Witch hunts are common in the church today. The connection between Saddleback and Salem is people seeing sin in others instead of themselves.
Relics of Witch Hunts
If you visit the 1692 Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts you can see relics of the witch hunts. That museum puts on display all the atrocities that took place when people decided that other people’s sin was their business, and their duty to punish. You can learn about the self-righteousness of those who called themselves Puritans—but don’t fool yourself into thinking that puritans are extinct in the church today.
Gender Witch Hunts
When I was a kid in the Southern Baptist denomination, “those liberals” were the ones who had abandoned God’s word so much that they actually believed God could call women (gasp!) into the ministry. Now, the SBC has disfellowshipped Saddleback and four other churches for the sin of having a female pastor. This doesn’t come as a surprise. I grew up and went to seminary during the Fundamentalist Takeover, or what the right-wing leadership called the Conservative Resurgence, in which the denomination systematically dismissed free-thinking professors from their teaching professions. Faithful missionaries were pulled from the field because they wouldn’t toe the fundamentalist line. So, the news of Saddleback is no shock.
LGBTQIA+ Witch Hunts
That denomination’s puritanical leadership continues its witch hunts today. One of the distinctive features of being a Baptist is that each believer and congregation is free to interpret the Bible as they see fit, as led by the Holy Spirit. Yet time and again, the Southern Baptist Convention, its subsidiary state conventions, or their subsidiary associations have dismissed congregations for taking a stand to support its gay church members or recognize their legal marriages. Conservatives who support this repudiation of fellow believers defend their actions by saying they are protecting the purity of the church. But in reality, they are showing themselves to be modern witch hunters. They use the Bible as a rifle scope to focus on what they believe to be the sins of other people, rather than using the Bible as a mirror to inspect their own imperfections.
Hypocritical Religious Leaders
It’s easier to focus on what you believe to be other people’s sins than it is to take a hard look at your own. Going through the handwritten history books of Baptist churches I served as pastor, I found occasions where members were banished from congregations for offenses such as dancing or attending “eggnog parties.” No doubt, the tattlers believed they were defending the innocence of the church. In reality, they were maligning the character of others because it’s easier to do that than it is to focus on one’s own spiritual well-being. It was the same in Jesus’ day.
Jesus and the Hypocritical Religious Leaders
John 8:1-11 (NLT) records the story of Jesus and the hypocritical religious leaders.
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.
They put her in front of the crowd. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.
They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
A Trap for Jesus
In this story, the puritanical religious leaders were on a witch hunt. As was true in the Salem days, they had ulterior motives. It wasn’t really to maintain purity in the community. It was a ploy to trap Jesus. In ministry, I’ve often found that when people have come to me with questions about another person’s sin, it’s really either an attempt to trap me, or it’s out of a desire to have their own virtue confirmed. When one person accuses another of something, you can bet it’s not out of concern for the accused. But Jesus’ approach was different.
Jesus took an approach of non-condemnation. When I point this out, modern puritans immediately retort, “Ah yes, but he told her to go and leave her life of sin. He called sin sin.” Yes, he did. But, while he called her behavior sin, he refused to condemn her for it—so different from the rock-wielding crowd. Jesus began his relationship with this woman from a position of acceptance and love, rather than one of finger-pointing and accusation. He knew that she’d never have a shot at her hearing his words of wisdom if he didn’t first start with non-condemnation.
Accusation vs. Acceptance
Jesus understood that accusation breeds defensiveness, but acceptance breeds cooperation. If you want to help someone change their life, first it’s a good idea to see if they’re ready for change. As a behavioral health specialist, I work every day with folks struggling with addiction. Through motivational interviewing, we guide them through the stages of change. But they’ll never be ready for change if they feel condemned. Here, the Pharisees were trying to force the woman to fit their standards, rather than lovingly steering her toward a better life. If you want to help someone along, it’s best to do so from a position where you’ve come alongside them, instead of expecting them to follow your lead—especially when your leadership is lacking.
And, just perhaps, it’s better NOT to try to change a person at all, than it is to expect them to follow your expectations for their life. Unconditional love means simply showering that person with grace and acceptance, regardless of the behavior that you disagree with. It means that if they do want to change, you’ll support that—but if they never change, you’ll be there for them just the same.
What if the Church Focused On Its Own Sin Instead of the Sins of Others?
In Romans 8:1 (NIV) Paul says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What if the church understood that this means two things?
- Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer subject to the condemnation of God.
- Those who are in Christ Jesus should no longer be condemning.
Since we are freed from the spirit of sin and death, we do not hold ourselves accountable to that old law. Neither do we hold other people accountable to the law that we’ve been set free from ourselves.
What if the Church Gave Grace?
Being a Christian means being like Christ. It means sharing grace. Jesus refused to condemn a woman that the law gave him the right to condemn. Instead, he gave her grace. Before she asked for it. Before she changed her life. Not because she’d done anything to deserve it, but just because she was a child of God. Grace isn’t the favor of God that we get because we deserve it. It’s the unmerited favor of God. What if the church gave that out just as freely as we’ve been handing out condemnation?
I mean, don’t we have enough sins of our own to focus on? Some time ago, I heard a sermon in which the pastor told a story of a fellow minister who set up a confession booth in a local park. Yet, instead of hearing the sins of the people, the pastor confessed to them the failings of the church. He asked the community whether there was anything his church needed to apologize for. What an impact it made! Sometimes, the people said, “Yes, there is something harmful that your church did,” or, “Christians have hurt me in this way…” When Christians act like Puritans, we do harm to others in the name of religion. What if the Church focused on Its own sin instead of the sins of others? What if we take the plank out of our own eyes before we try to take the speck out of someone else’s?
Taking Stock of Yourself
During the season of Lent, many Christians focus on their own sin. Maybe it’s good to do that year-round. I don’t mean that it’s good to wallow in your own filthiness and guilt—that’s something toxic that the Church has imposed on people for far too long. I mean that it’s best to keep your nose in your own business, and out of other people’s. Do you know what happens when I take stock of myself, not other people?
- I realize that, yeah, I’ve got some things that I need to change in my life. I’ve got some areas where I need to grow, and honestly, some areas where I need to shrink. But that’s my business, not yours.
- I understand that all my sin is forgiven already in Christ, so there’s no need to beat myself up for any of it.
- I recognize that since I’ve been forgiven, the natural response is to turn around and give other people grace, too.
So, I’ll ask again: What if the Church focused on its own sin instead of the sins of others? How would it change the way we relate to people? How would it change the way people respond to us?