Monday, 5 September 2011

Dealing with the sinner

We were discussing part of yesterday's lectionary reading, Matthew 18:15-17, in the prayer meeting this morning. It's the section about how to deal with another church member who's sinned against you:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

I think this is something the church as a whole fails to get right. At one time, a significant number of our ladies had been drummed out of other churches, for getting pregnant and/or being in relationships with men they weren't officially married to. All of them were in committed relationships, some of which had lasted for many years. There has to be something wrong here; our view is that the church should celebrate such relationships, regardless of whether or not the couple have paid for a ceremony and a legal ticket. The problem doesn't lie with such couples, but with a culture which has developed a historically narrow understanding of marriage.

Coming back to Matthew, this is an area where the Methodist Church has a real problem. Some of us were discussing our experiences round the country, and between us we covered quite a number of Districts. In every one, we'd all found the identical problem. Cliques and little tinpot dictators. Nobody wants to start expelling church members, but we go to the opposite extreme of allowing small numbers of people to alienate potential church members, or drive existing members away, in large numbers, for the sake of childish ego games. Anything rather than challenge these people, and sort the problems out. My view is that we should sometimes be willing to vote people out of office, but even this seems to be too difficult. Once someone's elected, an office all too often becomes a lifetime appointment, and if the church has appointed the wrong person, it's in trouble.

I don't pretend to have instant solutions, but a denomination which is in long-term decline can't afford not to tackle its awkward squad.


  1. Hallo. I'm Ian, 63, a Local Preacher in a mainly rural circuit in the North of England, and this is my first post here. I'm really interested in what you've got to say. As for this specific posting, how would you apply this to same-sex relationships? We discussed this at a recent housegroup and there was quite a bit of 'anti' feeling in the air!

  2. My personal view is that these should be treated exactly the same as any other relationship; if two people are committed to each other we should rejoice in that, whoever they are. We've got all sorts of cultures at my church; we don't talk about it, but I doubt whether many people would have issues. Obviously, some cultures are very homophobic, and one or two recent immigrants might be anti, but I think that's all. It often - not always - ceases to be an issue once people are away from a homophobic environment.

  3. I have found over the years that it is easy to take a position on an issue, but that it looks very different when you're dealing with people. As a young probationer, I had a young single mother come to ask for baptism for her baby - she had got pregnant in a relationship with a married man, who had disappeared very quickly when she got into trouble. I had to explain that because I wasn't yet ordained, I had to ask my super before agreeing - she burst into tears, because this felt like yet another brick in the wall of social rejection building up around her. I did the baptism, because what was needed in that situation was a visible sign of grace. Similarly, I had a lot of couples come seeking marriage who had at least one divorce behind them, who had often come to me following refusal by the local Anglicans (it was a high church diocese): they usually understood that divorce was somehow wrong and sinful, but they couldn't understand how it was apparently unforgivable. Where is the gospel in these situations? How can we proclaim forgiveness and grace, while acting like pharisees?

    I used to think the Bible was against same-sex relationships. Then I met gay Christians. They weren't evil, or depraved, or demon-possessed. They were real Christians, who just happened to be gay, because that was the the way they were. I went back to the Bible, and did some work on what it really says, and found that while it condemns certain kinds of same-sex activity it doesn't actually address the subject of same-sex orientation or relationship - see for a good summary of the issues, written by someone who followed a similar journey of discovery. Sometimes what looks like homophobia is no more than general ignorance.

    I have no doubt that we are to stand against sin. But we do need to be clear that what we're standing against is actually sin, and that in taking that stance we're not condemning and excluding the sinner who is in need of grace.

  4. I'd totlly agree with that. Sin is something which damages people, and the sort of thing you talk about here doesn't. Rejecting people for not conforming to some arbitrary norm does, and is thus sinful. We've always taken the view that any baby brought to the church should be baptised, without asking questions about where it came from. That's not our business. If it was a question of someone in the church having an affair, quite a few people would be upset, since that damages their family. Where we really fall down is in dealing with the person on a power trip, who cares about nothing but putting themselves in charge. I've seen that sort close churches, and they're very rarely challenged.

    Having to post this under my AOL screen name as blogger isn't recongnising me.