Tag Archives: scandal

Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

Oliver O’Donovan, Church Discipline, and the Current Catholic Scandals

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Ask a typical Protestant what “church discipline” means, and you will probably get a blank stare.  “Are you talking about keeping the youth in line on a mission trip?” they might ask.  No.  Most Protestants probably will not know the word “excommunication.”  In our age of worshipping the individual conscience, Protestants have (contra the New Testament witness) abandoned any real sense of church discipline.  This is both an overreaction reaching back to Reformation criticisms and a capitulation to modernity.  As Professor O’Donovan narrates it, “the Enlightment swept away church discipline from all but sectarian Protestant communities.”  Unfortunately, the laxity with which Protestants treat church discipline at all levels, but especially at the level of laity, seems to be present in Roman Catholic treatments of scandalous priests.

What was lost?  For O’Donovan, the chief concern ought to be the public integrity of the Church, not first and foremost the well-being of the individual.  “The point,” he argues, “is that discipline does not exist first to serve the penitent; it exists to enable the church to live a public life of integrity.”

Of course, discipline applies not only to lay persons but also to clergy.  Unfortonately, all churches tend to approach disciplining the ordained as if they are walking through molasses.  On one level, this is not surprising: all systems will protect its own, and the closer you are to power within the system, the more likely you are to be protected.  All the various Church communions, on some level, simply protect their own.  This seems to have, in some Catholic dioceses, gotten out of hand.  I think that the whole narrative of “those sexless old white men need to marry so they will stop molesting children” is overplayed and viciously simplistic.  Likewise, I do not think the corruption goes all the way to the top, though it is natural to want “the buck” to stop with the Pope.

O’Donovan, both in Resurrection and Moral Order and in his magisterial Desire of the Nations, has a  vested interest in the public witness of the Church.  In the case of Church discipline, he sees the major turning point as “the fateful exchange of public penance for private.”  Thus, all discipline was rendered a matter of the penitent’s spiritual good, and the need of the community to exhibit an unblemished face was forgotten.  In his schema, it seems, any priests facing church discipline would and should do so publicly, sparing their own private interests for the sake of the Church’s witness.

In his discussion on the consequences of lacking true church discipline, I found O’Donovan quite prescient.  Tell me if you hear the current Catholic scandals described almost exactly:

Although the scandal may arise from private fault, though not inevitably, the function of discipline is to address the public problems that it poses for the church’s common life.  Until this is recognized, our churches will continue to be vexed by the all-too-familiar pattern of misunderstanding in which the people find themselves humiliated by some scandal and demand a firm line of their clergy or  bishops, the bishops think the people harsh and unforgiving, the people think themselves betrayed, and everything is at cross-purposes.  That is the necessary fruit of an attempt to render private and, in and individualistic sense, ‘pastoral’ what are in fact the church’s rites of public justice, namely, the avowal of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness. (Resurrection and Moral Order, 169)