Over the past several years, I’ve become aware of a practice among brethren that I’ll call, for lack of a better term, family withdrawal. Here’s how it goes: a child of Christian parents falls away, usually in some dramatic fashion. In response, their family, particularly their parents, “withdraws” from them. They won’t eat with them. The erring Christian is no longer welcome at family gatherings. Sometimes, they won’t even talk to them.
This is certainly a severe sanction. As a young man, I would have been devastated if my parents had chosen to shun me like that. However, I do not believe that it is Biblically required, and I am not at all certain that it is even wise.
First, it’s worth noting that all of the passages in the New Testament that concern generic withdrawal, Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, are addressed to churches. These are texts about how communities of believers are to censure unruly members.
There is no corresponding command given to individuals (I believe that 1 Timothy 6:5b in the KJV is a later addition and does not belong in the text). Just as it is error to presume that anything an individual can do, the church can do, it’s equally erroneous to presume that all individual Christians are granted the powers of the church, and church discipline needs to be left in the hands of the church.
Even in cases where the church does withdraw from an individual, that decision will have different effects on the Christian family members of that individual than it will on anyone else. For instance, the woman of God whose husband is withdrawn from is still responsible for honoring 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, which calls her to the most intimate relationship of all. Indeed, if we read the text strictly, 1 Peter 3:1-6 appears to be addressed specifically to women with out-of-duty husbands. She is to attempt to win him back not by showing disapproval, but by showing love.
It’s appropriate to view other family relationships through a similar lens. Most Christian fathers understand Ephesians 6:4 to be primarily about young children, but secondarily to be about adult children. Certainly, my father continued to instruct me as long as he lived! Is family withdrawal more likely to be recognized as discipline and instruction, or as a provocation to anger?
We need also to consider 2 Thessalonians 3:15. Whatever actions we take as the result of a withdrawal, they need to communicate brotherly love and admonition rather than enmity. This is a particularly powerful instruction in a family context. Natural affection (the absence of which Paul condemns in Romans 1:31) calls families to associate with one another. If I stopped inviting my siblings to my house for the holidays, all who heard of it, even in the world, would assume that we had become enemies.
Of course, in the final analysis, all of us can associate with whomever we please and shun whomever we please. If someone believes that cutting off social interaction is the wisest way to deal with a child who isn’t faithful to the Lord, they can do that. However, that’s far from the only godly way to proceed, and I suspect that it is rarely the best.
Certainly, things cannot continue as they were between any Christian and a family member who turns their back on God, but there’s a lot of distance between that and cutting off most/all contact. In my experience, parents are most successful when they negotiate a middle way between those two extremes. Continued interaction combined with godly admonition seems to be the combination most likely to win an erring child back. Ostracism, on the other hand, rarely convinces anyone.
A few days ago, Ellen DeGeneres made headlines by sitting next to George W. Bush and daring to interact cordially with the man. Many expressed their shock that she would be civil to a conservative who did lots of conservative things while he was president. In response, DeGeneres opined that you’re supposed to be kind to everyone, regardless of what they have done.
As unremarkable as this might sound to Christians, apparently it too was controversial. Yesterday, this op-ed from Vanity Fair wandered across my news feed (side note: how many Vanity Fair readers these days are aware that the title comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress?). In it, the author takes DeGeneres to task for her never-never-land moralizing when presented with an enemy like Bush. Among his sins, the author numbers not only his intentional actions (starting the Iraq War) but also his unintentional errors (botching the response to Hurricane Katrina). One should, apparently, not socialize with those who make mistakes.
In this, I can’t help but see a twofold reminder of a) how badly we need Christ in order to be kind, and b) how bad things get without Him. Have self-professed Christians been ungracious and vengeful too? Of course they have! However, even atheists realize that this is not how things are supposed to go. The most religiously ignorant American out there is still aware that Jesus stands for the idea that you are supposed to be nice to people.
For those who are in the faith, the relationship between Christ and kindness is profound. Because of His grace, our lives are hidden in Him, and we have the hope of eternal life. His example teaches us to be gracious, and His blessings free us to be gracious. I can be kind even to my enemies without fear of being taken advantage of, because the damage they might do to me pales in comparison to the riches of His grace. Jesus makes His people invincible in doing good. No matter what happens, we still will overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us!
Take Christ away, and the invincibility drops out. If our lives aren’t hidden in Him, they can’t be hidden anywhere. Instead, we have to be eternally vigilant against threats to the things we value, and we must attack our enemies constantly to make sure they can’t harm us. Without the wealth of Christ’s forgiveness, we can’t afford to forgive others. In a dog-eat-dog world, the only imperative is to be the top dog.
It is only natural, then, for folks like the Vanity Fair writer to be vengeful, to be angry at DeGeneres for not scoring political points when she had the opportunity. Doesn’t she understand that this is ideological war to the knife??? You should only dole out kindness when you know it is safe and it will cost you nothing. Certainly, kindness should not be lavished on enemies!
To the worldly mind, all of the above makes sense and is logically consistent (and note, by the way, that I believe such worldliness is all too evident on the left and right alike. Donald Trump is not noted for his kindness to his enemies.). However, when a society embraces norms of ungraciousness and vindictiveness, the potential for disaster almost cannot be overstated. Civil wars don’t come from political disagreement. They come from the hearts of people who believe their enemies are hateful and worthless.
Christ stands for kindness because He stands for the intrinsic value of everyone. Apart from Him, I don’t know of any way to reach the conclusion that everyone matters. Without Him, we inevitably will behave as though no one does.
My father liked to observe (not original to him, I’m sure) that the parable of the prodigal son had been preached on from every perspective but that of the fatted calf. You’ve got the prodigal’s perspective, the father’s perspective, and the older son’s perspective, all of which offer different spiritual insights.
I think the same is true of the story of Brandt Jean forgiving and embracing Amber Guyger, the murderer of his brother. Because Jean is a Christian (and how!), many brethren have been drawn to write about the grace he showed. Indeed, I’ve agreed with and endorsed everything I’ve read from them.
However, I think there’s another perspective here, and that’s the perspective of the murderer herself. If you are a worldly person, how do you feel about forgiveness on such an epic scale?
I think the question is easy to answer with respect to forgiveness’s opposite. Let’s say Jean had gone up to Guyger and coldly informed her that he did want to see her rot in jail, and indeed, to see her rot in hell.
I think most people, Amber included, would see that as a natural (Ephesians 2:3 overtones intended) reaction from an 18-year-old whose brother had been brutally gunned down. Indeed, Titus 3:4 observes that being hateful and hating one another is the expected state of the sinner (side note: is it any wonder that as Christian values decline in our nation, hatred seems to be on an inexorable increase?).
We understand that. We get that, and I think that Guyger would have understood and gotten hatred and condemnation. Perhaps, in light of her expressions of remorse, it further would have crushed her and added to her guilt. Perhaps it would have made her defensive and hardened her heart against Jean and his family. These things too are reactions that are natural to us. We are prepared to see them and even to experience them.
On the other hand, if you are Amber Guyger, what in the world do you do with forgiveness? Hatred makes sense. Love does not. It is not what you are prepared to receive. Something that is not natural has occurred. The ground under your feet that you thought was stable has suddenly shifted.
That sense of mingled unease, awe, and fear is the sign that God has touched the world again. It appears literally all the way through the gospels, following hard on the heels of many (most?) of the miracles that Jesus works. He leaves people reeling, struggling to comprehend that the light of an ordinary day should have shone upon such a thing. This is most evident in the terrifying stillness of the empty tomb. His closest disciples flee the scene of His greatest miracle because a dead Jesus is easier to accept than a living one.
I believe that God touched the world again when Brandt Jean said, “I forgive you,” Every time a Christian does something that awes us, we see and feel the evidence of His handiwork. Does this constitute proof in any rigorous, scientific sense? No, but I think even the atheists in that courtroom that day know in their heart of hearts what they experienced.
Do as you will with your life, Amber Guyger, but know this. The kingdom of God has come near to you.
Several weeks ago, my brother and friend Dan DeGarmo wondered out loud online why any Christian would have a problem with the congregation clapping after a baptism that occurred during a regular time of assembly. In response, several brethren took the time to explain to him why they, personally, had a problem with clapping after baptisms. The conversation went (downhill?) from there.
For my part, clapping after baptisms strikes me as a classic de minimis issue. No, clapping after baptisms does not appear in the New Testament, but neither do a number of other minor practices. It is true that we have houses to eat and drink in, but just about all of our church buildings have water fountains in them too. Such things don’t have significant impact on our obedience to Christ whether we do them or not.
So too with clapping after baptisms. Most churches only infrequently have baptisms when the church is assembled (I wish it happened much more often!), and the clapping afterward simply isn’t a meaningful event in the spiritual life of the church. It’s an expression of joy on the part of the congregation that isn’t quite so steeped in Restoration-Movement tradition.
I myself don’t clap (being very steeped in Restoration-Movement tradition), but when I’m the one performing the baptism, I tend to hug the baptizee (Wet post-baptism hugs are the best!). There are hugs in the New Testament (though not after a baptism, so far as I recall), but that’s not why I do it. I don’t think deeply about it. I do it because I’m happy.
I don’t see a reason for the analysis to go farther than that. People who want to take it farther than that probably also have thought deeply about the spiritual implications of water fountains.
Having said that, I think that by far the bigger issue is how we Romans 14 our way through post-baptism applause. Do brethren who aren’t OK with clapping get judgy in the direction of brethren who are? Conversely, do brethren who clap shake their heads with contempt at those who oppose clapping? We do have relevant Scripture on this point, and both of those attitudes are problematic.
Rather, both clappers and non-clappers alike should learn to bear with and love those who disagree with them. Would you like to clap, but you know it bugs that old dude three rows up? Maybe it would be better to abstain and content yourself with ultra-Scriptural hugs after services are over. Are you anti-clapping, but you worship with a bunch of folks who applaud? Maybe it would be better to focus on their joy (and the joy of the angels in heaven) rather than on your unhappiness with the form that joy takes.
Surely, in an era so filled with divisiveness and strife, we don’t need to generate division and strife out of an issue like this! In Christ Jesus neither clapping nor not clapping counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
In my years of talking to people who are in the midst of leaving the church/leaving the Lord, I’ve found that I hear one justification more than any other. The departing Christian is leaving because of some failing on the part of the members of the congregation. They are hypocritical. They gossip. They are unfriendly. They care more about politics than Jesus. They are unloving.
Admittedly, I’ve become more cynical about these claims than I was 15 years ago. For instance, when somebody tells me, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me,” I typically understand them as meaning, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me except for those who did.” Frequently, there are inconvenient facts that cast doubt on the narrative.
Let’s suppose, though, for the sake of argument, that these claims are true. The disgruntled Christian has indeed seen brethren be hypocritical, gossipy, unfriendly, politically fixated, and unloving. Certainly, brethren can be all these things.
However, even the most virulent church-hater is unlikely to claim that all Christians are all these things all the time. Experientially, we know that the life of every disciple contains a mixture of good and bad behavior. So too does every congregation. The proportion varies from Christian to Christian and church to church, but both are always present.
When a Christian says, “I am going to overlook the good and focus on the bad,” that is fundamentally ungodly behavior. I mean that quite literally. In His relationship with us, God does exactly the opposite. He is merciful to our iniquities. He remembers our sins no more.
Indeed, this selective, gracious amnesia is the only thing that makes it possible for us to glorify Him. He forgets our sins, but He remembers our good works. Like the chisel of a sculptor, the grace of God removes everything from our lives that He does not desire, leaving only the image that He wishes us to bear. When Christ looks at His ransomed, washed, forgiven church, He sees an assembly that is unspotted, unwrinkled, holy, and without blemish. That is not because we are pure. It is because we are continually renewed and purified.
In our dealings with one another, who are we to remember what God has chosen to forgive and forget? Who are we to glue the chips of marble back onto the statue, to dump the filthy wash water back on the spotless wedding dress? And yet, that’s exactly what every Christian who complains about the conduct of God’s redeemed people is doing.
I will not deny that dwelling on the bad behavior of brethren is seductive. The devil makes it seductive. He loves to get us brooding over all the wrongs, real and imagined, that we have suffered. However, if we are committed to the higher calling of imitating Christ, that is precisely what we must not do.
If you’re thinking about giving up on God’s people, let me appeal to you. Don’t remember their sins. Remember their good works. Don’t remember the failed Christians. Remember the amazing ones.
Remember all the people whom you have seen with your own eyes be devoted to the word, joyful in worship, humble before the King, generous to the poor, and hospitable to everyone. Remember the brethren who did reach out rather than dwelling on the ones who didn’t.
And if the same brother who opens his wallet to people off the street loves himself a good political rant on Facebook too, make the choice that God makes. Overlook the sin committed in ignorance (unless you believe that you never sin ignorantly). Celebrate the goodness.
In short, love, and continue to belong accordingly. If ever there were a church that didn’t need grace to reveal its good works, none of us would have a right to belong to it.