Both Discipline and Forgiveness

Sep 10 Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20; Sep 17 Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

I was the Associate Pastor at a congregation that had previously had a pastor who was both a crook (literally – he dared not go to Florida because of pending fraud charges connected with skimming church funds) and a sexual predator. Not surprisingly he was smooth and very convincing. He still had a strong following in the congregation. Part of the difficulty in removing him was the denominational disciplinary system was not set up to deal well with a person who was that deceitful and convincing and unrepentant. Despite the wickedness, he was a good fund raiser, so tragically, another denomination gave him credentials and allowed him to serve a large and very prosperous congregation after he had been fired and defrocked by the PC(USA).

This is not a hard case. Someone like this needs to be both disciplined by the church and prosecuted by the state. But the starkness of the case highlights the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching in the two lectionary readings from Mt. 18. This week’s lesson about forgiveness is the second half of last week’s lesson about church discipline. This is Matthew writing toward the end of the first century looking back on Jesus’ teaching and recognizing that Jesus knew where this whole “church” thing was going. It was going to get organized, there would be bad apples, and eventually there would be problems.

Jesus’ solution is best describes as progressive discipline. There is need to work with the sinner in stages. Restoration is at first personal (“point out the fault when the two of you are alone” v. 15) and then discreet (“take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” v. 16). If this informal approach does not work, the process of restoration becomes formal and ultimately public (“tell it to the church …” vv. 17f).

But in order to avoid this process becoming a series of witch hunts, this is immediately followed by the teaching on forgiveness. Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive” (v. 21)? Jesus’ answer, told in parable form, assumes that we are to forgive as we are forgiven. The specific teaching is that if I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven then I am “a wicked servant.” When the forgiven servant refused to forgive others, the master sent him to jail until all his debts were paid. The last verse is chilling. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 25).

This is typical of the normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Rules and regulations are not dismissed as unimportant but are placed in the context of our heart, that is, our affections, attitudes, and desires. Trying to find that narrow path between being rule-bound and ignoring problems is delicate and difficult. Returning to the opening story, the pastor was fired and defrocked without a lot of information given to the church. His predatory sexual exploitations were not revealed because of the privacy of the victims. The possibility of fraud was not explained in detail because a thorough audit had not yet been completed and the Presbytery didn’t want to damage any possible case the state might have against him.

Because all the details were, for what seemed good reasons at the time, not made public (in contrast to “tell it to the church” v. 17), the gossip exploded and a significant portion of the congregation took his side (he was a smooth talker after all!) and opposed the presbytery. They accused the Presbytery and those who sided with the Presbytery of not being willing to forgive. In the rough and tumble context of real life, the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is not so obvious.

Successful application of both sides of this process (forgiveness and discipline), whether in an individual context or the formal context of church structure, requires the ability to discern the heart of both parties. While this passage is about the structures of our corporate church life, Jesus is saying less about that and more about the state of each of our hearts. (Again, this is the typical and normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching.) The implication of this text is that any criticism I have of another Christian, or another person in general, is a mirror revealing and then reflecting my hidden heart back to me. As individual Christians or more formally as congregations, any actions we take to “encourage,” “correct,” or “improve” others is as much about us as it is about them. Our salvation is not so much a thing that resides within me, it rather rides on interactions and relationships I have with others.


A Follow-up on Judgment and Repentance

After posting my previous essay, I listened to this installment of Praying in the Rain (also available in essay form here) with Fr Michael Gillis. He is able to explain certain aspects of how the ancient church and contemporary Christian East understand heaven and hell better than I can. If you are interested in further reading or listening, I recommend it.

A Science Fiction Author Meditates on Judgment and Repentance

I am currently listening to a SciFi audio book (Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey) that features a very bad young woman (Clarissa) who was pushed over the edge by the arrest of her father and her denial of just how evil her father’s actions were. She kills lots (lots!) of people in her hope of revenge.

Once all the shooting is done and there’s time for reflection, the questions of forgiveness and redemption vs judgment become key themes in the book. This part of the book is amazingly insightful. (Okay, maybe I’m selling SciFi short, but I typically don’t turn to this genre for deep insights into theological themes.) It has me doing a lot of thinking about judgment and forgiveness.

I inhabit two very different worlds when it comes to this subject. Protestantism (the faith of my youth and pastoral ministry) contends that God’s primordial reaction to sin is wrath. God is holy and a holy God cannot abide the presence of sin. This puts God into a posture of wrath (and note that wrath is not an emotion, it’s an existential reality in opposition to that which is not holy) until the sin problem can be solved.

I am no longer Protestant and am now Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox argue that this view of holiness is fundamentally flawed. It’s not God who cannot stand the presence of evil; God wants to stand in the midst of evil, to be present “to, with, and for” all his creation. Jesus’ favorite people were not the religious folks; he preferred the company of sinners and tax collectors. Thus, God’s primordial reaction to sin is not wrath, it is sorrow and longing for reunion. Wrath is a sinful human’s interpretation of what happens when we brush up against holiness; it’s not actually an attribute of God.

The two starting points are, from what I can see, diametrically opposed to each other, and these two radically different starting points lead to subtly different perceptions of judgment. From the Protestant perspective, since the “problem of holiness” is a divine problem (that is, a holy God cannot look upon sin), then judgment is inevitable unless extraordinary measures are taken. Those measures are the death of God’s Son which (from within this “juridical model” as it’s often called) is necessary to appease God’s wrath, and the sinner’s acceptance by faith the free gift of forgiveness which can now be offered by God because of the death of Jesus Christ.

From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the problem is death (or separation from God, who is the source of life) and the sin which comes about because of the corroding effects of death. The life-giving connection between God and his creation was broken because of Adam’s sin. Without that life-giving connection, creation is slowly dying. The incarnation (God becoming human) re-linked God and his creation allowing divine life to flow back into creation. Humans, created as God’s priests on earth, are the means of that re-linking. Certainly the person must participate in the life-giving gift through faith. The person must repent and go to the work of assuming the proper posture that will allow this divine transformation to take place. But the ultimate goal is not to save the sinner, it is the transformation of the entire creation through the very life of God.

These two views on the matter of God’s relation to the world lead to subtly different views of judgment and what happens after death. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says,  “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:27f). For Protestants (and more specifically, for Evangelicals) the question is, “Did a person accept Christ as their Savior, or in the words of Hebrews, are they eagerly waiting for him?” The judgment hinges on that question and will determine whether you go to heaven or hell. For the Orthodox, the question is, “What is the state of the deep heart?” If one’s true self recognizes that I cannot help myself and is not fundamentally antagonistic toward Christ, the judgment will reveal that, no matter what one’s outward actions look like. One might have never made a conscious decision to become a committed follower of Christ and even appear to be antagonistic to Christ while their deep and hidden heart recognizes the hopelessness and eagerly awaits salvation offered in Christ. The heart, often ineffable to humans, will be fully revealed to Jesus Christ.

Another judgment text that is every bit as important as Hebrews 9 is 1 John 3:2 and it speaks to this. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What we look like and act like is not the actual determination of who we truly are. The judgment therefore isn’t a ruling of “you’re in” or “you’re out” it is rather a discernment of what truly is and what is only ephemeral.

All of us need to admit that we don’t know exactly what happens after death. Eternity is described in broad strokes (the judgment, we will be changed) or in fascinating metaphor (the Banquet of the Lamb, the Lake of Fire). Beyond this, scripture is mostly silent on the specifics. In my experience as a Protestant, I would say that Protestants think in terms of instantaneous change. When I get to heaven, I will immediately be perfected and purified. The Orthodox tend more toward seeing what happens after death as a process. Death itself marks a moment of no return; the die is cast in terms of your ultimate circumstance. But the process from my current state to my ultimate union with God will remain a process, even after death.

Jesus used the image of gold and its impurities. The heat and light of holiness will purify gold while burning away the impurities. If we lived a life of repentance and purgation, that process will be relatively painless in heaven under the discerning eye of our loving Father who longs for us to unite with him. If, on the other hand, I did little with my talents (to use the imagery of a different parable) and did not live a life of repentance and purgation, that process of fully entering into the Kingdom and becoming one with God might be quite a lot more painful as the chaff is stripped and burned away. This is not judgment in a moment, but judgment as a process of revealing my true self and allowing the “what we shall become” to finally appear through all the junk.

Although it is certainly not official Orthodox teaching, a surprising number of Orthodox theologians, bishops, and faithful suspect that in the end everyone will be saved. This is not a dismissal of the seriousness of sin and evil in the world. It rather begins with the assumption (described in some detail above) that divine wrath is certainly not a divine attribute but rather a sinful human perception of holiness. With that assumption in mind some people are able to discern the spark of repentance and possibility of forgiveness in even the most recalcitrant sinners they have met. This leads to speculation (and let’s be clear, this is not a dogmatic position, but only a counterfactual speculation) that all people may actually be open to entering into union with God once it is revealed who they truly are.

Again, let me reiterate, this speculation among some Orthodox that all might be saved is not a denial of the necessity of the Incarnation and Cross, nor is it a denial of God’s abhorrence of sin and evil. It’s not even a way of letting sinners off the hook because repentance and purification toward holiness will be an ongoing process in heaven, not an instantaneous transformation. It is rather a meditation on what it means to be created in the image of God and the fact that the divine image is never completely obliterated in sinful humanity. It is an attitude of confidence that Gen. 1:31 is literal beyond our comprehension when it says, “and behold, [God’s creation] was very good! And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”

At this point I want to return to the novel. Clarissa, having returned to herself after the insane and all-consuming rage, is lost in despair for the evil things she has done. She is almost catatonic with grief. She only wishes that they would quickly find her guilty and execute her, for that is what she deserves. Anna, a minister of the Gospel who is working with Clarissa, seeks desperately to postpone the trial and the execution that is certain to follow. She fervently believes that there is something deep within Clarissa that can accept forgiveness. She is afraid that if Clarissa dies before she discovers that hope deep within, she will indeed be lost forever.

This interplay is remarkably Orthodox in its sensibilities. Even in the face of ineffable evil, Anna, the Christian, can find the goodness of God’s creation and believes in the reality of forgiveness and transformation. Paradoxically it is a perspective that should cause us to fear divine judgment even more. (It would be a fearful thing to be Clarissa, even a repenting Clarissa, before the penetrating eye of God.) God will look deeply into us and not just make the bad stuff disappear as if all that sin stuff was a mistake, giving me a pass directly to perfection, rather he will see me for what I truly am and proceed to burn away the chaff and transform me into what I was truly meant to become. This is the glory … and terror … of true faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect offer of salvation. Amen.


How true it is that in heart and mind the forgiver must set out on voyages of anguish! It is an experience of sacrificial pain, of vicarious suffering.

H. R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness