There’s a Leper in the Pulpit, get Him out! (Only those who are clean should be there)

I was just reading an article on the subject on Donatism: a heretical cult in N. Africa during the 4th through 7th centuries that emphasized high morality and rebaptism as necessary for church membership and considered invalid a sacrament celebrated by an immoral priest. .

Actually I have been thinking about it for a few days. Not so much on the extreme form defined here, but more on how we often try  to present ourselves as a church and as individual Christians. Naturally  there is an expectation  that as Christians we will set ourselves apart  and live  by different standards to others. Not because we are better  or holier  than  thou but  because the bibles tells us we should.

Rom_12:1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.12:3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

Over the years as a Christian, I have noticed that in our efforts  to witness and evangelize the world we try and paint a picture of ourselves as having all the answers to life’s problems. We present as if we have got all our problems sorted out. We try not  to show any weaknesses, there is a presentation of cohesiveness  or togetherness that we want others  to see. Is this honest  or fair to outsiders? To put it bluntly, no it isn’t.

What has donatism got  to do with this  you may ask? On the one hand we know what we ought to be like, which is Christ, but we know we are not because we are fallen creatures who are contradictory, we are fallible sinners. In our efforts to win others we often paint a false picture of ourselves although others will eventually see  through this. Isn’t that a form of donatism? Maybe donatism isn’t a fair description. How about semi-Donatism?

I guess some of you will be saying, “How dare you accuse us of being hypocritical! How dare you accuse us of painting a false picture of Christianity! Oops must have hit a nerve some where.

I am aware what I am about  to say next is based on my own experience and is therefore anecdotal. I will however add further other instances that are well known  to most of us so please bare with me.

At the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s I trained and work with a mission group that had a focus on making the spiritual life natural and the natural life spiritual. That was the slogan we used most often  to describe ourselves and what we were  doing. Of course  thinking about it now it was very cliche’ and idealistic. This mission group claimed at the time that they could disciple Christians so that their spiritual maturity was accelerated, It was claimed that they could produce maybe five or ten years maturity in two or three years. Some would most likely dispute this claim but it would be easy enough to go back through the Sunday Mail, Advertiser or Weekend Australian archives and retrieve the article.

If anyone from that organization would like to challenge the truthfulness of what I am saying please contact me. Its a very bold claim to make that one can increase or accelerate spiritual maturity. Looking back to when these great claims were made one  should have asked  where is the evidence? How did they quantify the evidence for this claim and who gathered the data? Was the data gathered internally or was the study carried out by external unbiased researchers? The facts are that no quantifiable research was undertaken to support this claim. The claim was biased, unsubstantiated and questionable. What they should have said  is equipped students with a good knowledge base, which was true. Knowledge however does not equate with wisdom and maturity obtained through  the passage of time. There are no short cuts to maturity. Maturity involves learning lessons in life and being able to apply the knowledge one has gained through wisdom that can be defined  as the trial and error process.

In fact this mission group’s claims were not dissimilar to the ones made by a man called Bill Gothard whose theology was performance based as well. Bill Gothard claimed  that by following his basic life principles one would be assured of success. Unlike Bill Gothard’s teaching this other mission group wasn’t  as image focused. In other respects they were identical. Any theology that is performance or image based has a the tendency to over compensate by trying  to look to good in front of those  you are trying  to be a witness to. My own experience is this; to those either within  the church and outside we strive’d  to give the impression  that our mission team  were in agreement, unified and  on the same page. Behind closed doors the competitiveness the bickering and spiritual one up man ship was sickening.

The word accountability still gives me cold  shivers down my spine, not because its a bad  word  or that we shouldn’t be accountable; but because so often it was used as a weapon against  those considered less spiritual or less mature than others. We could be sitting around the table doing our devotions and those less respected or considered less mature might  be giving the devotion. As is expected their needs to be an application that we can all take away as instruction. For the less mature though, this often turned into a deflective process where those who considered themselves more mature made the devotion into an inquisition against the one speaking. It meant that the devotion didn’t apply to those who  thought they were better. So much emphasis was placed on words being consistent with actions that  the very intent of anything  that was said essentially became meaningless. One could say something really significant but it would be discounted, then if one of the more mature ones later said the same thing, it was almost as if God Himself had spoken through the clouds complete with choirs of angels. This didn’t happen on the rare occasion, this was a regular occurrence. It was so sad that the love and grace of God were lost to radical idealism. This is what happens when you are so focused on performance that you forget  to hold onto those  who might appear to be struggling. Sometimes those who appeared to be struggling were the ones that experienced real growth and maturity. Even so, it angered me then and I am no less angry today at the abuse the spiritual elite inflicted on those they believed to be less significant than themselves.

This elitist attitude also manifested itself in the way mission organization members viewed outsiders. Our mission teams would spread  themselves around different church fellowships where they would volunteer their services for worship, preaching and Sunday school classes. As a mission team we would gather together and share our experiences and compare what we said and did to what outsiders said  and did. Now if we were  making comparisons to improve our own approach I would have said  that was a good thing, but that wasn’t what we were doing. We compared ourselves in the sense that what we were doing was much better than everyone else. I can recall us criticizing people who had been in ministry for 30 years. Some of the people on our mission teams had only been Christians for maybe four or five years and yet they thought that what we were  doing had more impact than someone who had been a Christian longer than some of us had been alive. I think that was not only pretentious on our part but incredibly arrogant. We thought we had all the answers. Our dialogue and public speaking dripped with radical cliche’s and idealism. We would quote the great martyrs of the church, how  brave they were and that we should be like them. And yet when our team faced its own minor crisis it almost dissolved in a whimper and looked for a scapegoat which was of course the weakest link. All of a sudden this great theme of accountability and standing at the coal face where Satan could  do his damnedest was reduced to one word, blame! Looks like Satan may have one that round after all.

Those of you know of the word of faith movement that occurs in the more extreme branches of Pentecostalism which I call Charismania, there is generally a no negative talk rule. You don’t talk negatively about yourself. By this I mean one doesn’t acknowledge illness or say they had a bad day. If one is in financial trouble they don’t say I am ruined  they make a positive confession that in Jesus name  they will receive the money  to get out of debt. Any negative  talk was a gateway for the devil  to get a foothold and bring them undone. Not only is this an unrealistic way to live life it is also mentally unhealthy. Bill Gothard  took this a step further and said if  you loan money from someone  you become their slave and provides some marvelous anecdotes as to how not to become slaves and why  htis was  so successful. Once more there is no way to verify if any of this is true, you had to trust that the man was telling the truth.Sadly in life some debt is inevitable as is hardship along with illness and bad days they aren’t a sign of disobedience or poor stewardship, they are a fact of life. What I am pointing out here is how attractive the above systems may appear and I emphasis the term appearance because they look great from the outside but are destructive once you are inside. Of course that isn’t true for everyone. Some people function quite well within these systems, some can only function within these types of systems because it is the only religion  they know, they were saved  into it so to speak. For others the elitism appeals to them but to the core group it may be a genuine expression of their faith. If however theology means anything I would question how they practice there faith, the message it sends to outsiders and whether or not it is genuine.

The point is that very often the image we want  to portray  to others is the very false image that we are warned  about in the bible. Note in my bible quotation that we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than others because God has allotted each one a measure of faith and further on in verses 4,5,and 6 it talks  about how  each of us have different gifts according  to the grace God has given each one. I have heard people talk of this as meaning some being given greater gifts and more faith than others or even a greater measure of grace. This text doesn’t support that view. All those who have received God’s gift of grace receive saving grace. All sinners  who repent in faith receive the same measure of forgiveness. Forgiveness is forgiveness regardless of whether they were the thief in the cross or the greatest preacher who ever lived. We are just as forgiven as the Apostles who witnessed the work of Christ. The only difference is the role we each play in God’s plan of salvation. My standing before the Father in Christ Jesus will be exactly the same as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John,Peter and Paul. I am forgiven and accepted on the same basis that they were.

Rom 12:4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,
Rom 12:5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Rom 12:6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;
Rom 12:7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching;
Rom 12:8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Rom 12:9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
Rom 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;
Rom 12:11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;
Rom 12:12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,
Rom 12:13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Rom 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Rom 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Rom 12:16 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.
Rom 12:17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
Rom 12:18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

Paul says here in Romans that everything we do, the attitude  we should have  towards others, is  to build them up not pull  them down. The gifts mentions here are not weapons  to beat others around the head with, they are not a sign of one’s superiority. They are not a sign that God has shown special favor of one person over another. They are gifts given by the grace of God  to benefit others and not ourselves, to encourage others  and assist others  to walk stronger in their faith.

So what has  this to do  with my title? We often think that when trying  to win  others to Christ, (bad terminology) we have  to present this mirror image model of perfectionism. The problem with Donatism  is that it demands moral purity and spiritual perfection. It demanded perfection before action and set a standard  so high that in real terms no one could attain it not even the Patriarchs or the Apostles. So if one assumes they are able to ascertain who is acceptable and who is not where do they get their credentials to make their judgement? By who and what standard? Surely not from the bible! The whole of Romans 12  knocks that on the head. Pretty much  the whole bible is a polemic against keeping the law as a means of righteousness. All the law shows us is our inability to do right.

The Leper could be one of those who were seen as less spiritual, they needed more time  to grow in Grace before being allowed to witness or go onto the mission field. The Donatist mind set  would classify them as inferior, anything they said or did would be negated by the fact they still had sin in their life, they haven’t reached that magic bench mark of holiness that the more attuned could recognize. They are a spiritual Leper not clean enough for God’s work.

On the other side of the coin are those who try and present this perfect image. Who  do they think they are kidding? Most people aren’t that gullible that they don’t know a show pony when they see one. One fellow  that many I know followed after had this view that Christians don’t make mistakes. In one sense that may be true if one believes in predestination that God has foreordained all things. If that is true  then we also need  to accept that all things are part of God’s sovereign will and eternal purpose. However if we don’t make mistakes that would mean that God is the author of all the evil in the world. I don’t know if that was this particular man’s rationale. But I would ask why did Christ have  to die on a cross and why  are we still sinning even though we are saved? Why do we look  to God through Jesus Christ who had justified us and atoned for our sins? Why  do we look  to Christ as the one  who has sanctified us and then   the Holy Spirit who carries on the process of sanctification? If we don’t make mistakes why do we need a mediator That man was the National Director of the mission organization I trained with. I find idealism on that level dangerous because however well meaning it might be it can cause horrendous damage  to the faith of others. Our failure is a central feature of the victory of the cross, right Laurie?

I think the true reality here is that it is God who judges what is approved and what isn’t and thankfully so. We don’t get to play Holy Spirit although some think they have that right. On the day of judgement we will see:

Rom 12:19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
Rom 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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