I wrote last week on my number 1 take away after writing The Gospel-Centered Woman—that the gospel is a big word, not a buzz word. My 2nd take away is that the gospel makes it safe for us to acknowledge and confess sin. And probably my biggest frustration over the last few years in conservative evangelicalism is our inability to address problem areas and correct them with humility.
A number of leaders, some with well read books on humility and/or the gospel, head ministries under public accusation for situations in which members claim to be hurt by their pastoral care. I don’t understand at all why I haven’t heard leaders who seem to be able to well articulate the gospel rush to correct and repair with those who have been hurt by their actions. To be perfectly honest, I think the lack of humble repentance among conservative leaders is the number 1 thing that undermines the ministry. People like to criticize Rachel Held Evans or other egalitarians. Lots of people like to label those making accusations against well-known ministry leaders as bitter. And if they aren’t doing one of those two things, then they are just silent. In fact, those seem to be the three main reactions I see to public criticism/outcry over issues of spiritual abuse.
Except for one case. Jared Wilson at the Gospel Coalition let me know that he and I have the same confidence in the gospel when he posted this correction over an insensitively worded earlier blog post.
But more importantly, my words hurt others whose pain runs deep and whose healing is difficult. I don’t want to load this apology up with words, because it is the most important part of this to me, and I want to be clear: For those offended or shamed, or otherwise and in any way burdened by my blog posts and my comments, your pain in this matter is totally my fault. Please forgive me.
Rachel Held Evans even commended him for his apology.
Here are some things I note about Jared’s apology. First, I don’t think he agreed with all the criticism he received. This is of note because it seems that some ministry leaders feel they can’t apologize to someone with whom they disagree on either certain general theological points or on interpretation of specific things that were said or done. My suspicion is they think that if they apologize to that person, they give some legitimacy to the other person’s belief system or interpretation of events. And whatever legitimacy they think they might give to the other person, they refuse to do the RIGHT thing of confession and reparation because they think the other person is doing the WRONG thing in their accusation or belief system.
Jared demonstrated a third way, in which the interpretation of the legitimacy of the other party is not a consideration. First, every other party is legitimate, even ones accusing you of something that upsets you or makes you uncomfortable. Get that. They were created as image bearers of God just as you and I, and because they bear His image, they are due certain baselines of respect regardless of anything else. We expect this for the unborn. But a Christian people who can’t demonstrate to the unbelieving world this baseline of respect for those living can’t cast stones when others can’t extend that baseline of human dignity to those they can not see.
This baseline of human respect allows us to HEAR criticism, and that’s the first thing we need if we are going to obey God by keeping short accounts with people.
A second thing I note about Jared’s apology was that he didn’t have to understand the fullness of what he was being criticized for to recognize the problem and try to repair with others. I can’t speak for him and do not want to assume what he did or did not understand about others’ concerns. But I will say strongly that you do not have to understand or completely agree with someone’s accusation that you hurt them to accept that you hurt them. Here’s the thing about hurting someone with our words or actions. It is irrelevant if you MEANT to hurt them. You hurt them, and that’s enough. People who don’t understand the gospel can get defensive. “How did I hurt you? How dare you accuse me of hurting you when I had perfectly good reasons for what I said or did and none of those reasons include trying to hurt you?”
Of course, motive is important, and there is a time to clarify motives with someone we’ve hurt. But in the moment that they first express their hurt, even if they don’t express it gracefully, our response should be in keeping with their status as image bearer of God, laying down defensiveness as the gospel equips us to do. “I am so sorry you were hurt by what I said/did. You are an image bearer of God and deserve dignity and care. I did not mean to hurt you. I am so sorry.”
But some of us are still strong legalists, and we want to argue for a precise mutual understanding of what was or was not said or done. My husband often says that perception is reality for the person perceiving it. You can try to talk someone out of what they perceived, but short of showing them a video tape of what went down between you, you need to accept that their perception is their reality. It may not feel fair, but the words gospel, grace, and forgiveness are fundamentally unfair words. So put the word “fair” away. It doesn’t have a place in this discussion. Fair is we go to hell. And that’s not going to happen, praise God.
I could continue to analyze this, but I need to end this post. Close to home and far away, I see this disconnect between the gospel we claim to believe and our testimony of it when we are accused of sin. The good news of Christ equips us to lay down self-justification and defensiveness. I enjoyed writing on this in The Gospel-Centered Woman and continue to think about it today. Folks, don’t hang around ministry leaders who can’t acknowledge sin and repair with those they’ve hurt. They aren’t safe leaders, and they need to study the gospel on their own for a while.