary, secondary, and tertiary theological issues” or “first, second, and third tier levels of doctrine”? For years, theologians have been attempting to organize beliefs of the Christian faith – all drawn from the Bible, naturally – into nice neat categories in order to make things a little simpler. As someone who thrives on organization and categories, I’m grateful for their efforts. But if you begin to study this categorization of beliefs, you’ll find that we haven’t reached an across the board consensus yet.

Generally speaking, “essential”, “primary”, or “first tier” doctrines are those which you, biblically, have to believe in order to become a Christian and/or be considered a Christian. For example:

✢ Sin is a thing, and I am a sinner.

✢ God exists and is the supreme authority of the universe.

✢ Jesus was God in human flesh.

✢ Jesus rose bodily from the grave.

See how this works? If you don’t believe you’re a sinner, you’re not saved. If you don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, you’re not saved. Here’s how our friend, Pastor Gabe, briefly outlines essential doctrines:

 

(Gabe later tweaked the acrostic a little and added an “S”, which I think is helpful.)

The vast majority of brand new Christians have only the most basic understanding of most of these tenets at the moment of salvation. But it’s not an issue of fully understanding – or else we’d all have to be theologians in order to get saved – it’s an issue of believing. Someone who is genuinely regenerated may not completely understand how the Trinity works (honestly, no one does), but when she’s introduced to the biblical idea of the Trinity, she believes it, learns more about it, and does not reject it.

There is typically agreement among most reputable theologians regarding what constitutes first tier doctrine. Scripture is clear about these things, and several of these issues were settled long ago by the church fathers in assorted church councils (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc.)

Secondary issues are routinely defined as non-salvific but still extremely biblically important, if not quite as biblically clear-cut as primary issues. Doctrines surrounding baptism (credo versus paedo, affusion versus immersion), for example, are usually cited as a secondary issue. A disagreement on a secondary issue doesn’t mean one person is saved and another isn’t, but it normally prevents close partnership in ministry activities involving these issues. For example, my Presbyterian friends and I can join together in pro-life ministry, but we would most likely not plant a church together.

Tertiary issues are non-salvific, less immediately urgent, biblical issues in which the Bible is even less clear-cut and open to wider (yet still biblical) interpretation. These are issues over which Christians can disagree and still maintain close doctrinal fellowship, even in the same church, if they’re in agreement on first and second tier doctrine. Eschatology – the order and timing of events at Jesus’ second coming – is a doctrine that’s often considered third tier. Someone can hold a different eschatological view than mine, yet it doesn’t affect our ability to worship together, work together, or participate in the ordinances together in the same church.

Some theologians add a fourth category – issues of adiaphora, conscience, or Christian liberty. Usually these are issues of much less importance that the Bible either doesn’t specifically address, or doesn’t give commands about one way or the other. Individual Christians may use biblical principles to inform their consciences and decide for themselves. These would be things like whether or not to take your child trick-or-treating or deciding whether to dress formally or casually for church.

While theologians are largely in agreement about primary doctrines, there is wider spread disagreement on which doctrines are secondary and tertiary (many consider eschatology to be a second tier doctrine, for example) and whether or not there is a need for a category of adiaphora, since such issues are normally not considered to be “doctrinal” issues. In fact, there’s enough space for disagreement that pastors and theologians often wisely refrain from making concrete lists of secondary and tertiary doctrines.

But when we’re talking about the different levels of doctrine, what you won’t find is questions like these: Is murder a first, second, or third tier doctrine? What about gossip? Rape? Adultery? Lying? Gluttony? Pride?

And it’s not because these issues aren’t important or because the Bible doesn’t address them. It’s because they’re in a different category from the other issues: the category of sin. They aren’t doctrines upon which salvation hinges, they aren’t open to interpretation, and the Bible is clear that we are absolutely not to do these things.

In 2005, Dr. Albert Mohler wrote an excellent article about the different levels of doctrine entitled A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. He carefully explains the importance of each level of doctrine and what it covers in a plea to keep each level’s urgency in its proper place of significance during discussion, debate, and decision-making.

It was a helpful article to which I always refer people who have questions about tiers of doctrine, and I agree with Dr. Mohler’s thoughts wholeheartedly (as I usually do) …except on one point:

“In recent years, the issue of women serving as pastors has emerged as another second-order issue.”

Women serving as pastors, women preaching, women teaching men Scripture in the church, and women exercising authority over men in the church is not a secondary issue. Nor is it a primary or tertiary one. It does not belong in the category of “doctrine” in the same way baptism and eschatology do. It belongs in the category of sin in the same way murder, gossip, and adultery do. Let’s take a look at the reasons for this.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 1 Timothy 2:12

(The preponderance of Scripture supports and affirms this concept, so to keep things simple, we’ll use this verse as an exemplar.)

✢ The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a clear command against a certain behavior. And when we behave in a way God has prohibited, that is called “sin”. All of the tenets in the three levels of doctrine are affirmative statements regarding beliefs (you must believe in the resurrection of Christ, we believe in baptism by immersion, etc.). None of them are commands, in the negative, against sinful behavior (Thou shalt not murder, I do not permit a woman to teach… etc.)

✢ Secondary and tertiary doctrines can be open – to varying degrees – to biblical interpretation. Every stripe of non-heretical eschatological thought can provide you with chapter and verse passages that can, depending on the angle from which you approach the subject, be biblically plausible and scripturally supported. There is no biblical support for anything God prohibits. No one can cite a properly handled, in context Bible verse in which God says, “It’s OK to commit adultery,” or “Women are allowed to preach.” There can be multiple views on a secondary or tertiary issue that can all be considered biblical, but there can only be one view of sin that is biblical.

✢ Differing beliefs on true secondary and tertiary issues are not sin. My Presbyterian friends have a different view of baptism than I do. That doesn’t mean either of us is sinning. I may think their interpretations of the verses they believe support paedo baptism are incorrect, but they are not breaking any of God’s commands. Differing behavior (again, we see the distinction between doctrinal belief and sinful behavior) on issues of sin is sin. If someone behaves differently from God’s command about lying, she is sinning. If a woman behaves differently from God’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12, she is sinning.

✢ Differing beliefs on secondary and tertiary issues are not born of disobedience and rebellion toward God. Usually, it’s quite the opposite. When someone has studied a theological issue enough to hold a particular position on it, it’s usually because she is striving to please God and to be biblical in her beliefs. Differing behavior on issues of sin is born out of disobedience and rebellion toward God. Someone who steals has already decided in her heart that her desires are better than God’s command. A woman who knowingly holds improper authority over men in her church is doing so because she has already decided to defy God’s clear command against such.

✢ Because different beliefs on secondary and tertiary issues are not born of rebellion and are not sin, they do not require church discipline. Sin does require church discipline. If someone in your church is openly dishonoring her parents, she is sinning and should be subject to church discipline. If a woman is pursuing a career as a pastor, she is sinning and should be subject to church discipline. 

Since the publication of Dr. Mohler’s article (and perhaps as a result of others teaching the same thing) the idea of the violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 being a “secondary doctrine” has spread in a most unhelpful way, leading many Christians to treat the issue in a c’est la vie, “We can just agree to disagree on this,” manner.

No, we cannot.

We would not say, “We can agree to disagree,” on lying or adultery or homosexuality or abortion, and we cannot say it about women preaching, teaching men, or holding unbiblical authority, either. We disciple and teach a sister in Christ who is unaware of what the Bible says on these matters, and if she is committing any of these sins, we begin the process of church discipline. But it would not be loving toward her, or honoring God, to allow her to continue in biblical ignorance or in willful sin.

Furthermore, the violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 brings with it dangers to the church that true secondary and tertiary issues, and even many sins, do not.

I have mentioned several times when dealing with this issue that women preaching to men is highly correlated with women teaching false doctrine. I have researched scores of women teachers. Every single one of them who unrepentantly teaches men also teaches false doctrine in some other aspect of her theology (usually Word of Faith or New Apostolic Reformation). In other words, if a woman teaches men, you can just about take it to the bank that she also teaches false doctrine. False doctrine and heresy are infecting the church – via female preachers – at an alarming rate.

We dare not simply “agree to disagree” on this.

The violation of God’s command that women are not to instruct men in the Scriptures nor hold improper authority over men is a sin like any other. It is not a doctrinal issue in the same sense that other second and third tier doctrines are. If left undisciplined, however, it can lead to first tier doctrinal issues infiltrating a church and eventually destroying it. It is detrimental to the church to label and treat any sin as a secondary doctrinal issue.