Friday, December 19, 2008

Father Christmas is Real -- and He's Mean!

Tip o' the biretta to Father W.E.B. for this one:

One Rebecca Hancock, a divorced Floridian, entered into a series of conversations with her pastor regarding her new boyfriend.  Her pastor advised her strongly to stop having sex with the said boyfriend, because -- after all -- they weren't married.  She didn't follow his advice, and in fact decided to leave his congregation, although her children remain as members.

Nonetheless, the pastor, whose name is -- we kid thee not -- Scott Christmas, saw fit to convene a group of church "elders," who wrote Hancock a letter explaining further admonishing her and warning that, should she continue in the relationship, they would publicly announce her sin to the congregation during worship on Jan. 4th.  With her children in the pews.

Where shall we go with this?  There are so many things to say!

The whole business may strike irreligious readers as plain nasty, and while they may have a case, the truth is that pastor and "elders" are trying to follow the discipline described by Jesus in Matthew 18: 15-17, of admonition in private, then before "two or three" witnesses, and finally before the church, followed -- if not by repentance -- by excommunication.  

Virtually all church discipline processes, including those outlined in most Lutheran congregational constitutions, follow this pattern.  In their letter, the elders pointedly cite the relevant  Scriptures to explain what they are doing.  we might go further and add that, in the early Church, many penitential matters were handled publicly, as witnessed by those tearful services described  in Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History, at 7:15 in the NPNF edition.

So is Father Christmas right on target?  Is he taking a firm but Biblical stand against fornication, which seems strange only to a society with no moral compass?

Err, maybe.  But let's consider some of the other factors in play.  First, there is a dramatic difference between the penitential discipline of the early Christian centuries and that which emerged subsequently.  Public discipline was gradually replaced by private discipline -- sacramental penance, for example.  In fact, it seems likely, from the extant sources, that even in Sozomen's time, public discipline was used specifically for sins which were already public.

In other words, it wasn't a priest's job to spill the beans, even in the old days.  And for most of Christian history, it has been explicitly clear that a priest is obliged to respect the confidentiality of certain conversations with the faithful.  Seal of the confessional, guys.

At a more subtle level, there is also the matter of hermeneutics.  The discipline of Matthew 18 is expressly for use "if thy brother shall trespass against thee."  It is a method by which the community may adjudicate disputes among the faithful -- not a penitential discipline.  So if Hancock's sin is not against Scott Christmas personally, it is hard to imagine how he could justify using the passage this way.

And, to be plainly legalistic, we wonder how many "elders" he spoke to, since they didn't sign their names.  Two or three?  Because if he spoke to more than that, it would seem to us that he had gone well beyond the Lord's injunction, and we would suspect (as we do suspect) that Christmas is being vindictive here, for personal reasons known only to himself.

(And, to carry our legalism perhaps a mite far, we are skeptical about these "elders."  In our opinion, the term as used in Scripture clearly refers to the clergy -- the presbuteroi, or priests.  Calling your lay leaders "elders" is a mistake, albeit a widespread one, and we think that it further calls into question this business of telling them what people say in private.)

On top of all this, she resigned her membership.  This, it seems to us, relieves the pastor and his church of any responsibility toward her.  But it leaves them with a significant responsibility toward her children, whom they propose to humiliate.

So, all told, we don't think highly of Scott Christmas and the people of Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida.  They strike us as unpleasant Pharisees who demonstrate little understanding of either the Scriptures or the traditions of pastoral care in Christian communities.  

As for Ms. Hancock, we are a little bemused by her Pyrrhic victory.  Rather than allow her children to be humiliated in worship before the congregation, she went to the press, allowing them to be humiliated  before the whole Internet.

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