by Sharon Hodde Miller
We sat in the car together, her in the driver’s seat and me in the passenger, as she recounted the disintegration of her marriage. Years ago she had watched as her husband slowly succumbed to alcoholism, dragging the family down with him. She fought hard for her marriage and begged him to quit, but nothing ever changed.
Both the husband and wife were active members in their church, so she sought her pastor for help. She hoped the church community would intervene and stand beside her. On behalf of her marriage and her children, she hoped her Christian friends would speak up. Do something. Do anything.
But they were silent.
Eventually, her marriage could not withstand the heavy burden of addiction, and it collapsed.
Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of stories like this one. More recently, Ike and I desperately tried to help a friend as his marriage unraveled. Located on the opposite side of the country we did our best to counsel him over the phone, all the while praying that his local church would come around him. After all, they had presided over his wedding and vowed to support his marriage. Surely they would come forward.
But they were silent.
A short time later, his wife left him and our friend was left shattered.
Then there was the time my friend’s teenage daughter was suicidal. My friend tried in vain to solicit the help of her church’s youth minister. It was a large church and he did not respond to her calls, so I pulled some strings since I had personal ties to the church–the head pastor was a friend of a friend. Once I was put in touch with the church leadership, I received the following response:
“We are aware of the situation.”
But they never did a thing.
And finally, there was the woman going through a divorce because of her husband’s infidelity. The couple had children and the whole situation was a mess. The couple was involved in a local church, but when I asked what the pastors had done to intervene, I was informed, “Our church tends to stay out of people’s personal lives.”
Four instances when church members were in dire need of support from their Christian community. They needed the loving arms of Christ’s Body to come around them and lift them up. These were not prodigal members who had stopped attending years ago, nor had they strategically ducked under the radar. These individuals had sought out help from their church leadership, but no help was to be found.
Mega churches take a lot of flak for this kind of thing. With so many church members to wrangle, critics wonder how mega churches can attend to the pastoral needs of their flock.
However, only two of the above four stories involved a mega church. One was in a small country parish, and another in a wealthy, urban mainline church. To be sure, large numbers can be an obstacle to intimacy, but in some of our churches the obstacle lies elsewhere: in the church’s culture.
Christians have a reputation for being too involved in other people’s business, for being too judgmental, too self-righteous. And there certainly are Christians like that. I’ve heard my fair share of stories about young women being ambushed by random church ladies who thought their was outfit too immodest, or church discipline techniques that were executed too severely.
When a rebuke is outside the context of a loving, trusting, and sacrificial relationship, and without an aim toward restoration, then “accountability” is indeed problematic. But the antidote to this mistaken practice is not silence. We aren’t helping one another, or the church’s reputation, by staying out of one another’s lives.
Consider the Apostle Paul, who is a wonderful example of accountability done right. He rebuked the Corinthians harshly in his first letter to them, but this was not a random stone cast from afar, outside the context of a relationship. He knew them, loved them, had labored with them. He had established a relational climate defined by love and commitment to Christ.
And because of that climate, Paul was able to speak sternly when the time called for it. He did not consider it loving to watch in silence as the Corinthian Christians engaged in an immorality that was worse than their surrounding culture. Instead he spoke up, intervened, and gave specific instructions for change.
In many churches, there is a culture of love that isn’t very loving. While some Christians simply don’t want to be inconvenienced by the messiness of broken families and lives, others are hesitant to step on toes, or they’re afraid of losing a friend. To those who don’t want to be inconvenienced, it’s time for a gut check. Christ suffered pain and humiliation on the cross for your salvation. Becoming a Christian means following Jesus’ path. If you can’t be bothered to give your time to a brother or sister who needs you, then you need to reevaluate what it means to follow Christ.
For those who don’t want to lose friends or have an awkward conversation, think about it this way: In the opening story, the husband’s friends may have spared their relationship by avoiding an awkward conversation about his alcoholism. But the price of their friendship was the destruction of his family. They kept their friend, but his children lost their father; he eventually drank himself to death.
To be fair, his friends may not have been able to save him. Even if they had spoken up or condemned his actions, he may not have changed. The story may have had the same ending. But there would have been one key difference: the message conveyed to his wife and children would have been one of support. The community could have come around them as a buffer, but instead the wife felt abandoned and helpless.
Part of the church’s witness involves constructing a community so loving, so close, so connected to God that non-believers yearn to be a part. But as long as we are marked by either harsh judgmentalism or silence in the face of sin and hardship, this holy reputation will elude us. So speak up, friends, and get your hands dirty in the messy lives of the people around you. Don’t be so afraid of being a nosy church person; I suspect we need much more of them.