Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay. - Ravi Zacharias.
In the wake of revelations regarding popular Christian leaders, the cries for “accountability “and “transparency” have been almost deafening. But as we mourn the trauma suffered by victims and survivors all over the world, it is vital that we take steps toward ending a church culture that allows sin to fester and wreak havoc rather than be put to death (Romans 8:13). That is to say, addressing the roots of the issue are as important as condemning the rotten fruit.
To the above quotation on Sin by the controversial figure, Ravi Zacharias, this writer would replace the word sin with shame. And shame silences not just the well-established leaders with a reputation to protect but also leaders-to-be. Young people who, at this very moment, are maturing in an environment where certain topics are “too uncomfortable” to discuss, and such weaknesses are to be dealt with in private.
While wholly aware that some may argue that such a situation does not exist since sin is a common topic in most churches, let us question what sins we often see our leaders admitting to and what sort of precedent is set.
Those who speak about transparency will often talk of pride, selfishness and perhaps even anger, but testimonies about lust, addiction and abuse are a rarity. When these topics are addressed, most are told in the past tense, and the victory is supposed to be encouraging enough to help those struggling presently.
While some may say these topics are so personal, it simply isn’t fair to expect someone to speak openly about them; we must ask why that is so.
German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated,
“The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”
And what sort of repercussions have we seen come from letting such sin remain? If the person struggling stays quiet, wishing to avoid condemnation and a tarnished reputation, what does that say about the environment we foster in the family of God?
A 1946 study by anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularised the distinction between a “Shame Culture”, often seen in Asian countries like ours, and a “Guilt Culture”. The latter relies on one’s personal feelings of righteous guilt and conscience, whilst the former gives precedence to the opinion of the masses and avoids shame. In a shame culture, individuals are made to put on a facade in order to feel welcome, and there is no room for confession or healing, which sounds unfortunately similar to what we witness in churches today.
Another equally important point of discussion is accountability. You would have been encouraged at some point to find an “accountability partner” or would have had leaders conduct sessions where the “tough” questions are asked. But how effective is this method, and what can be done to improve it?
John Owen, in his book, “The Mortification of Sin”, says, “To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true that this is what is aimed at, but this is not in this life to be accomplished.”
These words speak of the very nature of sin, in that our victories against the lusts of the flesh are only momentary, and the battle is a lifelong one that we must continuously strive to conquer. And by that logic, our relationships of accountability cannot be sporadic and inconsistent. They must be deep-rooted in both the word and a shared concern for the wellbeing of the other, with the knowledge that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8)
Moreover, disproportionate weightage is often given to how healthy or consistent a Christian's spiritual life seems on the outside (especially in mature Christians), resulting in a lack of questions being asked. Whilst this is rarely intentional, it is detrimental to spiritual health.
In a culture acclimated to shame, what also often occurs is that we, consciously or subconsciously, learn just the right dialect of “Christianese” to speak when asked a particularly direct question.
While part of the solution is to change the culture, revisiting the type of questions asked and who they are asked of is of equal importance. For example, one-off questions every other month on someone’s struggle with substance abuse will provide as little benefit as it would for someone struggling with pornography in an age where temptation is everywhere.
As cliche as it sounds, information and equipping ourselves really is key here, given the personal nature of these issues and the magnitude of their recurrence. We must turn to our manual, the Word, as well as invest in other resources so that both leaders and members of the church learn how to directly approach the topic with love, a thorough understanding and consistency.
For those who assume this simply isn’t relevant, think again of how many people you know who battle with one of the aforementioned issues. It may have been a one-time occurrence when the topic was brought up long ago, and they seem “fine” now but are you certain? And if there doesn’t seem to be such an issue in your circles, when was the last time you asked one of those “hard” questions?
Cited: Bonhoeffer, Life Together 1954
Owens, The Mortification of Sin 1656
Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword 1946