Monday, September 28, 2015

Authentic Church Culture Requires Openness about Sin - and Open Love

The solution to the culture of hypocrisy I addressed here is to have a church culture that emphasizes sincerity and a safe environment for openly confessing our sins and struggles to each other. Too many churches try to clean themselves up and put on a 'holy' face by discouraging any open discussion of struggling with sin. They may not realize consciously that they are doing so, but a church culture that tends to shun people who confess their struggles with sin, treating them as lesser Christians or 'unreliables,' simply discourages people from admitting when they have a problem. If the response to being made aware that someone is ensnared by sinful desires or has committed particular sins is an implied disappointment and shame that is shown by starting to treat that person differently (and usually less closely and affectionately), then people will naturally avoid admitting they have a problem. And that leads to hidden sinful habits and indulgences that go on under the surface, growing and taking deeper root while the churchgoer tries at the same time to keep up the appearance of godly living and Christian obedience to maintain friendships and acceptance.

This is exactly why hypocrisy is such a danger in churches like this. Anything that leads a person to keep part of his or her life hidden from others is putting that person at risk for becoming a hypocrite. Likewise, a church culture that makes people feel like they have to keep their flaws and weaknesses hidden in order to be accepted is a church culture that teaches people to prioritize the praise and recognition of other people over actual sincere relationship to God. Such churches train people to believe that they can only be welcomed and liked if they keep problems hidden. That is lethal. It ends up blowing up in their faces when beloved leaders or longtime members of the congregation are discovered to have carried on a hidden life of sin. And everyone is shocked. Because they found a sinner in their midst. Instead, they should be remorseful that they ever deceived themselves into thinking any of them were not sinners.

An authentic Christian church culture will always encourage people to confess their sins without fear of judgment or rejection. Although it is true that some sins and weaknesses may require that the church not place a person in a particular role of leadership or service, openness is encouraged by clearly demonstrating that acceptance and affection by the other members are not going to be jeopardized if a person confesses any type of sin. The important thing is proving by example that the relationships in the church will not be strained or lost if a person admits their own struggles and flaws. This kind of culture acknowledges that all of us are prone to weakness and vulnerable to certain sins, and refuses to treat the realities of sin and personal weakness as dirty little secrets to be kept in the closet. Instead, such a culture locks arms together in loving commitment to help each other fight these battles with temptation and sin. We commit to never shaming anyone, and to being ready and willing to hear anyone's confession and gladly help them pray for healing.

This kind of thing makes some people very uncomfortable, especially if they are used to the kind of church culture that pretends sin isn't among us and shames those who are caught in it. Of course it should not be the typical practice for people to confess their sins publicly in front of the whole congregation; there is some discretion involved in choosing the brother or sister to whom you confess. Even then, some people may resist hearing other people's confessions because it is something they aren't used to and it feels to them like a crisis point in a relationship. But once people see how liberating it is to be able to admit you are having problems without risking your friendships, and realize that the love of other people in the church is not going to be withdrawn even when the hidden sins are exposed, a person who is burdened by their sin will crave that kind of openness and freedom. It is as vital to spiritual life as air to the body. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in one of the most valuable books ever written on Christian community:

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged.
- Life Together, p. 112 (HarperOne edition, 1954).

It must be, because if it is not, then the grace of God that comes through experiencing the forgiveness and freedom of the Gospel is denied to the sinner. Bonhoeffer captures beautifully what this experience of Gospel freedom looks like in authentic community:

The fact is that we are sinners!

But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. 'My son, give me thine heart' (Prov. 23:26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin.
- Id., pp. 110-11.