How we Respond to Christ’s People when they are Oppressed Reveals the condition of our Heart

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46)

The Scripture virtually applies itself, right? Think about it. How many of those adjectives fit the Christian who is being terrorized by an abuser? –

  • Hungry
  • Thirsty
  • Stranger (isolated by her abuser)
  • Naked (another sign of economic oppression)
  • Sick (most victims suffer from poor health)
  • In prison (abuse is a prison, and the legal abuse so often effected by the abuser through the courts is a kind of prison)

Who is it that Jesus has a beef with in this Scripture? Answer: “Christians” who blew off such a person’s needs. Notice carefully (read the entire passage to see this more clearly) that Jesus is saying that the acid test that discerns a sheep from a goat is how a person treats one of Christ’s true people when they are in need or distress. This passage is not about the typical social ministries churches so often carry out and even boast of (prison ministries, feeding the poor, etc). Those are actually easy things to do and they earn society’s praise. No. Jesus is speaking here of true Christians who are oppressed for being Christians and of how a person who claims to be a Christian responds to them.

This Scripture would indicate that there are lots and lots and lots of pastors and church leaders and church members who CLAIM to be followers of Jesus Christ but who, indeed, are not. How do we know? Because the typical response of churches to abuse victims is… well, you all know the answer, don’t you?

And therefore, there are many people today who claim the name of Jesus Christ for themselves who ought to be doing some serious soul-searching about the reality of their professed salvation. After all, they are flunking the very test our Lord has set out here.  Pretty sobering, huh?

What Are the Biblical Character Qualities for the Office of Pastor/Elder?

With far too common frequency we receive letters and emails from abuse victims who have been ex-communicated from their churches because they have separated from or divorced their abusers. These victim/survivors have come to see that divorce is indeed permissible for abuse even though their pastors and elders and fellow church members insist that it is not. These enlightened victims understand that God does not require reconciliation in every situation and that genuine forgiveness does not necessarily include such reconciliation. In fact, Godly wisdom dictates against a resumption of relationship and trust in these kinds of cases. And yet, for walking in these truths with full freedom of conscience before the Lord, these oppressed people are further oppressed by their churches, even to the point of ex-communication.

I would like to speak to this travesty of justice (and mercy) in regard to two points:

  1. A reminder of just what biblical ex-communication is, and
  2. Two character qualities required in an elder or pastor that seem to be lacking these days in so many church leaders.

What is ex-communication? Is it a revocation of one’s membership in a local club of some kind? Is it an informing of an individual that they are no longer permitted to attend a particular church? It appears to me that these are the very kinds of things that church leaders have in their minds when they enact this “putting out of the church” step in church discipline.  Yet these answers are not the biblical answers to our question. These kinds of attitudes treat ex-communication far too lightly and as a result ex-communication is used in cases that it should not be. Listen to the Word of God:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1Co 5:1-5)

I have no doubt that the churches who are ex-communicating abuse victims because they leave or divorce their abusers would stammer and stutter if they were asked “so, it was your intent to hand this woman over to Satan for the destruction of her flesh, is that right?” Well….uh….    Notice the gross and rank nature of the man’s sin here in 1 Corinthians 5. Openly and shamelessly fornicating with (perhaps) his step-mother and bragging about it by coming to church with her! And notice carefully where the arrogance lies, according to Paul. It is with the church! With the pastors and elders who have not only refused to deal with this rank evil, but have arrogantly embraced it. Let’s see, that sounds a whole lot like what is happening in our churches in respect to the abuser. We boast about how merciful and gracious we are and point to the wicked man sitting in our midst as an example!

But, to the nature of ex-communication.  Listen again —

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mat 18:17-20)

Once more we see the very sobering nature of ex-communication. The two or three witnesses (God’s rules of evidence) testify to the guilty person’s sin, it is announced to the church, and the church’s verdict is given Jesus’ own authority. The decision is bound in heaven. Among other things, this means that JESUS Himself has rejected the unrepentant person and not only fully concurs with the verdict but acts as the supreme court that validates the sentence. So ex-communication is not merely dismissal and exclusion from a local church. It is the New Testament equivalent of being put “outside the camp” and under the Lord’s own curse. As the decree is bound in heaven, it cannot be side-stepped by merely going down the road to another local church as if nothing had happened.  [One of  the frequent problems we experience in genuine, biblical exercise of church discipline in cases of notorious, open, evil sin is that the process of ex-communication, intended among other things to protect the church and to bring the guilty one to repentance, is short-circuited by churches who unquestioningly announce “everyone is welcome here”].

We have heard of pastors and elders telling an abuse victim “you cannot come to this church anymore because you will not reconcile with your husband.” But do we all understand that there is NO biblical basis for such an action? A divisive person is to be rejected after a first and second warning (Titus 3:10-11) and rank heretics are to be pronounced anathema (Galatians 1). People who claim to be Christians but who habitually live in wickedness, we are not to even eat with (1 Cor 5). But will anyone argue that an abuse victim who leaves her abuser and who refuses to be duped into reconciling with him fits any of these categories? I think that the answer is obvious, and I also believe that this is one of the reasons that half-measures of discipline are used by churches to send victims away.

Other churches, let’s say ones that hold to the “permanence view” of marriage – no divorce for any reason at all and no remarriage as long as the spouse is still alive – practice their PV doctrine in their own circle and tell people they discipline for divorcing for ANY reason that “well, you can go down the road and find another church that will allow you to be there, but you can’t be here because we don’t cotton to what you did” are also taking a non-biblical view of church discipline. Either the ex-communication is biblical, is endorsed by Jesus Himself, and is therefore binding upon ALL true churches, or it is not. You can’t pronounce someone anathema or say they are handed over to Satan only in your own local church, yet advise them to seek fellowship in some other church.

Alright then, now to the second point I wanted to discuss and which is the basis for the title of this article. This concerns the biblical character qualities for the office of pastor and elder.  Here they are:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1Ti 3:1-7)This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you — if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Tit 1:5-9)So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1Pe 5:1-3)

It is apparent to me that something is very wrong in many if not most of our local churches. You can’t study this subject of abuse and talk with scores of abuse victims who are genuine Christians and hear the stories one after the other about how they were treated and even ex-communicated by their churches when they sought help in dealing with their abuser and not eventually come to realize that something is very, very wrong with the leaders of many churches. As I have looked over the three passages quoted above, I have concluded that the dealing of injustice to victims is a sure sign of an absence of at least three character qualities that are indispensable for the pastor/elder.  These are:

  1.  Not arrogant
  2. Not seeking shameful gain
  3. Not domineering

These are all very much related. And the tie that binds these three together is PRIDE. We are not seeing Godly humility and a servant’s heart in the leaders of churches that shamefully treat abuse victims, but quite the opposite. Any single one of these three negative qualities disqualifies a man for service as pastor/elder and in fact will necessarily result in such an officer dealing out injustice to the weak and oppressed. An arrogant, gain-seeking, domineering man is not going to deal out the mercy and compassion and justice of Jesus Christ.

I must conclude that any pastor or elder who insists that divorce for abuse IS definitely and without question sinful and un-biblical is arrogant.  Why?  Because so many Christians all through church history have held a different position on the biblical grounds for divorce. For any of us to rise up and announce that we are so certain WE are right, even to the point of being willing to hand a person over to Satan and place them under the condemnation of the Lord himself, is rank arrogance. Can you see that? I hope so.

In regard to shameful gain-seeking, a pastor or elder motivated by a lust for material gain or for self-acclaim because of his office is never going to stand with the weak and oppressed. It is too costly. And cost is not what such a person has in mind. It is far more profitable to stand with the abuser in so many of these cases because that is where the power and money and assets are.

And finally, this business of domineering or lording it over the flock. This is the Diotrephes of 3 John. It is a love to be first. It is an abuser who has obtained office in the church. The lover of power and control. Such a person issues decrees and pronouncements and demands that all bow the knee to what he says. He is one who “talks down” to the people of Christ and exalts himself above them. Domineering is arrogance in action.

In contrast, the Lord Jesus sets the example of how He expects His flock to be shepherded. It is a laying down of one’s life. It is loving and serving the bride of Christ. It is standing with the weak and opposing the wicked. It is dying to oneself and walking in the footsteps of the Chief Shepherd.

Today I received a refreshing report of a pastor who IS eminently qualified for his office. He announced to his church that he has been ignorant of the nature of abuse, that he has mis-handled some of these cases in the past, and that he has resolved to set himself to correcting these deficiencies. Now there is a true shepherd of Christ’s people.

The Method of Interpreting Scripture in the Conservative Evangelical Church Needs a Reboot

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Mat 23:23-24)

All the years I was in graduate school and then seminary, I was taught how to interpret the Bible. We took courses like Bible Study Methods, New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew. We had classes in preaching in which we learned methods of outlining a passage of Scripture and then turning that outline into a “homiletical” one that would be the framework of the sermon, using more contemporary and memorable outline headings. That jump from exegetical outline to homiletical outline was, as I look back on it, a pretty dangerous one that often resulted in the real meaning of a passage being framed in some catchy phrase to make it “relevant.”

I have been preaching God’s Word in Christ’s church now for over three decades, and over these years I have seen my method of sermon preparation change. I didn’t sit down and decide one day to do it. It has just happened. In earlier years “exegesis” was my main focus. A close, careful examination of the passage I would preach on including careful word studies to determine their true meanings. These were the things of lexicons, Greek grammars and syntax, BDB (the classic Hebrew lexicon), and then intricate computer programs that searched all these tools at once and made the books I carefully collected over the years obsolete. I still use these tools some, but…

Things have changed.

Why? Because in dealing with evil in the church, in seeing firsthand the grievous experiences of abuse victims at the hands of their churches, I have been forced to face the fact that somehow our method of handling God’s Word has frequently gone sadly wrong. For all of our studies and training, we have misapplied and misconstrued the, shall I say it…spirit of the Word. And I suggest that this is precisely what Jesus confronted the Pharisees with. In the gnat-straining process of our Bible study methods, we have missed the biggies: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Mat 23:1-4)

Do you see it? They apparently read the text of Scripture accurately as they read from the scrolls, but when it came to the application of the Scripture, they got it wrong. Why? Because they were arrogant, and that arrogance and their seeking of self-glory led them to entirely miss justice, mercy, and faithfulness which was to guide the interpretation and application of the Scripture, and instead applied the Scripture in a way that put a crushing weight on the poor souls of the people. By the way, and I hope that everyone catches the full import of what I am about to say: “In all my years of seminary, not one single professor, not one single class, not one single book I read EVER admonished us to be certain that our handling of Scripture affirmed God’s justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And yet these are the VERY things that Jesus identified as the BIGGIES”!! Chew on that for a bit.

Pastors, church members, elders, seminary professors, Christian authors, stop it! We have been doing the very same things ourselves. How? Well, come back to the abuse victim who comes to us for help. Tell me, are we regularly giving them the justice, mercy, and faithfulness that characterizes the very essence of the Lord Himself? I maintain that the answer is a resounding, “No!” What they are regularly receiving is heavy burdens, hard to bear, laid upon their shoulders. Burdens that the very people tying them on the poor souls would never lay upon themselves if they were in such a position of suffering.Go ahead. Study Greek. Learn Hebrew. Carefully consider sound Bible study methods. BUT after doing all that, remember. If your method and your conclusions in handling God’s own Word are not consistent with the character of God as shown to us in the Person and works of the Lord Jesus Christ, then it matters not a mite how much intricate gnat straining you did in your study. Your conclusions are wrong. If you tell an abuse victim that she is forbidden by God to divorce her abuser, if you tell her God requires her to continue in that suffering, if you forbid her from remarrying if she does divorce the wicked husband, then your handling of Scripture is crooked. You are not “cutting it straight” as Paul exhorted Timothy to do:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2Tim 2:14-15)

I suspect there will be many, on that Day, who will have much need to be ashamed because they did not rightly handle the word of truth and those oppressed sheep who suffered as a result will be there as witnesses.