Some years ago, I was sitting in my car waiting to pull out of an icy parking lot, when I witnessed a scene I never forgot.
A business man dressed in suit and tie and carrying a briefcase was importantly striding down the parking lot. At the wrong moment, his polished shoe thwacked on a patch of ice. The man danced on the ice, arms flailing, coattails flying and briefcase swinging as he desperately tried to keep his balance. (Confession: I laughed. But that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m trying to tell you.) This dignified man apparently wasn’t paying enough attention to his icy surroundings which led to a performance that was truly amazing to behold.
This scene keeps returning to my mind as I hear the term “moral failure” applied to the sexual sins of people in the church.
Heavy on my heart is the present fiasco with Christian Aid Ministries and their missionary who molested multiple young boys in Haiti. At one point, the missionary was sent home from Haiti after committing sexual crimes. His home church was told that he had experienced “moral failure.” If I understand the story right, since the community didn’t know exactly what this “moral failure” was, this man was allowed to later return to Haiti where his sexual abuse of boys continued.
This is a case in point of why I dislike the term “moral failure.” So many times I have heard a leader or a church member’s vague confession to “moral failure” and every time the blushing church looks away awkwardly and wonders what exactly the confessor means. Being a trusting people, most of us assume that the person confessing savored some lustful thoughts, or perhaps enjoyed a porn magazine on the sly.
But what if the person is a rapist and pedophile?
“Moral failure” sounds like a slipping, like a well-intentioned man or woman inadvertently stepping on a patch of ice and nearly falling. It sounds so much more forgivable and manageable than specific sexual acts.
Two thoughts I have:
1.) Christians need to be forthright about naming their sins, including sexual sins. If you have a problem with looking at porn, say so. If you raped the neighbor child, say so. If you flirt with a woman not your wife, admit it. If a blanket term must exist, “sexual sin” sounds more accurate to me than “moral failure.”
2.) The church needs to provide an environment conducive to frank and immediate confession. James 5:4 says:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
James 5:4 (ESV)
What would be possible if the church community refused to awkwardly blush and turn away, but instead laid hands on the struggling member and prayed for his healing and for the infilling of the Holy Spirit? What if honesty was valued above saving face? What if the community had spiritual insight that enabled them to deal swift consequences in a spirit of both justice and mercy? What would happen if the ones sinned against would receive care and validation instead of being ignored or suppressed?
Yes, real-life scenarios can be complex, and may take much wisdom from God to discern. But the Gospel is simple. The Bible doesn’t talk about moral failures. It talks about specific sins and what to do about them. It talks about God’s judgment and the hope we can find in Jesus.
It talks about confessing, so that we can be healed.