Skandalon is a word dear to the first-semester Greek student’it literally means ‘stumbling block.’ To English speakers, scandal connotes a lewd CNN headline or a story from the next church over. Scandal is engrossing and lets us shake our heads in superior disgust. We would never do anything so icky and dumb. The Greek student, at this point, excitedly reminds us what scandal really means’not a titillating but ultimately inconsequential diversion from our boring lives; a scandal is something that trips us up and affects us in a dangerous way, not merely a distracting or an entertaining one.
That is why scandal is a problem for the church. It forces us to sit closer to sin, to engage with it in a way that disrupts our comfortable confidence in our virtue and that of our neighbors. Whether because of the person(s) involved or the type of sin committed, we think more deeply about and struggle with the reality of the damage done to ourselves, our church, and our witness to the world. Every good Christian who turns out to be embezzling church money, stealing painkillers from shut-ins, or borrowing some other good Christian’s good Christian wife rubs a whole bunch of good Christian noses in a very smelly sin. They have to deal with the real-life consequences of the sin; they have to recover from shock and betrayal, and they have to try to make sense of it.
It is the making sense that is especially tricky. How could a beloved pastor have stolen from his people? How could a faithful deacon have gotten into bed with a career Sunday school teacher? The human mind turns these questions over to imagination, and imagination is captivated by a sinfully compelling, speculative narrative. These are bad things we find ourselves unable to stop thinking about, and the degrading thoughts become inextricable from the persons involved.
Those who have caused scandal may become infuriated at the treatment they receive from many of the people of God. Don’t we believe in forgiveness? Aren’t we ordered by God to forgive as we have been forgiven? Doesn’t breaking the law in its smallest point render each of us guilty of the law in its entirety? Yes, the scandal-causers are right. We are to forgive, wholly and freely. The mechanics, however, are more confounding and practically problematic than the theology.
We humans have an evil desire to punish our neighbors for the pain their sins cause us, as the contemporary sport of social-media shaming demonstrates. The world’s response to scandal shows how self-righteousness treats sin: not with holy fear and neighborly love, but with cruel humiliation. Having no love for anyone but the self, careless of the consequences of their actions, members of secular mobs take advantage of the anonymity provided by these channels and seek to destroy the offenders for their fabricated sins of the zeitgeist (the favorites right now are body shaming). Guardians of pseudo-pieties never seek a sinner’s salvation as much as they seek their own affirmation. They want the guilty one’s blood to gush so their own bloodlust can be satisfied in a way that appears just. (It’s significant to note that the comments center on name-calling and profane personal attacks, instead of a polite rebuke that addresses the inappropriate behavior.)
The church knows that sin generates shame in the convicted heart on its own power. Operating from its supernatural posture of humility and love of neighbor, the church does not use shame as a paddle for its disgraced children. The mirror of the law does its work by the Spirit of truth without malevolence. Distance is the church’s most gracious bid to fix the unfixable consequences of scandal; every step that can be taken to remove a public sin from public influence reduces the sin’s ongoing power to injure. When Christians distance themselves from the perpetrators of scandal, whether through formal church discipline or diminished personal contact, it is not an act of malice but a necessary step ordained by Scripture for the end result of restoring the offending brother or sister to the body of Christ.
The act of church discipline is reserved for scandal, because scandal makes a particularly dangerous sin real. Knowing that a fellow Christian is a gossip or a jerk or a glutton or lazy does not bother us much, because such sins are generally venial; they corrode faith slowly. Finding out that a fellow Christian has been engulfed in a sin that harms other people terribly and cannot happen by accident is much more upsetting. It means that this beloved person has willfully engaged in a series of large rebellions against God. Those people harden their hearts against the warnings in Scripture and rebel by doing something unthinkable’which we must now think about or, worse, try to avoid thinking about in our own struggles against sin because its appeal is all too plain. Scandal entangles an entire community in a particularly abhorrent sin.
Our Lord tells us to forgive sin, but he also tells us to flee from it. That is why scandal becomes a practical problem for the Christian community. The one who is absolved of a public sin sees the sin as over and past, but the scandalized can’t stop trying to figure out how this happened, how this person can be trusted again (we trusted him before!), and how we’re not supposed to think about that awful sin every time we run into the person who committed it. His very presence puts us in mind of something we’re always trying to put out of our minds: a horror that terrifies and sickens us, or a vile temptation we strain to avoid. The community of faith ends up avoiding and feeling angry at him, even as it confesses that we must forgive as we have been forgiven. The sin itself may be easier for the community to forgive than the normalizing of the sin, the dragging of it into our brains and conversations and pews and flesh.
Those called upon to forgive someone who has committed a scandalous sin must know that the person’s complaints are right’Christians are to forgive one another. We are all sinners who have received the mercy of Christ our Savior who forgave our sins, not by pretending they could be dictated away, but by taking their guilt upon himself. No sin is worse than another sin in terms of God’s holy law, and the love of our neighbors as ourselves is the second greatest commandment, upon which hang both the law and the words of the prophets.
Christ’s blood is the solution to the problem of scandal’there is no sin so grievous that it is not atoned for by the cross. It is the practical outworking of that forgiveness in the life of the church that presents a complex difficulty. Forgiveness, as anyone who has attempted it knows, is a demanding discipline. It is an ongoing act of love that must be constantly reenacted.
The one whose sin has caused the pain has a duty to recognize this. That there is full and free forgiveness in Christ is the truth that gives him the courage to continue forward. That there are natural consequences is the reality that he must, by God’s grace and help, work through with his brothers and sisters. The community of faith is healing from its own wounding exposure to sin, as surely as the offending party struggles with the sin’s immediate consequences. The pure forgiveness rightfully owed to the one who caused the scandal is also owed to the scandalized’each must forgive the other for failing to forgive as Christ himself has forgiven. Time, struggle, and commitment are required to rebuild lost trust on all sides.
Finally, we cannot look to the world to guide us on questions of scandal. The world cannot understand forgiveness because it does not have Christ, the author of forgiveness. The world conflates scandal with shame. Shame is its bludgeon for transgressors, not a natural response that leads to repentance. Unrepentant people experience shame as an imposed punishment, rather than an outgrowth of conflict between the regenerate conscience and the rebellious flesh. Their fear of shame, unchecked by the humility of repentance and hope of absolute forgiveness, drives their desire to shame others. This means that protests and exposés of church scandals by those outside it have no authority with regard to how the house of God muddles through putting itself in order. The world makes its own sins and brutalizes the sinners it has manufactured. The church, by contrast, knows that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, no matter what lies they have told with their lives. Scandal calls all Christians to humble repentance, Spirit-led wisdom, and the imitation of divine mercy. None of these can be achieved without praying’another free gift that is much harder than it looks.