Tuesday, April 03, 2007

How often should you forgive your brother?

How often should you forgive your brother? I wrote, regarding the TEC’s response to Tanzania, that “for me, the issue of out-of-area interference is more crucial, theologically, than the question of homosexuality” – to which Simon responded “I am seriously disturbed that you think church politics is more important than knowing how God wants us to behave and trusting in Him to define what is and what isn't sin! And how is out-of-area interference important theologically? Where in the Bible is there the slightest hint of this territorialism being endorsed?”

This is a sketch of my response (which would have been longer if I'd been mentally up to it!) Click 'full post' for text.


One of Jesus' most clear and consistent teachings is 'judge not, lest ye be judged, for the measure that you give will be the measure you receive' (Mt 7.1-5); not only is it something which he taught, but it is something which he embodied throughout his life and ministry, and for which he was criticised and ultimately sentenced to death by the religious authorities of his time.

Yet he also taught this:

What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.

If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, 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, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Then Peter approaching asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?' Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

I quote this passage at length because the core passage, about possibly expelling the immoral brother from our midst, is set in the midst of extensive teaching about the priority of forgiveness. There are various ways of reading this, but surely the heart of it is a) the humility that is essential for pointing out sin in another, ie being conscious of our own shared sin; as well as b) a recognition that there is such a thing as sin, which is harmful and needs to be overcome.

What Jesus provides here is a framework within which disagreements can be sorted out in order to establish, or re-establish, the living relationship which is the mark of the Christian community. First have a private conversation; then involve a few others; then involve the whole church - only then, at the end of the process, if the sin is denied (ie there is a different framework of values being employed) is it right to - with heavy hearts - move away from the 'pagan' understanding.

This is the first charge I'd make against the 'extra-territorial interferers' (the ETI) - that by establishing links with churches in the US and UK which run outside the accepted parameters of the churches own structure and discipline, they are ignoring both the detail and the context of Jesus' command. They have already judged the US church to be apostate, and are acting on that basis. That is not Christian.

OK, a second quotation (Acts 15):
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question...The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."...We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell."

What we have here is an example of a dispute within local churches being sent up the hierarchical chain so that the apostles can make a decision. That decision - in contrast to their own Scriptures - was to include the gentiles without making them conform to Mosaic law. The key point is: 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us'. So far, we have the election of a gay bishop, which meets that criteria in the context of New Hampshire; and the escalation of the dispute up the chain of hierarchy. Trouble is, what the ETI group have done is akin to the Pharisees opting out of the church before it got to James and Peter to make the decision.

What brings out my point most clearly is the refusal to share the receipt of communion with Jefferts Schori, by a handful of Bishops in Tanzania. That seemed to go directly against the teaching of Jesus on all sorts of levels.

This was the context for my comment that the cross-border interference was more theologically significant for me than the specific question of homosexuality. The latter question is a particular issue, to be resolved one way or another by the church; the former issue destroys any possibility of church in the first place. I see it as of a piece with the widespread individualism and lack of charity that characterises much fundamentalist theology - and which is, paradoxically, far more of a construct of US culture than the theology which the ETI seem to so vehemently oppose.

As I say, I wanted to make this a bit more full and clear, but I suppose a half-baked post is better than none!

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