This morning when I opened my Facebook, I discovered that some folks from my church back home were in town. I felt close enough with these people that I assumed they would contact me and arrange a meetup if they were ever out this way, especially now when I’ve been going through a rough patch. But they didn’t. To say this was a disappointment is an understatement, especially when I’m still dealing with other heartache.
I understand that when your primary reason for traveling somewhere is something else entirely, it’s easy to forget to look up people you may know in the area. People are under no obligation to me, and I’m sure it wasn’t an intentional slight. But in that moment, it felt personal. And it made me think of other times Christians have hurt me, and, more broadly, what happens in general when Christians hurt each other and what our reaction should be.
When I was little, in 5th or 6th grade, my church underwent a devastating split. The pastor at the time and his wife had handpicked people to be in a secret prayer group that met at odd hours of the night. (As in, the police drove by and saw lights on at the church at 2 am and came to investigate, because who in their right mind holds prayer meetings at 2 am at the church?) At these meetings, the pastor’s wife alleged to have “prophetic visions” about people in the church. (Many of these were negative and slanderous and focused, of course, on people who were outside the special group.) It wasn’t until one of the members started to feel uncomfortable with all the secrecy that the rest of the church was informed. Now, whatever you may believe about prophetic visions, (I am skeptical, partly because of this incident, but also because all things charismatic tend to be abused by the modern sects that use them.) if a vision is legitimate, it will be open, not secret, and edifying, not slanderous. As soon as anything becomes secretive in the church, you know you’re dealing with something unbiblical. In fact, secrecy is one of the indicators of a cult. True Christianity is open to everyone. A functional church is honest and open about its activities, etc. and doesn’t exclude people from them.
Because a pastor is a person of authority, there will always be people who side with the pastor whether or not s/he is right. Things went to a vote and by a slim majority, the church “won” and the pastor left, taking with him a large number of people, nearly halving the congregation. Some of my friends left, their parents either siding with the pastor or not wanting to deal with the environment. One of those friends was still my friend at school but I no longer saw her on Sundays and we were no longer allowed to go to each other’s house. Other friends who went to a different school district, I never saw again until much later.* [Keep in mind we were about 12 at the time and didn’t understand much of what was going on. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned all the details of the secret meetings, including some specific “visions” concerning members of my family, which, surprise, were false.]
A church split, especially over a scandal, is a really significant thing for anyone to go through, even more so, a child. At the time it was understandably confusing and led to a myriad of questions: I can’t automatically trust a pastor? If these people are Christians, why can’t they come to an understanding? Why are some people leaving even if they don’t side with the pastor?
As difficult as it was for me then, as an adult I’m grateful to have had that experience coupled with being guided through it by my parents, because I learned one of the most important lessons they have ever taught me. And it was done more by their example than by sitting me down and lecturing me. That is, that when Christians misstep, it is not a reflection of God but a reflection of humanity. Even though our church struggled for many years after that split, both financially and in terms of growth, my parents stayed and remained active there. And even though they lost friends, and endured hurt and personal attacks in addition to the natural stress of going through the ordeal (and figuring out how to explain it to their kids), their faith did not waver.
When it’s fellow believers who hurt us, the temptation is to find another church or give up organized religion or even God altogether. But we cannot allow these hurts to negatively affect our relationship with Christ. You cannot blame God for the sins His followers commit any more than you can blame Jodie Foster for John Hinckley. Nor should we give up on the church because of its faults. (Now, leaving an individual church because, for example, it is engaged in unbiblical practices is different than giving up on church altogether. Christianity is a communal religion and cannot be practiced in isolation. We need the fellowship of other believers for encouragement and discipleship and accountability.)
So what do we do when the people we should most be able to trust let us down? The same thing we do when anyone lets us down: forgive them. Forgive and figure out the best course of action for each individual situation. Sometimes it is as simple as ‘forgive and forget’ and you proceed as if nothing has happened. Sometimes mediation is required. Sometimes it’s wisest to forgive while shaking the dust from your sandals.
I can’t tell you how many times Christians have disappointed me. Sometimes when that happens, walking in faith feels like an even lonelier path than it already is. But I keep walking the path and always will, because the Truth is the Truth even if some people you’re upset with or don’t like also believe it.
*I'm happy to report that we reconnected later and are friends today.