of Offenses in the
It is difficult but necessary to
question of "letting go" in terms of forgiving or releasing the sins,
offenses and abuses in an unhealthy church environment. This article
will explore Scriptural
texts and practical ideas on how to put an unhealthy and
hurtful church experience in the past.
Interestingly, the words most
frequently translated "forgive" in the New Testament are the Greek noun
"aphesis" and verb "apheimi"
for this concept. These words have the connotation of separating,
putting off, removing when
used in this context. They are derived from apo, from, and hiemi, to put in motion, send.
Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,
1-697) . So the idea of "letting go" is closely related
to the idea of forgiveness.
The Pauline epistles tend to use the
Greek verb "charidzomai" as in 2
12:13, Colossians 3:13. It is a cognate of the word for "grace"
and thus has to do with the giving of a "gift" in light of an offense
Brown, op. cit, 2-122).
Yet the idea of forgiveness is
frequently defined incorrectly in an
church. In that environment, forgiveness often means a denial that any
damage or hurt took place, and a denial that wrong was done. As might
definitions of forgiveness don't
validate the offenses done to members of the body of Christ but rather
serve to perpetuate the unhealthy environment. Thankfully, such
definitions of forgiveness are not consistent with the Scriptures.
from the Scriptures
From the ministry and example of
Jesus as well as the history of the early church, there are several
lessons we can learn concerning forgiveness.
1. Jesus was not consumed or
overwhelmed by the sins and gross failures
of others. Not only was Jesus fully aware of the sinfulness of mankind,
he was particularly aware of the sins of the religious leaders and the
system that gave them power and oppressed the people. While there are
instances where Jesus addressed these things passionately (e.g. Matthew
23), in general the picture of Jesus in the gospels is not one of a man
preoccupied, consumed or persistently indignant due
to these things.
2. It might be easy to dismiss
observation #1 on the grounds that these
sins were not directed toward Jesus personally. But even as the sins
of the religious leaders came to be directed more and more toward him
personally, culminating with the crucifixion, Jesus still
does not give the appearance of a man consumed by these sins. In fact,
upon the cross he utters, "Father, forgive them, for they do
not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34), showing that Jesus did not
focus upon wrong done to him. He saw a bigger picture.
3. While Jesus is able
to avoid being focused on these
sins of others directed toward him, it does not prevent him from
speaking directly, frankly and passionately about these sins both to
the offenders and
toward others in general (e.g. Matthew 15:14; "blind guides").
4. Jesus did not require his followers to confront
corruptions in the system individually (as in the spirit of Matthew
18:15-17) or to "try to make it better." Instead, he told his followers, "Leave them; they
are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into
a pit" (Matthew 15:14). In passages where Jesus
instructs some form of obedience to these leaders (e.g. Mt 8:4, 23:3),
he shows respect for the Law and the priests' role in the system even
though it had become corrupted. Such obedience was mandated by the law
and hardly an endorsement of the corrupt leadership and system.
5. In Luke
23:34, Jesus does not condone or ignore the sin of those crucifying
he calls it "sin" and then forgives it. This pattern of recognition of
sin and subsequent forgiveness is key to understanding a Scriptural
perspective of forgiveness.
6. In Luke
23:34, Jesus appears to be able to
separate the evil sin from the person who was created for a greater
purpose than to perpetrate such sins. This is part of the "bigger
picture" Jesus was able to see concerning sins. Of course, Jesus'
crucifixion had massive implications concerning the redemption of
mankind, and this was another part of the "bigger picture" that he was
able to recognize.
7. Another part of this "bigger
picture" was that Jesus knew how
sophisticated social and religious systems work, and that some people
were more culpable for the sins of an abusive system than others. He
knew Pilate was guilty of condemning an innnocent man, but he also said
that those who handed him over to Pilate were guilty of a "greater sin"
(John 19:11). Pilate was doing the dirty work of the Sanhedrin, and
Jesus knew it. Something to keep in mind about an abusive system--
mete out abuse and harshness are often "middle men" in the system and
recipients of similar treatment from
their higher-ups as well. This doesn't completely excuse individuals
their responsibility for their actions, but it does help us understand
8. From the cross, Jesus' utterance
of forgiveness seems to suggest
forgive sin did not depend upon the sorrow of the offender. There are
other questions raised here beyond the scope of this article--e.g. here
he asks the Father to forgive these sins, in other places he simply
pronounces sins forgiven, and in still other places penitence seems to
a key to the pronouncement of forgiveness. Regardless of those
discussions, the point here is that Jesus desires to forgive apart from
the penitence of the offenders. He does not carry indignation toward
those who crucified him to his grave.
9. In Jesus' words of forgiveness to
those crucifying him, he cites
their ignorance as a factor. Perhaps if we viewed those who
sin against us as not knowing any better, it would be easier to forgive
10. Considering that Jesus used the
crucifixion to redeem all of
mankind, he certainly had the last laugh over Satan, the Sanhedrin and
Pilate. He fulfilled the Scripture, "he will crush your head, and you
will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
11. Concerning his followers, Jesus
said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive
him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes
back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him" (Luke
17:3-4). In this text, we see a pattern: an offense,
truthfully identified as sin, sorrow expressed,
and an individual forgiven. The point of this text is that Jesus does
not condone holding grudges when
there is sorrow on the part of the offender. He wants his people to
forgive as he forgives them (Matthew 6:14-15).
12. In the church age, forgiveness
takes on a slightly different shape.
Generally, Christians are enjoined to forgive one another (Colossians
3:13). This presupposes that offenses will generally be a part of
church life and that in the humility of church life all have some form
of penitence for their offenses in general. The church is a community
of grace where offenses are routinely committed and forgiven.
13. However, it is evident that not
all sins are forgiven upon
commission. Jesus allowed for situations where the apostles might not
forgive the sins of some (John 20:23). Paul forgave sin in a particular
situation only after repentance had taken place (2 Corinthians 2:10).
Further, church discipline exists in various forms (Matthew 18:15-17, 1
Corinthians 5:11 et. al.) to draw attention to serious unrepented-of
that remains. It is evident that these sins are not trivial nor
routine. Some sins are more serious and/or damaging and require more
14. It is critical for the life of
the church that sin be identified as
such, especially in the case of more serious and damaging sins. The
matter in which Paul confronted Peter for excluding the
Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13) has Peter condemned. No doubt Peter had
repented of this sin and was forgiven. But the sin was serious,
striking at the very validity of the cross to draw together Jew and
Gentile. This incident was mentioned later
by Paul in the Galatian epistle for the purpose of instructing his
Similarly, Jesus forgave those who crucified him, yet Peter could still
the sinners as "wicked men" (Acts 2:23). The gospels record
the sins of the apostles and others at various times, yet often these
sins were forgiven. Part of
forgiving sin is calling it "sin;" part of being forgiven of sin is the
freedom to call it "sin" without being perpetually discredited or
shamed. It is doubtful
that Peter would ever say, "Can we quit talking about that Gentile
incident in Antioch now?" Or can you imagine Peter wanting to remove
stories of his sins during the earthly ministry of Jesus from the
gospels? The church's ability to clearly identify
right and wrong is a higher priority than protecting any church system
15. Forgiveness is never to be
mistaken with misidentifying
something sinful as something else (a bad idea, difference of opinion,
minimizing it, etc.). Likewise, forgiveness is not pretending
that wrongdoing has not
taken place or that harm has not been done. In the
incident with Paul and Peter, Paul records that "even Barnabas was led
astray." Leadership sins have harm and impact that must be seen and
stated explicitly. Citing such stories shows the harm that can result
from them. It is NOT "unforgiving" to make mention of
such incidents for the purpose of instructing and warning others.
16. Some have cited Hebrews 10:17
remember them no more") as "proof" that sins previously repented of
should never be mentioned again. A preacher advocating this view
might say, "If
God doesn't remember it, why should you?" Some Christians hear things
like this and feel incredibly guilty for "remembering" sins toward
them. However, this is terrible
exegesis and logic. God is fully aware of all sins that have ever been
committed. Many are recorded right in the Bible-- is he really unaware
of these? Does his Bible have blanks in those spots? When he says he
"remembers them no more" it is a figure of
speech indicating that they have no bearing upon future dealings. They
have been forgiven as though they had been forgotten. Was Paul in sin
for bringing up the Antioch Gentile
incident to the Galatians? Was he remembering something that should
have been forgotten? Clearly, any past sin, identified as such, can be
used for instruction (ref. Romans 15:4) . It is extremely important for
the church to be
able to identify what is sinful, and drawing upon past incidents allows
it to do this. Forgetting past sins can set the stage for them to be
17. Differences of opinion cannot be
forgiven, because they are not
sin. Differences of opinion on "disputable matters" must be respected
by all (Romans 14:1, 15:7). Problems arise when one attempts to
bind such an opinion upon others, or to assail others for being
unspiritual or "less" for having that opinion. Sometimes, one man's
matter" is another man's "core doctrine." Resolving this dilemma is
beyond the scope of this article, but isn't it evident that if there is
a dispute about something by otherwise faithful Christians, it is by
definition a "disputable matter?"
18. In cases of dispute regarding
matters of opinion, sometimes a
separation of some sort may be necessary (e.g. Acts
15:36-39). However, efforts should be made to make these amicable.
19. False teachings must be
confronted and identified as such. They
should not be excused, ignored or treated as mere differences of
opinion on disputable matters.
The New Testament is full of examples of apostolic writers identifying
false teachings and making them well known (e.g. Romans 16:17-18).
Casual forgiveness (as in the spirit of Colossians 3:13) is not offered
to false teachers as these are beyond the scope of normal Christian
interaction. False teachings constitute a severe threat to the church
the church is warned accordingly.
Do You Do This?
Having said all of this, I want to
avoid lazy, spiritual-sounding counsel
to the victims of spiritual abuse to "just be like Jesus." Anybody can
say, "just be like Jesus" in a given situation, but actually doing it
is something else altogether! We can be inspired
to follow his example and have his example point the way to what is
right-- but we live in a fallen
So we can know what is
right in these
areas, but we are not likely to be able to do it quite like we'd like,
as soon as we'd like.
We need God's help through the Holy Spirit, the support of those around
us, and time to deal with these experiences.
- Jesus was able see the
ignorance of those who crucified him and
the bigger picture of the crucifixion event; we
are more likely to see religious leaders claiming God-given
to practice their abuse and wonder if God sanctions the abuse.
was able to separate the sin from the sinner; we are more likely to
difficulty separating the sin from the sinner.
- Jesus could see the big
picture of evil in the world and even the redemptive value of his
suffering through mistreatment; we may be indignant that some people
might claim God's authority to do wrong, that the behavior that hurt us
continues unchecked and that still others will continue to be hurt.
- Jesus saw that Pilate was the "fall guy"
for his crucifixion, but he
knew that others were more responsible for it; we may have difficulty
seeing that a system was behind the wrongs that were done to us.
- Jesus saw resurrection and the
redemption of mankind on the other side of the cross; we may see only
degredation and humiliation from the abuse we suffer and not see the
freedom or spiritual growth we gain after leaving that environment.
Moving on to
the next chapter
of your spiritual life can also help. The more you're living for today
and the future instead of dwelling on the past, the easier it is to
Context of the
Unhealthy Church Experience
a sin or offense is recognized and understood, it cannot be forgiven.
By its very nature, spiritual abuse often takes months and even years
of work to understand. As one
evaluates and unravels traumatic incidents of spiritual abuse, it is
inevitable that more sinful things will come to light. Journaling and
discussing the abuse with trusted
competent counselors can
help the victims of spiritual abuse understand what happened. Certain
may trigger painful recollections of abuse as well. Each of these
requires identification as sin and the same "putting off" discussed in
One other great
those who have suffered mistreatment and abuse in a church setting-- it
is the question of justice. Granting
may seem like justice won't be served, that wrong won't be recognized,
perhaps even that you won't be vindicated or that shame and denigration
However, forgiveness allows wrong to be recognized and the forgiver to
be elevated. And as Jesus
to the Father we too can entrust questions of justice to him:
they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he
suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who
judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)
not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is
written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the
contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty,
give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals
on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with
good. (Romans 12:19-21)
If victims of spiritual abuse or
unhealthy church systems don't
eventually let the offenses go (once they
are properly understood), it is like being damaged twice-- first
by the actual offense, second by its lasting impact in crippling the
life of the one offended. Freedom comes not in persuading
the abusers of the wrong and harm from their sin (though this may be
possible and helpful), but from releasing them as Jesus did. This is
not easy, but by recognizing wrongdoing and then forgiving it, victims
of such behavior can experience the validation necessary to let go and