Almost everyone who has turned away from organized religion in general, and from Christianity in particular, has done so because of a bad experience with a church, its parishioners, or its clergy. Many people hold the view that professional clergy are hypocritical about their own lives and their own sinfulness. These same people are living in a time familiar with the problems caused by the televangelist movement, Catholic priest child abuse scandals, and any number of other tragic instances of sinfulness among church members and clergy.
The church, in the universal sense, has not been very effective in responding to the growing misconception that the church as an organized body is an organization of holier-than-thou hypocrites, usually taking a defensive stance that tries to minimize its own self-perception of wrong-doing. In this article, I advocate a position that calls for an opposite response that embraces wrongdoing as a means of emphasizing the redemptive message of forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. This may look like a contradiction in terms on the surface, but I will explain below why I think that it is possible to acknowledge sin and wrongdoing and still be true to the Biblical message of salvation through Jesus Christ and being a disciple of Jesus.
The first premise in this argument is that sin is wrong. Regardless of why and how one has sinned, a sin is still a sin in God’s eyes, and it is always worse to sin than not to sin. That being said, sin is something that we all commit; all of us. Priests, pastors, laymen, deacons, politicians, teachers, and saints have all sinned and continue to sin throughout the course of their lives. This means that everyone is on a spiritual journey filled with many metaphorical spiritual battles that they must face everyday. The recognition of sin as a part of our lives is the first step in accepting Jesus as a savior and accepting that his death on the cross at Calvary was a substitutionary punishment for the sins of you and me and the whole world. No one except Jesus has lived a perfect life, which is an essential tenet of Christian belief in Christ as “…the way and the truth and the life…,” (John 14:6) bringing reconciliation with God despite the separation of man from God through sin.
A central element of Christianity is the view that we all sin and that God will love and forgive us anyways if we allow him to do so via the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is something already accomplished. The necessary event for our forgiveness took place nearly two thousand years ago, and all that is required of us is to recognize our own sinful natures and have faith that Christ’s actions on the cross were sufficient to cover our own personal sins in God’s eyes. This does not mean that Christians cease to sin, since no one but Christ was able to live a perfect live, being God Himself in the flesh.
The recognition of sin in one’s own life ideally should have two effects on those who count themselves Christians. First, one should in theory become less judgmental to others, recognizing that one’s own life is just as sinful as anyone else’s (although the sin may take different forms). Second, one should have a desire and be striving to become more like Jesus in day to day life, loving and forgiving others as he did. As for the first effect, it is therefore important not to judge others who sin, even the clergy, recognizing that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) One can still condemn the sin as what it truly is, a sin, but one must still love and forgive the sinner in order to be truly Christ-like.
As for the second effect, Christians should all be striving to be Christ-like in their day to day lives. But our necessary imperfection as sinful beings prevents us from doing so to the highest degree. The proper view to take then is that Christians are all ideally on a journey toward increasing perfection and Christlike-ness, but that we will necessary fall short of the ideal set by Jesus who lived the only perfect life. Speaking again in the ideal now, a Christian’s life should be a striving toward doing better, but also will necessarily be a life filled with examples of our own flaws, sinfulness in imperfections. It is for this reason that the Christ event, consisting of Christ’s death and resurrection, is necessary in the first place. Christ paid the price of death that each of us deserves and God accepted this substitution because of his love for each of us. None of us is worthy of that salvation because of his own merits, and it is this message that should be at the heart of how the world at large thinks of the Christian church.
So what does this mean in terms of how Christians and the church are perceived by the world, and how Christ’s message of hope and forgiveness is expressed to that world? Rather than try to deny, minimize, or explain away the sinful behavior of clergy, it is my own view that Christians should utilize these shortcomings to emphasize the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and further spread the gospel (literally “good news”) to the world. The sinful acts themselves should be recognized as such and should not be condoned by the church as a corporate body. But not condoning the behavior does not negate the fact that God still loves the sinner and that Christ’s blood spilled on the cross is still adequate to forgive any sinner with a repentant heart, even a member of the clergy.
It is too easy for us all, clergy, laymen, and people in the world at large, to play God ourselves and pronounce judgment on others for their sinfulness, when we all ourselves are just as sinful in other ways in our own lives. Both the church as a body and individual Christians have the responsibility to recognize the fact that no one leads a perfect life and that we all will necessarily fall short. To judge the sin of others while putting on the facade of being sinless oneself is properly classified as hypocrisy. But if one is honest about the sin in his/her own life, then one is able to share the love and forgiveness of Jesus to others genuinely without hypocrisy. It is my own view then, that the church should embrace its own sinfulness insofar is it allows one to share the gospel message with integrity and genuineness.
This is not to say that one should embrace or condone sin, but rather that when sin does occur it can be used to emphasize the fact that Jesus forgives all who call on him to do so, and that everyone is welcome at God the Father’s banquet table because of his universal love for mankind, his creation. Clergy who fail to do this should likewise be forgiven by Christians themselves due to the fact we Christians ourselves have all sinned and we have likewise been forgiven by Christ. Our own imperfections necessitate that we will not always meet up to this standard of forgiveness, but it is important that we try and that we forgive each other when we fail.