Witch hunts are common in the church today--they didn't end in Salem. You can go to that town in Massachussets and see the 1692 Salem Witch Museum, and learn about all the atrocities that took place when people decided that other people's sin was their business, and their duty to punish. You can learn about the self-righteousness of those who called themselves Puritans--but don't fool yourself into thinking that puritans are extinct in the church today.
Witch hunts continue in the church today. When I was a kid in the Southern Baptist denomination, those "damn liberals" were the ones who had abandoned God's word so much that they actually believed God could call women (gasp!) into the ministry. In what the right-wing leadership called the Conservative Resurgence, free-thinking professors were systematically dismissed from their positions in denominational seminaries. Faithful missionaries were pulled from the field because they wouldn't tow the fundamentalist line.
That denomination's pharisaical leadership continues its witch hunts today. One of the distinctive features of being a Baptist is that each believer and each congregation is free to interpret the Bible as they see fit, as led by the Holy Spirit. Yet time and again, the Southern Baptist Convention or its subsidiary state conventions or their subsidiary associations have dismissed congregations for taking a stand to affirm openly gay church members or recognize their legal marriages. Conservatives who defend this repudiation of fellow believers defend their actions by saying they are defending the purity of the church. But in reality, they are showing themselves to be modern Puritans, who find it far easier to use the Bible as a rifle scope to focus on what they believe to be the sins of other people, rather than using the Bible as a mirror to inspect their own imperfections.
Don't get me wrong--this article isn't an attack on Southern Baptists per se. Nor is it a defense of their LGBTQIA+ victims. Those might be other articles in their own right, but it is not in the scope of this article to go into such details. In this article, I simply use these examples from my own denominational heritage to introduce the broarder concept that...
It's easier to focus on what you believe to be other people's sin than it is to take a hard look at your own.
Going through the generations-old history books of Baptist churches I have served as pastor, I have found occasions where members were banished from congregations for offenses such as dancing or attending "eggnog parties." No doubt, the tattlers believed they were defending the purity of the church, when in reality they were maligning the character of others because it's easier to do that than it is to focus on one's own spiritual well-being. It was the same in Jesus' day. John 8:1-11 (NLT) records:
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2 but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”11 “No, Lord,” she said.And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
In this story, the puritanical Pharisees were on a witch hunt. But as was true in the Salem days, this witch hunt had ulterior motives. It wasn't really to maintain purity in the community. It was actually a ploy to trap Jesus. In my own experienced as a pastor, I've often found that when people have come to me with questions about another person's sin, it's really either an attempt to trap me, or it's out of a desire to have their own purity confirmed. When one person accuses another of something, you can bet it's not out of concern for the accused. But Jesus' approach was different.
Jesus took an approach of non-condemnation. Modern pharisees would immediately jump to retort, "Ah yes, but he told her to go and leave her life of sin. He called sin sin." Yes, he did. But, while he called her behavior sin, he refused to condemn her for it--so different from the rock-wielding crowd. Jesus began his relationship with this woman from a position of acceptance and love, rather than one of finger-pointing and accusation. He knew that she'd never have a shot at her hearing his words of wisdom, if he didn't first start with non-condemnation.
Jesus understood that accusation breeds defensiveness, but acceptance breeds cooperation. If you want to help someone change their life, first it's a good idea that they want to change it, too. You can't expect someone to make a change if they don't want that change. Here, the Pharisees were trying to force the woman to fit their standards, rather than lovingly helping her to live a better life . If you want to help someone along, it's best to do so from a position where you've come alongside them, instead of expecting them to follow your lead--especially when your leadership is lacking.
And, just perhaps, it's better NOT to try to change a person at all, than it is to expect them to follow your expectations for their life. Unconditional love means simply showering that person with grace and acceptance, regardless of their behavior that you disagree with. It means that if they do want to change, you'll support that--but if they never change, you'll love and support them just the same.
This leads to my next "What if the Church" question. What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others? Romans 8:1 (NIV) says,
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
What if the church understood that this means two things? First, it means that those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer subject to the condemnation of God. But second, it means that we should no longer have a spirit of condemnation hanging about us. Since we are freed from the spirit of sin and death, we no longer hold other people accountable to the law that we've been set free from ourselves.
Being a Christian means being like Christ. Jesus refused to condemn a woman that he had every right to condemn, under the law. But instead, he gave her grace. Before she asked for it. Before she changed her life. Not because she'd done anything to deserve it--just because she was a child of God. What if the church did the same thing?
I mean, don't we have enough sins of our own to focus on? This past Sunday, I heard a sermon in which the pastor told a story of a fellow minister who set up a confession booth in a local park. Folks would stop in from time to time--but instead of hearing the confessions of the people, the pastor confessed to them the sins of the church. He asked the community whether there was anything his church needed to apologize for. What an impact it made! Sometimes, the people said, "Yes, there is this thing that the church did," or, "Christians have hurt me in this way..." Yes, the church and Christians who make up the church have done a lot of harm to others in the name of religion. What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others? What if we took the plank out of our own eye before we tried to take the speck out of someone else's?
Again, it's not the scope of this article to discuss the sin or un-sin or the things mentioned in this article that some people may consider sin. Why? Because I'm going to focus more on my own sin rather than trying to find sin in other people. And you know what I find when I focus on my own sin?
Number one, yeah--I've got some things that I need to change in my life. I've got some areas where I need to grow, and honestly, some areas where I need to shrink. But that's my business, not yours.
Number two, all my sin is forgiven already in Christ, so there's no need to beat myself up for any of it.
Number three, since I've been forgiven, the natural response is to turn around and give other people grace, too.
So I'll ask again: What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others? How would it change the way we relate to people? How would it change the way people respond to us?