One of the reasons why pious sentiment is so popular is that it makes a great substitute for obedience. And while we are disobeying what the Bible says to do, the disobedience can be carried off in the glow of self-approprobation.
The Bible has some very clear instructions about the handling of charges against someone, and on our moral responsibility to steer clear of entertaining unsubstantiated grievances. Later in this series we can look at some of those principles. But for now, let us consider one of the things we do instead.
Suppose someone comes to you and says that they are really having trouble respecting and loving their pastor, because last night at two in the morning he crept into their backyard and shot your family dog. What would a biblical response be? And what would a sentimentalist response be?
The pious and sentimental response would urge upon the purveyor of this information the need to be loving, to refrain from bitterness, to return good for evil, to hope for reconciliation, along with mounds and piles of other sweet responses. All the attitudes that are being urged are biblical attitudes. So the person urging them is being biblical, right?
No. They are appropriate responses to such an outrage if the pastor in fact had shot the family dog. But if he did not, and the charge is a false one, then all the pietist has succeeded in doing is cover over some radical disobedience (his and the other guy’s) with a couple of gallons of scriptural-language whitewash.
I am using the rather stark example of shooting the family dog to make the point clear. But it applies equally to other scenarioes. Did the sin in fact actually occur? If it did not, then all the pious phrases in the world are just smarmy wallpaper in the devil’s waiting room. The charge might be entirely false. The charge might be “true,” but there are circumstances that have been left out of the account that change the nature of the action entirely. The family dog had gone crazy and was attacking a passer-by, woke the pastor up, and he shot the dog, saving the person’s life. The mayor is giving the pastor the key to the city in a special ceremony next month. In this case, all the verses about forgiving, forbearing, staying free of bitterness, are still just as bad.
The “godly response” verses apply under two circumstances. One is if the charge is not disputed. “Yeah, I shot your stupid dog. Why? For being ugly. Sure, I’ll speak into your tape recorder.” In such a case, staying free of resentment and so on is not whitewash on top of disobedience. It is straightforward obedience. The second circumstance is if the charge is denied, but an appropriate adjudicatory body has heard the evidence for the charges, and found the pastor guilty anyway. In such a situation, it is appropriate to treat him as convicted of the charge, even if he continues to deny it.
Now suppose I as an individual know of someone’s guilt, but am not in a position to prove it. What then? I may know that he is guilty, but if I can’t prove it, what should my judicial stance toward him be? I may not make a public charge that I cannot substantiate under cross-examination. So suppose I see someone commit an egregious sin with my own two eyes. I go to him privately and confront him, and he says something like, “Yeah, I know that you saw me come out of that motel room with that woman, but I also know that you are the only one who saw me. Ha, ha! And if you come around with your busybody two and three witnesses, I will deny everything. Period. Your word against mine.” Now suppose this person is a member of my church, and I am looking forward to serving him the Lord’s Supper in two days. Do I offer him the bread and wine? You bet. I have no business taking any judicial action against him unless my charges can be independently verified and established. If are true, but cannot be established, then he should have a far greater problem coming to the Supper than I should have with him coming to the Supper. He is the one with the problem, not the rest of the church. Scripture has a much greater problem with innocent people being kept away than with guilty people coming. And the guilty people who are eating and drinking condemnation are not eating and drinking someone else’s condemnation. They are doing it to themselves. So in this sense, we don’t need to fence the Table; the Table fences us.
So then, Scripture requires proof, and does not allow us to substitute a sanctimonious dodge instead. If I have a charge, then I should prove it, and I should offer my proof to be examined by counter proofs. I may not be allowed to sub in an offer to pray for the person, or to forgive him, or love him in spite of all his Wicked But Heretofore Unproven Crimes.
Someone might dispute all this as a mass of tangled presbyterian legalisms. “Witnesses! Proofs! Cross-examinations! Bah!” But why do they dispute it? Anyone who disputes this is only doing so to cover up their illicit double life as a cruiser of gay bars, not to mention all their shoplifting at Target. And I think we should pray for him to be delivered from this destructive lifestyle. “But how can you say that? You don’t even know who will object yet! How can you prove this?” Prove it? I still have to do that? Isn’t proof a tangled form of presbyterian legalism?
This is just another application of the universal desire that each person has for due process when he is the one being processed. But as for that other guy . . . he doesn’t deserve due process. Isn’t he the creep who shoots dogs?