The Problem with Repentance: Christian Leadership & The Gospel of Punishment, by Pastor Travis Waits
The Problem with Repentance:
Christian Leadership & The Gospel of Punishment
In our culture of church leadership today there is significant focus on “preaching the Gospel.” To be clear, this was the original mission that Jesus gave the church (see Mtt. 28:16ff). The challenge is that leaders within the confines of American churchianity have lost the application of what this means.
What is missing from this preaching, is the pragmatic applying of the Gospel.
I have written explicitly about how God’s grace violates man’s sense of justice. No where does this show up more clear, than in the application of the Gospel when leaders experience the need for restoration.
As Pastor Danny Silk says, punishment within the church is a condition of “humanity trying to reach heaven” rather than believers attempting to bring Heaven to earth. He states:
“The real difference is vitally important; it is not in their sin, but in what they did afterwards. It is repentance… But know this: repentance only works when the priority of the environment is a heart-to-heart connection.
Repentance does not satisfy the broken rules. … Repentance will not work in an environment where you are protecting a relationship with the rules. In a rule-driven environment , repentance has a different meaning. It signifies your willingness to be punished. You are repentant when you allow me to inflict my punishments upon you for whatever offense you have committed against me. The issues of the heart that led you to make the mistake in the first place is never dealt with, because the issues of relationship and love are never touched.
In a rule-driven culture, the general attitude toward a repentant person is: “you have surrendered your will to me in our environment. I’ll never be able to trust you though, because you have proven yourself to be a lawbreaker, and that fact will rest in my memory for a really long time. Until I begin to forget about how scared I am of you, I’ll never be able to empower you again.”
This is the attitude that presides over what we typically call the “restoration process.” … You pay the price in order to assuage the anxieties of the people in the environment who live within those rules. When we practice this in the Church, we allow ourselves to be defined by the limits of earthly government. When you break the law, the best Earth’s government can do is to say, “We hurt them sufficiently so that you all would calm down.” (The Practice of Honor, p.79 c. 2012)
What he means by this is that, regardless of repentance or not, church leaders who fall in any capacity need to experience discipline so that the punishment fits the crime, so to speak. We all feel better, our justice-meter is soothed when we know someone has “paid” for their misguided choices. Contriteness, repentance, humility, even making amends, these steps do not appease us. In fact, what we each do, is withhold grace until we have determined enough time has passed, enough consequences experienced…enough justice has been rendered, at least for our sensibilities.
As it treats it’s leaders, so goes the church. The vast majority of mainstream church leaders are failing to apply the Gospel. That is why their preaching is irrelevant to a watching world. Jesus said, “you will know my love by their love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
In my experience, Jesus shows up on your worst day, honors your dignity, gives you a hand-up, empowers you (the opposite of condemnation…), and transforms you to lead more powerfully because you have experienced His grace…what a contrast to what the typical church leadership restoration plan is.
It is appalling the way we treat our leaders in the church. We put them on pedestals, then blast away, and somehow act surprised when they are not perfect, make missteps or outright hide their sin from us. For the leader, there are few choices. We all know what happens. A leader confesses they lose their job, their dignity, and influence.
I’m sure many of the self-righteous evangelicals will pipe up now and say, when you’re a leader you’re called to a higher standard (James 3:1 out of context…), so they should lose their position. That’s human logic, and has not once reflected an application of the Gospel in God’s economy.
Jesus hung with the sinners, his preference over the religious leaders of the day. He empowered twelve misfits, screw ups, and sinners to be his closest band of brothers…and collectively they changed the world.
If you’re hearing disgruntled angst, good, then I am accurately expressing my frustration with the evangelical lip service that is given to the Gospel. We throw around terms like ‘grace’, ‘restoration’, ‘forgiveness’, reconciliation’…all with the intent of sounding succinct in our theology, but with no intent of practicing any of theses truths the way our Bible defines them. It’s too messy, and it disturbs our entitled justice we have inoculated ourselves within our American churches.
Were we to transform our ‘preaching’ the Gospel to “applying the Gospel‘ I believe our sense of awe and wonder in God would increase. We would experience with greater frequency those “I was blind but now I see” (see John 9:25f) moments that our trust in God, the presence of His Holy Spirit would allow people to be in whatever stage of the process they needed to be. There really would be an increase in ‘signs and wonders’ because, collectively, believers would rejoice and respond in kind, (as the Prodigal’s father did in Luke 15ff…”) and our churches would really be known as hospitals dispensing hope, instilling Grace, and transforming the world because of their relevancy.
How we go about attempting to “restore” fallen leaders speaks not just to church leadership, but really reflects a pervasive attitude, and misguided belief in the very Gospel we claim to preach. This is one reason I love the 12-step movement.
These are people who absolutely understand grace, personal responsibility, choosing to grow.
In fact, I believe that the 12 steps are a good reflection of the Gospel-in-action today. It should be a requirement for every person, beginning in middle school to go through this process.
The church could do well to adapt it’s discipleship programs to be relevant by focusing on the process as a whole — and not in it’s neat theological boxes. Let us all learn to apply the Gospel of grace, and not just preach the Gospel… What I love about the disciples of Jesus is that they were irreverent, unafraid, and lived courageously…traits that are woefully lacking in the landscape of churchianity today.
If you’re tired of it being this way, and you want to make the impact you’re called to make in your start up, your church, your leadership, your practice… get in touch with me today