Repentance, church discipline and being driven by the gospel

I read this article by Duncan Forbes this week. In it, Duncan asks the question, why is repentance so hard? The post was prompted by the following quote from this article in the Observer:

If I see myself as someone who is smart, competent and kind, and you give me some information that I have done something foolish, immoral or hurtful, I have a choice,” says US social psychologist Carol Tavris, co-author with Aronson of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). “I can revise my view of myself, or I can dismiss the evidence. Most people take the least painful path and dismiss the evidence.”

Duncan goes on to make six short observations about how this impacts our approach to repentance and restoration in the church.

One of the things that struck me as I read it is how poor we are at this in the UK church. I suspect in the majority of churches we just don’t have a culture of speaking to people directly about their sin and expecting to see actual repentance. I fear, as the Observer article suggests, this is a product of our group think. Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly middle class and I suspect we have imported very British middle class conflict resolution measures into our churches.

In my (albeit limited) experience of middle class families, the tendency is not to bring things out into the open at all. The facade must not be broken that we just don’t do these sorts of things. When conflict does arise, they “handle it” by seeking to brush it under the carpet. Avoidance of that which is awkward is the watchword and there is little more awkward than confronting, or being confronted, with your sin. So, relationships are protected by awkwardly raising the issue and quickly accepting apologies before waving the whole thing away and talking about something else quick sharp.

I have a working theory that the way we are with our family, particularly the way we parent our children, often works its way out in the way we shepherd our churches. If our family tendency is to brush stuff under the carpet, only confronting issues when they are significant problems and then happily brushing away the awkwardness as quickly as possible, that is going to have real ramifications for our church discipline.

In working class churches – albeit not always – life is lived publicly and in close proximity to others. Sin, where it arises, is often lived out in the open. As such, the ability to address such issues in the church is somewhat easier. It isn’t quite as awkward (although it’s not easy) raising issues with people because everybody knows the issue already – in fact, it’s usually been brought up by the person themselves. That’s not to say folks don’t get offended or defensive when challenged about their behaviours, but it does mean they tend to be more aware of how others are living their lives differently (presuming they are) and how their behaviour is not in keeping. The awkwardness of raising the issue itself is less because it’s already out in the open so to speak.

In middle class churches, lives are often lived more separately. People see each other at the meetings of the church and then go back home to their families, with minimal interaction with church members throughout the week (again, I appreciate this isn’t true everywhere). But that makes raising issues of sin extremely awkward, particularly as self-sufficiency is valued highly and anything that breaks the illusion of total togetherness involves loss of face.

These are cultural matters. But it bears saying Evangelicalism is predominantly middle class and reflects the conflict resolution process of its core constituents. As the quote Duncan highlighted makes clear, most people simply want to dismiss the evidence laid before them and those bringing it tend to want to avoid conflict at almost any cost and thus paper over relational disharmony. It is for this reason it is not uncommon to find Christians meeting together formally – taking communion together as a sign of right standing and fellowship – whilst not speaking to one another because nobody ever insisted on proper reconciliation.

This same principle plays out in other ways too. It can happen when there is conflict at an interchurch level. We can very often insist on repentance (and, let’s be honest, many mediators are all too ready to settle for, ‘well, I’ve said “sorry”‘). Such as that is actually the fruit of genuine repentance, we all too often happily leave it there without expecting any sort of reconciliation. As a result, we allow rifts within our denominations, gospel partnerships or other modes of formal interchurch fellowship because we quickly seek repentance without reconciliation. Worse, we tend to just want to brush it all under the carpet because that avoids the awkwardness of actually calling out sin and pushing people to real change.

And I don’t consider myself any better than anyone else on this score. The church is often driven by the idol of comfort and I make no pretence that I am somehow immune. Yes, I minister in a deprived community (bully for me!) but let’s not pretend that my ministry decisions – if we’re honest, like a lot of us – aren’t at least sometimes made with an eye on the question, ‘will this make my life easier?’

Which is, incidentally, why church discipline so often goes down the toilet. It’s not that we think the behaviour is OK. Nor is it that we think it doesn’t matter. We pretty much recognise something must be done. The reason nothing happens is because it’s awkward and doesn’t make my life easier. In fact, it makes it a darn sight harder. I don’t like the aggro, the strained relationship, the muttering of those who don’t believe anything should have been done or who think something should be done, just not that, in that way.

But, of course, church discipline isn’t about doing what is easy or fun. We do it for the sake of bringing a wanderer back to the Lord and restoring them to proper fellowship. When we are motivated by gospel reasoning, much more of church life falls into place. The things we do are aimed at helping the gospel advance, either into the world outside or in the lives of the believers inside. If we allow our ministries to be gospel-driven, and centred on gospel priorities, we are much less likely to to fall into the trap of doing whatever makes my life easier and avoiding church discipline because it’s all a bit awkward.