Not all sinners are the same (advice for pastors Part 6, by Ps Jeff Crippen)
Proverbs 23:9 Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.
One of the key truths every pastor must understand if he is to successfully deal with an abuser is simply this: not all sinners are the same. I will elaborate on this point in a moment, but first let me challenge our readers in regard to another point.
In the last installment of this series, I dealt with the sad truth that our churches are filled with unconverted people who are being told they are Christians and who are convinced of the same. I talked about some reasons for this, and those reasons were discussed in a meaty quote by J.I. Packer.
Before I get onto my main thesis in this post that Not All Sinners Are The Same, I want to make a point to all our readers: doctrine and theology is important. I have noticed that when I write articles that deal with biblical doctrines — articles that for example discuss the Federal Vision theology, or the nature of true justification and so on — I notice that those articles do not get much of a reading. At least they don’t get many comments. I don’t know the reason for this, but I do want to challenge all of you in this respect. At the root of all false practice is false doctrine. And that means that there is a reason — a distortion of God’s Word — why abuse victims are being dealt such injustice in our churches and why abusers are being enabled. You may not think that things like the Federal Vision theology (which is really just a return to Roman Catholic theology) or distortions of the doctrine of God’s covenants and so on, have anything to do with you and your experience. But that is a wrong conclusion. These kinds of errors have everything to do with all of the practical things we discuss on this blog. When pastors give wrong, unjust, damaging counsel to victims of abuse, there is a theological and doctrinal reason for that injustice.
So especially if you are a survivor of abuse, please don’t tune out blog articles that sound “stuffy” to you! The “stuff” of sound theology is vital to your soul and life. Don’t make the error of identifying “theology” with the stuff pastors and churches have used to further your suffering. That is distortion of God’s truth, but don’t throw out the truth! If you think carefully about these things, you will find yourself coming to understand that victims of evil should become the wisest people in the world about evil, and that means becoming wise in God’s Word and wise in our ability to identify distortions of His Word.
Alright then, back to this matter of the different categories of sinners. How many times have you heard, or perhaps have said yourself, “all of us are sinners. We are the same”? I suspect you have heard this many times. It isn’t true, and let me show you what I mean by this.
All human beings are born into this world as sinners. The moment we exit the womb (and even before!) we are rebels against God, despising His Word. We do not become sinners by sinning. We sin because we are sinners. No one needs to teach us. We know by nature and are, as Scripture says, children of wrath. All of us need Christ. All of us need to be born again by faith alone in Christ alone. In that sense, we are all the same at the starting line of our earthly lives. But while all sinners (and by the way, the Bible never calls Christians “sinners”), while all sinners share in certain characteristics, they are by no means the same. And this means that if we embrace the simplistic and unbiblical notion that we are to deal with all sinners in the very same manner, we will be acting naively and even foolishly. Proverbs makes it very plain, as do other Scriptures, that we do not treat “the fool” in a pleading, sympathetic, sacrificial manner, as we might other unsaved people.
John 8:43-45 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
Contrast Jesus’ manner here with his dealing with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
When it comes to dealing with abusers, pastors must grow up and be wise! We must be innocent of evil and yet as wise as serpents in regard to it. Abusers are not like other sinners. Oh yes, it is possible that we could come across a man or woman who, out of ignorance, is not treating their spouse well. But such a person will be quickly and rather easily corrected through biblical rebuke and instruction. Not so the abuser. Abusers, remember, are people who have a fundamental mindset of entitlement to power and control. They are the very center of their universe and they deem themselves fully justified in using whatever means necessary against their victims to control those victims. Such a person is often a bull-blown sociopath. He has no conscience and no ability to feel empathy for others. If you approach such an individual in “love,” thinking that if you just paint them a clear enough picture of the harm they are doing to others that they will be heartbroken and repent, then you are going to fail. They have no heart, you see, to be broken! They are, in fact, evil.
Listen to these great words from Jan Silvious, author of Fool-Proofing Your Life:
The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome with these instructions:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:14-18, NASB)
Peace with everyone surely is the goal for us as believers. But it is not always possible. When you encounter a situation that has a one-sided peace, then living with the fallout can leave you exhausted and bewildered. Over the years I have spent many hours “riding the ambulance” with too many people who have been wounded (and sometimes “left for dead”) by someone they loved or were tied to through blood. I have seen too many people locked in a grid of fright, guilt, and anger because of the “shoulds” and the “oughts” that have been used as weapons to force them into an uneasy peace. I have seen many of them turn to the church or to well-meaning, believing friends or relatives only to experience a total lack of understanding of what they are going through as they try to relate to a person who abhors peace. So often, the person who is doing the “trying” is the one who is blamed if peace doesn’t work. This ought not to be!
Well over fifteen years ago I began to see patterns in the people who crossed my path as I spoke around the country and as I worked in a counseling office. Their symptoms were the same, and the “methods” used by their difficult person were the same. In each instance, with very little deviation, I saw a person who wanted a decent relationship living as a hostage of someone who was unwilling to take personal responsibility for his or her actions. I was amazed to note that it did not matter whether the hostage-taker was a mother, a husband, a child, a sister, a friend, or a boss; the behavior was the same, and the results were the same. One person held control and through open rage, passive anger, oily manipulation, or sullen silence stubbornly refused to release his grip.
It became more and more obvious to me that the people who consistently operated this way were in a category all their own, yet many Christians I talked with failed to see that the traditional, even biblical, way of handling most relational difficulties might need to be reexamined when this kind of person was part of the equation. They continued to bash their heads and hearts against the proverbial wall, hoping against hope that this time things would be different.
I can tell you from extensive experience in working with people ensnared in relationships with fools that becoming disentangled requires extraordinary discernment and God-given wisdom. You may not immediately recognize when you’re dealing with a fool, but when an ordinary relational predicament turns into a morass of confusion and conflict, you need to consider the possibility that the skills that work for most relationships just won’t work in this one. You must master an alternative set of relational skills if you want to survive the relationship. It is relational suicide to assume you can win over a fool by argument, sweet reasonableness, or any other common wisdom. Even the Christian virtues like gentleness, patience, and turning the other cheek may only get you in a deeper mess. To relate to a fool takes an uncommon prudence that can be gleaned only by those who truly desire it. I call that wisdom ‘relational intelligence.’
Silvious, Jan (2009-09-11). Foolproofing Your Life: How to Deal Effectively with the Impossible People in Your Life (p. 8-11). Random House, Kindle Edition.
Pastors, of all people, must get a firm hold on these facts. That abuser who has been exposed in your congregation is not your ordinary sinner. He or she is a hard, hard case who, more often than not, must be sent away from your church for the protection of your flock and in particular for the safety of the victim. Send the abuser to specialized treatment if he will go and pour your efforts into ministering to his victim. The grim reality is that very, very, very few such people ever change. Realizing this is an important and fundamental first step in being wise about such evil.