I want to bring attention to something that I’ve dealt with several times in my life as a believer. Sometimes, Christians can become too accepting because we want to demonstrate forgiveness. The concept behind this, at it’s heart, is very commendable. However, when it comes to forgiveness, the lines between right and wrong can become very grey.
As a member of a law enforcement family, I’ve learned that in this occupation, the lines between right and wrong, by nature, must always remain staunchly black and white. It’s much easier to tell the difference between right and wrong because it leaves out the personal desires of those involved. When a person is convicted of breaking the law, they receive the consequences. Regardless of whether the offended person forgives them, the convicted person still reaps consequences (when the system works like it should, anyway). This is a very Biblical concept. We see, time after time, where God forgives someone of a sin in the Bible, but the person still has to face the immediate consequences of that sin. This is called “justice.” Our God is a very just God. Thank goodness! If He weren’t, we’d all be in a heap of trouble because the world, even more than it already is, would instantly go into a tailspin of ruin because no justice would ever be meted out, allowing lawlessness to became rampant. It would be a bad day for us all.
Back to how this impacts Christianity… Oftentimes in congregations, we’re faced with people who have done terrible things but then come to faith, or even people who’ve come to faith and then done terrible things. The other people who are members of the congregation have to decide how to handle the situation. Do you allow this person to assimilate (or re-assimilate) into your community? If so, to what degree? What expectations do we impose on them if they want to be a part of the community?
First of all, we have to recognize that the issue is not really forgiveness. If the crime wasn’t committed against anyone in the congregation, it isn’t the congregations “job” to extend forgiveness to that person. That is between the offender, God, and the victim. However, the congregational leaders can coach them on how to seek forgiveness. If it was a crime committed against a congregational member, and if that victim needs help in working through unforgiveness, the congregational leaders and members can help them in that, but it is up to that person alone to forgive. Forgiveness is not something that can be granted collectively by the church as a whole or by anyone who just might be serving as a leader of that congregation, and it cannot be forced upon a victim.
Secondly, the reality is that the consequences are not done away with just because the offender is “forgiven.” It is nobody’s place to judge whether or not they’re forgiven by God or by the person they harmed. So is it right to impose consequences? Obviously, the person will have criminal charges that they might have to work through in the justice system including restitution, jail time, etc. In addition, if a person is going to try to function fully within a faith community, they need to take steps to avoid temptation to commit that or any other crimes again. It is the job of that individual, as well as that of congregational leaders, to protect the innocent people who are then becoming involved in the situation through participating within the same fellowship group as the convict. Taking such steps also ensures that the criminal is not afforded opportunity to hurt others again. Those are logical “consequences” that are simply imposed as a way of protecting all involved.
I have seen two different approaches taken when this happens in congregations. I feel the following approach is not Biblical…it can be very ineffective and dangerous. First, the offender seeks forgiveness. Then, the people in the congregation extend their sympathy and compassion toward the offender and do not request/require that the offender take precautions to prevent the crime from happening within the congregation and he/she is allowed to behave in any way they like. Initially, many people probably feel a great deal of discomfort with that person’s involvement in the congregation, but everyone wants to show the convict the “love of Messiah,” so they just go about business as usual. This method doesn’t work in most cases. Here’s why. This method ensures that all the innocent people are unknowingly desensitizing themselves to the harm the criminal has caused to other people. When the offender has not had to change anything about their behavior, they are way more likely to repeat the behavior again at some point. The nervousness of the well meaning innocent people eventually goes away and they are no longer cautious around the criminal. That is when temptation strikes the offender. Hopefully, they don’t give in to it, but what about when they do (as is often the case)? Then another innocent person is subject to harm (sometimes very serious harm), all because we want an offender to feel loved, welcomed, and forgiven. Is this what Yeshua (Jesus) meant by turning the other cheek?*
Absolutely not! Had the congregation made that thief, child molester, or violent person accept a few consequences and precautions, the second offense would never have happened! Further harm wouldn’t come to the criminal because of the consequences of a second crime and, even more importantly, a second innocent person wouldn’t have been hurt. The thief should have been disallowed from having anything at all to do with anything financial. The child molester should have been disallowed from ever being alone with children at any time (concrete steps would have been made to ensure this happened). A violent person’s past actions must also have been addressed accordingly, such as having an armed security officer always present in the congregation when the convict is there, etc. A person who’s committed a crime against a child should have not been allowed to have any involvement with children. Steps are taken to ensure the safety and security of all the innocent people willingly subjecting themselves to the possibility of having harm come to them through the criminal. These steps may seem drastic to some, but if you don’t take such steps, what could the cost be? Naivety does not help to protect the innocent. We must keep in mind that in a congregation, we’re not just dealing with innocent people, but we’re dealing with families and with defenseless small children. Church is a place where families go to nurture their faith in a safe environment, not to allow their wives, teens and small children to be subject to harm. The people in the congregation should not be asked to make exceptions and lower their expectations of how a person should behave. Instead, the convicted person needs to assimilate their actions to the regular accepted behavior of the community.
In addition, leaders must be aware that a criminal allowed to be a part of your congregation will be representing your congregation to the public in any community setting that they are in. They need to be held to the same (and sometimes an even higher) behavioral standard that any other member of that community is held to…no exceptions…and they should not make excuses if the convicted person does exhibit bad behavior towards people outside their congregation.
Does this mean that we have to “punish” a criminal for their crimes forever? No. If anyone who has committed a crime is truly repentant, they will willingly take steps to ensure that they will never do that thing again; they will willingly face their consequences and make every attempt to right their wrongs (make restitution). The offender should exhibit prudent transparency with anyone they will be involved with. Congregational leaders should set the expectations but it is not up to any congregational leader, member, or any other person except the offender himself, to meet those expectations. The expectations should not be lowered to help the convicted person feel better. If the convicted person does not follow through completely, their infractions need to be examined with great seriousness by the leadership. Doing this will protect the criminal, protect those who interact with them, and it will allow the criminal to begin to rebuild their credibility. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, it make take years, decades, or even a lifetime for that redemptive process to be complete in their lives. Those are the consequences of sin. That is justice. But that is how we are made right with fellow man and with our Creator.
*I recently read this and thought it was something worthy of making note of: “Generally, if one is struck on the right cheek, the one doing the striking must have used his/her left hand, an indicator of their pretense at superiority; by turning to them the left cheek, you invite the striking with the right hand, thus compelling the attacker to acknowledge you as an equal.” For more on what the meaning of Yeshua saying this, go to Hebrew 4 Christian's Weekly Torah Portion Reading.