Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Silent Tolerance of Wrongdoing

What is a Christian’s responsibility when faced with falsehood or wrongdoing, especially within the context of the church? In my experience working in the church, I have found that many sincere Christians believe it is their duty to respond to falsehood with silent tolerance, especially when the problem comes down from an authority such as a senior pastor. Tolerance in this circumstance is based upon a person’s intention to “maintain unity” or to “obey one’s authorities.” Both are biblical mandates, but neither are appropriately applied with certain circumstances. When church leaders abuse their authority by lording it over their subordinates, or when they willingly persist in wrongdoing without reproval, they commit injustice and deserve to be confronted with their sin. Such activity should not be tolerated.

Justice is a necessary component of Christian life. John Calvin wrote, “Where you hear God’s glory mentioned, think of his justice. For whatever deserves praise must be just” (TPR, 209). In my church experience, “justice” has been a foreign concept, ignored, or perhaps merely considered unimportant to faith and practice. When Godly people tolerate wrong after wrong, the result is oppression and spiritual bondage. Additionally, the wrongdoer often uses this tolerance to their advantage, testing the limits of acceptability and exercising greater authoritarianism. I’m writing this as I read the work of Katharina Schutz Zell, wife of Matthew Zell, a popular Protestant minister in Germany during the sixteenth century. Up to that time, clerical celibacy had been strictly enforced by the Catholic church, and people like the Zell’s were among the first to challenge it. As a result, many opponents to clerical marriage spread rumors and lies about the sinfulness of their union, and sought to defend the authority of the Catholic Church. When many within the church attacked her for her marriage, Zell spoke out rather than suffering their abuses silently.

In response to the lies, the outspoken Katharina makes an appeal to justice, citing John 18:22-23: [When Christ was struck in the face by Ananias’ servant], “He did not strike back, He did not flee, He did not resist the evil at all, as He had previously taught His disciples. However, He did not keep silent about it as if the servant acted rightly, but He said, 'If I have spoken evil, give proof of it, but if not, why do you strike me?' For it is sufficient that we Christians suffer injustice; we should not say that injustice is justice" (Zell, 66). I believe the same principles apply, say, in the case of a pastor who consistently makes unfair demands on his employees’ time, for example, when giving assignments at the last minute or ordering changes without consultation. While it would not be right to “strike back” by slacking off on one’s work, it is altogether acceptable to ask (with Christ), “why did you strike me?” I think Christ’s example in John shows us that suffering is part of the Christian life, but silence is not.

If those within the church were more sensitive to and involved in the lives of their brothers and sisters, another thoughtful person could ask these questions on behalf the one suffering. Those who lack a voice are the very ones who are most deserving of intercession on their behalf. In any case, to be silent or passive about wrongdoing is to support the wrong. It will not suffice to appeal to utilitarianism: that at the expense of one, many benefit. The church cannot function in this way. When the powerful are uncontested in their abuses, their abuses increase. Something unhealthy for an individual suddenly becomes unhealthy for several people, and then many, until an entire church body is polluted.

I have witnessed people quietly tolerate much grief in the name of obedience, or because they didn’t want to stir up trouble. In the course of this silent tolerance, many aspects of life experience the effects of injustice: individual spiritual and physical health deteriorate, the family life suffers the problems of the individual, and a connection is severed between one’s work and worship at church and the greater purposes of God and the Kingdom. We will suffer, but we should not be silent.

Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. The Protestant Reformation. Harper & Row, 1968.

Katharina Schutz Zell, “Apologia for Master Matthew Zell,” in Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, ed. Elsie McKee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 57-82.