In my last commentary I wrote about the tragic death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself after months of relentless and cruel bullying. In that article, I addressed the mass indifference to Phoebe's persecution, in which no one appeared willing to come to her defense or stand in opposition to her tormentors. I referred to this as the "cowardice of noncompassion."
Recently, I have encountered another kind of cowardice of noncompassion within the church, which hinders the church's mission and undermines our witness in the world.
A young couple was having marital problems. Within their first year of marriage, the wife had moved out of the home in the wake of her husband's persistent drinking. Both were professing Christians and therefore they sought counsel-with the goal of reconciliation-from their church. This is a large church-technically a megachurch-with abundant resources, so they were confident they would receive the help they needed. But they didn't. Instead they entered the bureaucracy of what may be more accurately described as a "social corporation" than a church. Sure, the people were kind, even tried to be accommodating, but the organizational structure (and emphasis) of this church, like so many others, simply didn't allow for the kind of intimate involvement that the bearing of one another's burdens and the law of Christ demands (see Galatians 6:2).
In this couple's case, there was the initial triage conducted by a "family ministry" staff member, a man previously unknown to them who referred the husband to a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group and invited him to visit the Celebrate Recovery class offered at their church. The meeting concluded with a hearty handshake and "I'll be praying for you" and out the door they went.
Unfortunately, in the weeks that followed. these things weren't helping, and new issues in the relationship emerged. Upon returning to the church in search of more direct spiritual/theological counsel, they were basically told, "Just keep going to Celebrate Recovery and AA." The staff member listened but told them he "didn't have the time" to do more than that. As if that weren't bad enough, he explained that his restricted time was due to the fact that another staff member (also working in the area of family ministry) had recently resigned after it was discovered she was having an affair! In the end, the couple was left to flounder. There was no attention given to the root (and real) spiritual concerns in their lives that were manifesting this "bad fruit," and thus no discipleship in which the issues (along with their attitudes and actions) were surgically examined in the light of Scripture. There was no one willing to get involved in the mess that was this couple's life-to walk alongside and disciple them back into wholeness.
I was introduced to this couple through another couple who were trying to help them; the latter had left this particular church but were still trying to engage said church in the life of the troubled pair. Their frustration led them to me and to our church, which welcomed these folks and got involved. Upon doing so, it was quickly discovered that there were serious issues of sin and past trauma in the lives of both. The husband's drinking was merely symptomatic of a much deeper sin issue. The wife was confused about her role and her rights in the wake of her husband's sin. Her pain and heartbreak was pushing her to seek escape from the situation, rather than reconciliation through Christ. The relational dynamics remained dramatically distorted: their relationships with God, themselves, and each other. There were issues of trust: trust in each other and ultimately trust in the Lord. In short, this couple was ill equipped (theologically) to deal with the life issues now confronting them and they needed to be loved and discipled through their crisis not passed off to a program.
I realize that last statement may offend some, since many people have been helped by programs such as AA and Celebrate Recovery. I myself have referred men to Celebrate Recovery, but never as the first and only response. These programs can and often do serve to supplement direct biblical counseling by offering essential peer support. However, one must be careful, as I have often seen people exchange one compulsive behavior with another: terminal therapy, in which they remain forever in "recovery" and never experience deliverance through Jesus Christ.
You may think noncompassion is too strong a charge. Perhaps indifference better describes the situation; however, this should offer little solace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew something about acting in response to sin and evil said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless…. Not to act is to act." When sin seeks the destruction of God's creations, this is evil and the church is called to act, to engage in spiritual warfare and "stand against the schemes of the devil" (Eph. 6:11, ESV). Love isn't sentimental and passive. Love is courageous! Love gets involved, bearing all things, enduring all things in the hope that Jesus Christ will defeat sin and make things new (see 1 Corinthians 13:7)! To love one another as Jesus commands is to act, especially when sin threatens to destroy your brother or sister.
For others, their reluctance to help may be rooted in fear, a fear of not knowing what to say or do. They may feel "unqualified" to wade into complex human dilemmas for fear of making things worse. This is understandable; granted, there are varying degrees of spiritual maturity and theological wisdom. However, all can love and all must take seriously the demand to "renew your minds" so that you are eventually equipped to serve the body of Christ. In the meantime, you can still love courageously by getting others who are qualified involved in the situation, to which you have by providence been made privy.
The theologically learned and mature Christian is in possession of true wisdom and understanding that comes from the Lord (see Proverbs 2:6). What better resource of knowledge and counsel is there than that of God's Holy Word? The man or woman who has diligently sought the true interpretation of reality as revealed in God's Word knows the truth of the human condition better than any other. The Christian also relies on wisdom from God himself, who promises to give it to those who ask-our job is to simply walk by faith. Sometimes this means walking into a crisis trusting that God will provide as we go. Doing nothing is a failure both to act in the face of evil (unloving) and trust God (unfaithfulness). Finally, this responsibility doesn't only fall upon pastors and church leaders but upon the whole body of Christ.
Unfortunately, the case cited here is not an isolated instance but a growing problem that I personally encounter with increasing frequency. Ask yourself how often you see and celebrate restored marriages in your own church, compared to those troubled couples who quietly disappear and later divorce.
The church will be judged by the way it loves one another. Will we love courageously, trusting the Lord to use us as redemptive instruments-or will we succumb to the cowardice of noncompassion? For those in whom Christ lives, love is the only answer!