I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.
1 Corinthians 5:9-10 (NIV)
This spring our local Christian high school is producing Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible. I would daresay that any individual who loves theatre has a personal list of shows and roles that they dream of doing one day. The Crucible is one of those shows for me.
The Crucible is not a light-weight play. It’s a retelling of the infamous witch trials which began in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A group of teenage girls go into hysterics claiming that they have seen individuals within the community “with the devil.” The community is thrown into religiously-motivated chaos as community members are investigated, tried and eventually hanged.
Along my life journey I have met a number of people who have shared with me painful stories of how they were personally and publicly shamed by a church. These individuals who come to mind are beautiful, sincere persons who, despite their past mistakes, are following Jesus and living increasingly transformed lives marked by love, grace, mercy, honor and transformation. They were rebellious teenagers, individuals wrestling with addiction to various appetites, and hurting individuals who willfully acted out their pain. Instead of coming alongside the hurting individuals with love-motivated accountability, their local churches launched “witch hunts,” broadcast their sins, called them in front of the church to shame them. In some cases the church threw them out.
Let’s be real. When it comes to handling issues of morality and human foibles, the church has a long and sordid history of epic failures. We all know the stories from the Salem witch trials to the Spanish Inquisition. We can point to horrors of religiously motivated prejudice, persecution, violence, and genocide. Of course, I believe that there are also countless examples throughout history of religiously motivated grace, love and forgiveness which don’t get nearly enough press, but that’s a blog post for a different day.
In today’s chapter, we find Paul grappling with a sticky wicket within the community of Corinthian believers. There was a particular instance of a man who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his own mother, which is certainly not a great thing. There was, however, also a larger issue going on. One of the struggles the early believers had was the argument that many were making: “If Jesus offers me grace and forgives all my sins, then I’m free to do whatever I want and I’ll be forgiven. In fact, the more I sin the more grace is afforded me. So let’s go sin and produce more grace!”
Twice in Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth he quotes “everything is permissible” which was obviously what some within the company of Jesus followers were arguing. “I have a right to do anything I want and act in any way I choose because Jesus’ forgiveness provides me moral carte blanche.” The implication is that the man who was having sex with his mother was among the “everything is permissible” faction, and it was having destructive spiritual effect within the community. Paul argues that those propagating this destructive teaching needed to leave the fellowship.
Paul goes on to make a clear distinction that Jesus’ followers have no right to be judgmental towards those who aren’t Jesus’ followers. Those who follow Jesus, however, must adhere to Jesus’ teaching which never condones the “everything is permissible” doctrine. The community of believers had a responsibility to deal with those within the church who were advancing this spiritually destructive teaching.
Of course, over time many religious movements and churches have taken Paul’s word to the believers in Corinth and twisted it. We have wrongfully believed we have carte blanche to investigate, weed out, and shame any persons who fail our moral benchmarks. We judge anyone who doesn’t meet our moral litmus tests (both inside and outside the walls of our churches, I might add). We have taken Paul’s directive about a destructive school of thought (which led to increasing, unchecked, immoral behavior) and used it to justify moral inquisitions of all kinds. The Salem witch trials stand as an example.
I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that I’m a follower of Jesus. I seek to follow Jesus’ example in my life, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus was incredibly gracious to those who were struggling morally and simply trying to find their way to the Kingdom of God. He wanted people to leave the destructive behaviors that were harming themselves and others. Those persons Jesus judged most harshly were the religious people who looked down their noses on others and used religion as tool to empower themselves at others expense.
I’ve come to believe that destructive teaching needs to be called out for what it is and rejected. This includes the notion that “everything is permissible” whether that notion condones immorality or inquisition.