Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Maybe God can forgive you, but I can't!

i) Doug Wilson is in a pickle over the way he handled the case of two pedophiles at church. Peter Leithart is also implicated in the mess. I'm not going to discuss all twists and turns of that controversy.  

I'll just use it to illustrate a general point: I think some Christians are confused or conflicted about how to deal with cases like this. After all, there's a sense in which Christianity is a religion of second chances. We believe in redemption. Forgiveness. So what about that?

ii) There's a sense in which God is in a position to forgive people we can't. For one thing, God knows who is truly contrite, and who is faking it. We don't. 

iii) Which brings me to a related point: even if I'm prepared to forgive you, that doesn't mean I'm prepared to trust you. Forgiveness is about the past–trust is about the future. Those aren't interchangeable concepts. 

Take a comparison: suppose I'm a pastor. We need to hire a new church treasurer. We advertise the job and get several applicants. One has an impressive resume. MBA from a top college. Experience as a CPA and investment banker. If anything, he's overqualified. Yet there's an odd gap in his resume.

I, in agreement with the church board, have criminal background checks performed on all job applicants. Turns out, this applicant was convicted of embezzlement. 

As a result, we don't hire him. Instead, we hire another applicant without the Park Avenue resume, but who has a squeaky clean reputation.

The applicant who was turned down phones me a few days later wondering why he didn't get the job. I explain. He complains that that's unchristian. He tells me that he committed embezzlement before he was saved. He converted in prison. Now he's turned over a new leaf.

Well, I wish him all the best. I hope that's true. But, honestly, it's a self-serving claim. I have no independent evidence to confirm his claim. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it would be foolhardy to do so. I have no reason to believe he's trustworthy, while I do have reason to believe he may not be trustworthy.

Moreover, it's not even a case of trusting him with my own money. As a pastor, I have a fiduciary responsibility for the money which parishioners contribute. 

In addition, the fact that he wants to go right back to the same kind of work that got him into trouble in the first place is suspicious. At best, that exposes him to temptation, at his weakest. At worst, that indicates a lack of sincerity. If I said I was a recovering gambler, would I apply for a job at a casino? 

iv) From what I've read, pedophilia has high rates of recidivism, although that's complicated by the fact that there's now a movement to mainstream pedophilia, so the evidence will be suppressed. It's just asking for trouble to give someone like that a second bite at the apple. 

I'll make two other points:

v) From what I've read, Wilson defends his conduct in part by appealing to the fact that the judge approved of the marriage. But given Wilson's disdain for the moral wisdom of public officials, he can hardly take cover in the opinion of the judge. At best, that just means there's blame to go around. It doesn't get him off the hook. It merely means additional people are at fault. 

vi) He also speaks as if pedophilia is a psychological condition to be treated by counseling. That's sadly similar to the Church of Rome, which has viewed predatory priests as a psychotherapeutic issue.

Wilson is a man who's done a lot of good. It's a pity to see him show such poor pastoral judgment. And that's aggravated by his refusal to accept legitimate criticism. 


  1. v. really is a problem in Wilson's case. It gets to the limited public figure issues pastors can run into when they decide to publicly address an issue. Closer to home, for instance, Driscoll completely set himself up for the plagiarism controversy when he and other leaders insisted on addressing the topic of copyright infringement from their media platform. It meant that when Mefferd finally confronted Driscoll on air about his track record of not adequately citing sources Driscoll had no recourse to having never addressed the topic of copyright infringement in social or mass media. Wilson has effectively put himself in a roughly comparable pickle.

    Leithart's apology may well seem way too little, way too late for people who read about the situation he was connected to but compared to Wilson's public reaction Leithart can be graded on a comparatively generous sliding scale.

    Even Mark Driscoll, after a year's worth of controversy, released a video sharing that he had made himself the kind of public figure who was not able to have the same exemptions from public criticism a normal citizen might have. Doug Wilson has put himself in a comparable position but seems, at the risk of putting this a bit sternly, more content to dish out than take public criticism. That's unfortunate.

  2. How should a local assembly treat repentant sex offenders? Have they forfeit positions of leadership permanently?

    1. To be fair, the repentant offender isn't in a position of leadership and isn't in a position where he has unsupervised access to children in the church.

      The point in question is that he was married and now has his own child, and many are upset that Wilson officiated the wedding.

    2. Sub Rosa

      "How should a local assembly treat repentant sex offenders? Have they forfeit positions of leadership permanently?"

      Sometimes humans create problems for which there are no good human solutions. You can cross a line of no return.

      Antisocial behavior is incompatible with the communal nature of the church. If someone isn't safe to be around, then he needs to keep his distance. It's not my responsibility to get you out of a bind you got yourself into. In some cases there's the option of visitation ministry.

      Again, the church is not in a position to divine the sincerity of "repentant sex offenders." And even if they are penitent," that doesn't mean they have impulse control.

  3. I can't speak to Wilson's case because I haven't heard of it, but I see in the argument of the applicant with a bad civil record an all-or-nothing thinking on forgiveness.

    There are at least two results of sin: a breaking of relationship with God and the temporal fallout that includes other broken relationships, persistent degradation of trust, civil ramifications, etc. Forgiveness from God on the basis of the finished work of Christ results in eternal reconciliation with God. It doesn't negate any temporal results except perhaps over time as genuine repentance is persistently demonstrated. No sinner realizing the grace of his eternal redemption should ever demand special temporal consideration on the basis of the forgiveness of Christ. We all must face the earthly consequences of our sin until we die.

    Granted that Peter was restored by Jesus and Paul defended his Apostleship having been the chief of all sinners. But even Peter needed to be held accountable by Paul and his leadership held in check by the council at Jerusalem, and Paul submitted himself to scrutiny on the basis of the Gospel that he and the rest of the Apostles preached. So the best of us must be held to account among the fellowship of believers.

  4. I've only seen a few things about this, but I'm struck by a couple of observations. 1) The vast majority of people who are criticizing Doug Wilson seem to be anti-Wilson in the first place. That is, there is an obvious ideological axe they are grinding. It is therefore refreshing to read Steve's comments, which while critical of Wilson's tactics, are not said with a vendetta against him.

    Closely linked to that, then, 2) I personally think that we must differentiate between what Wilson *did* and what he has *said* in defense of it. I think Wilson's actions were at least defensible. I'm not sure what I would have done differently, given the hand he was forced to play. But what he has said in response has actually made the matters worse rather than helping him out. He has, sadly, played right into the hands of those with their ideological axes already sharpened.

    Ironically, I think that this ultimately is a case where if the proper justice for the victim had been enacted (i.e., the death penalty for the molester), then this whole problem never would have happened. But since that's not the law of the land, and since Wilson is not Biblically able to carry out civil laws (nor has he tried to, of course), then Wilson is forced to have to come up with some kind of solution, and he has to do it as a pastor not only to the victim and the victim's family, but also to the perpetrator. He also needs to realize he's a public figure, whether he wants to or not, and thus needs to grasp how his enemies, and even those who are neutral, will hear him as he defends himself.

    1. Many critics have been gunning for Wilson for years. The current controversy handed them an opportunity.

  5. Steve what's the best source on this whole mess?

    1. If you mean reportage, from what I've read, Rod Dreher has the best coverage and analysis:




    2. Thanks.

  6. I've been reading Doug Wilson's blog consistently for almost as long as he's been keeping a blog and I can say that these two controversies are not new. They've been recycled every few years, over and over, by the same people, people who are threatened by his influence. They've just gotten more mileage out of them this time than past times because Wilson's influence continues to broaden over the years, so more people are paying attention. The best commentary I've seen on the controversy has been from the Bayly brothers' blog.

  7. Actually, the Bayly brothers don't really offer a commentary on the controversy, itself. But in response to the backlash against Pastor Wilson, they offered some considered wisdom in how pastors and elders should think about and address sexual sin.