It seemed to me an entirely non-controversial article and yet it turned out to create more of a stir than most things I write! The irony was that an article which suggested we should avoid doing church discipline through social media – was condemned and critiqued on social media!
It is clear to me that worldly methods lead to worldly results. The world knows how to destruct, but struggles with construction. One aspect of this was pointed out by Douglas Murray in a short but brilliant chapter in his book The Madness of Crowds. The modern world does not do forgiveness. ‘We have created a world in which forgiveness is almost impossible’.
Think about how this is done in today’s culture. First, there is the public shaming. Someone has to be ‘called out’ in public. Their sin has to be widely publicised. Then it must never be forgotten. And – thanks to the internet and search engines – it will never be forgotten. The public shaming of people for their present and past sins (we haven’t as yet got on to predicting their future ones, although doubtless that will soon come!) has led to an increase in ‘schadenfreude’ – the delight in the trouble of others – as those we don’t like or agree with, get their comeuppance.
All of this is profoundly anti-Christian. There is a place for naming and shaming in public (witness Nathan’s rebuke of David, or Paul’s writing to the Corinthians about a case of sexual immorality in their midst), but the notion that we should publicly expose every sin is not only impractical (how long would it take?) but also cruel. Do we really want to bring back the penitent’s stool – the practice of getting a ‘sinner’ (usually someone guilty of adultery or some sexual sin) to sit on a stool in front of the whole church? There are some sins which should be publicly rebuked, but the trouble with today’s culture is that anything anyone has done which is known, can, and will, be brought up. I have written hundreds of articles – which undoubtedly contain wrong, harmful, and sinful things. If we were all to be cancelled for any wrong thing we have said or done then who would be left? ‘If you Lord, kept a record of sins, who should stand?’ (Ps.130:3). If the Lord does not keep a record of sins – why should His people?
As for never forgetting. I think of those who have written things that they now regret but, rightly, fear that their name will be mud in some circles from now on – because every mistake or sin from the past can be brought up at the push of a button. In my first church I came across an elderly man who told me that under no circumstances would he come to church – because of the hurt it had caused him. Thinking this was some recent event I asked him what had happened. The great sin he had experienced? He had been given the wrong Sunday School prize some 60 years earlier! Love keeps no record of wrongs?! When we say that we will forgive but never forget, then we are being ungodlike. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Ps.103:12).
In an insightful passage, Murray says: ‘Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically, that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered.’ That is true of the world. It also seems as though the church has forgotten. We have our own version of cancel culture.
Where this ends is not in no forgiveness – but in selective forgiveness. We forgive the people we like, or those whose views or tribe we like; we condemn those who we don’t like. We pass on juicy gossip about those we want to see brought down a peg or two, we pass by the sins of those who are on our side. None of this is to argue for ignoring, excusing, or covering up the sins of others, or even our own. But it is to say that we should deal with sin in the Biblical way – not the world’s unforgiving and unforgetting black and white brutality.
All of this surely shows the importance not only of having Biblical church discipline, but also the necessity for us to have a good Biblical theology of humanity, sin, and redemption. If we all had the self-awareness that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, perhaps our dealings with one another would show a little more humility and grace? It’s a simple but profound prayer. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.