Just a few quick follow up thoughts on grace and justice in difficult pastoral situations.
First, I linked a post from Tim Bayly this morning that is a great example of gracious, thoughtful disagreement with the way another session of elders has handled a difficult situation. It is helpful not only because of its tone and not only because it explicitly warns against feeding the internet trolls, but perhaps most importantly because it outlines a plausible biblical case for a different perspective and different conclusions. As Christians, we are committed to the Word of God, to the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. No human authority is absolute, and no earthly human authority is infallible. Only Jesus Christ is infallible, and only His Word preserved in Scripture is absolute. This is important because it give us humility and grace and confidence. It allows good Christians to disagree honestly, but it also gives good Christians the ability to disagree graciously because if it’s about the truth, then it isn’t about us needing to be right. And this is an important safeguard against those who would appeal to the ultimate court of human opinion or emotional outrage.
Second, and just briefly, I’ll note here that I think Tim Bayly’s case is plausible but not ultimately persuasive. I agree that the death penalty is a maximum penalty for a number of violent crimes in biblical law including violent sexual crimes, but I don’t believe it was a mandatory penalty except in cases of first degree murder (Num. 35:31). In all other cases, the law allows for a latitude of penalties depending (presumably) on the severity of the crime. This latitude is applied by Asa (1 Kgs. 15:12), Jehoshaphat (1 Kgs. 22:46), and Josiah (2 Kgs. 23:7) in exiling homosexuals but not executing them. Likewise, though it may be considered an argument from silence, Paul gives a number of instructions to the saints in Corinth about sexual sin and marriage and remarriage, and in the course of his letter writes: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11, emphasis added). Given everything else Paul covers, if marriage were prohibited to those who could have received the death penalty under biblical law, it would have been important for Paul to make that explicit. At the same time, I have no problem affirming that in some situations, wise pastors and elders should refuse to participate in weddings that they deem unwise. But I would argue that this would necessarily have to be decided on a case by case basis.
Finally, and on Paul’s note of grace, let me say a word to those troubled by this recent frenzy of hostility and animosity. It’s easy to be disheartened when the mud starts to fly, when the food fight breaks out in the Christian cafeteria. It’s easy to think that our testimony has been severely damaged, that the world is watching and rolling their eyes. But take heart and remember the Apostle Paul. Paul was a man whose life was constantly filled to the brim with controversy and accusations and drama. And it was that very thing that caused some in Corinth to doubt him. Some began to listen to the haters who called Paul a shyster, a player, a swindler because everywhere he went trouble seemed to follow him, and this is what he said: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart…” (2 Cor. 4:1) And he goes on to explain that he renounces all underhandedness, all cunning deceit, and his life is an open testimony to the gospel. And he says that he is not surprised that this is how God has been pleased to shine the light of the gospel through him because how would the light of the gospel shine out of his heart if he were not broken open?
He explains: we have this treasure of the gospel inside of us, and we are like jars of clay broken open so that the glory may be clearly seen to be from God and not from us. So when we are afflicted and persecuted and struck down, we are not crushed, we are not driven to despair, we are not destroyed because we are always carrying around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in us (2 Cor. 4:7-12).
So do not lose heart; do not despair. If you have sinned with your mouth, with your words, let this be a moment to let the light of the gospel shine in repentance. If you have held back and refused to speak the truth for fear of controversy, let this be the moment that you walk fearlessly into the fray, ready to be broken open so that the light of Christ may shine. If our God is using the death of the only perfect man to undo all injustice and evil in this world (and He is), then do not doubt His ability to use our fragile weakness to do the same.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
Tim Bayly says
Excellent response to my substance, Toby, although I also appreciate your recognition that my trust in the pastors and elders of Christ Church is not in play in the slightest despite my obvious disagreement on the matter of the wisdom of officiating at, or allowing, the marriage of a serial predatory child sex abuser. Whether my own fellow pastors and elders here at Clearnote, Bloomington agree with me on that, though, is a further question that I do not know the answer to.
But to the point of capital punishment, obviously I didn’t express myself well since I do not believe what it seems you think I believe; namely, that all serial predatory child sex abusers should be executed. I do not believe that. What I was trying to say was two-fold: first, that it was not wrong for centuries of Christendom to have that penalty in their code; and second, that the reason it is not in our code or carried out today in these United States is the wickedness of our country. And there is where I am easily misunderstood. My point isn’t that the faiilure to execute all these individuals is wickedness, but that the rejection of capital punishment itself is wickedness. So no, I do not believe Scripture requires the execution of all serial predatory child sex abusers without exception. And yes, I do believe Scriptural principles require we not perform or allow their marriage.
Hope this clarifies my thoughts, dear brother. I’ve written more to clarify them in a long comment under the post, and I hope you’ll read that.
Thanks for the reply and clarification, Tim. Blessings,