Shunned: A Call to Restorative Grace

I was supposed to be an instrument of God's grace, but instead I left a victim and so many others devastated by my actions.

In the wake of horrific revelations of sexual abuse in society and in the church, we stand in solidarity with those whose lives have been forever harmed by abuse. At the same time, churches are wrestling with how to be Christ-like to those who have abused others. As part of that conversation, we offer this perspective from a member of our denomination. We are withholding the author’s identity in order to protect those who were affected by the crime. This article does not necessarily reflect The Banner’s view but fulfills our role as a forum of diverse perspectives.
            >> More: Read Editor Shiao Chong’s editorial, “Beyond My Comfort Zone.”

When the ball dropped in Times Square ushering in the year 2009, my life was a picture of success. I had a good family, was a partner in a successful business, and volunteered in my community. I was an upstanding member of my local church, serving each week as an usher and as a leader in my church’s youth group. Three months later, I was sitting in the county jail facing prison time. Eventually, I was sentenced to 17 to 45 years in prison for a crime that shocked my community and rocked my church to its core.

I knew my crime had left my church community and my circle of friends wondering what went wrong. For months I sat in jail awaiting either a trial or an acceptable plea deal. I thought that members of my men’s study group, my small group, or my fellow youth group leaders would contact me to find out what had happened. Surely the pastors, at least, would care about the unmistakably fractured state of my spiritual life and attend to my spiritual condition. I had violated the trust of my community, leaving the church to make space for healing for those I’d harmed. I was supposed to be an instrument of God’s grace, but instead I left a victim and so many others devastated by my actions. I was not the man of God I had portrayed; instead, I was in need of restoration and healing grace.

For seven months, I sat in the county jail, reading my Bible, praying, and seeking God’s guidance on where I had gone so wrong in my life that I would harm someone and be facing such serious charges. At a time when I deserved grace the least but needed it the most, only one man from my 800-member church, a man I hardly knew, came to check on me. He visited once and stayed just a few minutes. My pastors also visited once to pressure me to take a plea deal; I don't remember them praying with me. Before long I found my heart growing cold to the idea of belonging to a local fellowship of believers. After all, in my moment of greatest need, my church family had abandoned me.

More than nine years later, I still have not heard from a single member of my former church. Nevertheless, the compassion and grace shown by outside members of my Christian prison fellowship has softened my heart toward the idea of belonging to a church community again. They have lived out the grace of Jesus to me even though I do not deserve it. As a result, I have slowly recognized that I too need to show grace to my former church community. They were ill-equipped to know how to respond when one of their members fell from grace so drastically.

I began to ask myself, How should a church body respond when one of its members commits a scandalous sin, whether it is a crime or otherwise? How should a church respond when a member's offense becomes suddenly, shockingly public? For that matter, how should I, as a believer, respond when another believer is caught in sin?

Although it is often necessary to “put out” a member of the church to protect the faith community morally, spiritually, and legally, members of the body of Christ ought to have restoration as their ultimate goal. Never should people be defined by the worst choices they have made in their life. But neither should those choices be blindly overlooked. Rather, members of the church ought to be concerned with the wayward member’s spiritual well-being as well as the victim’s well-being. Even when the apostle Paul called for the Corinthian church to put out a sexually immoral member, it was in order that his spirit would be saved (1 Cor. 5:5). Later, after his apparent repentance, Paul urged the Corinthians to forgive and console him and to reaffirm their love for him (2 Cor. 2:7-8).

It is important to pray for offending members, but it is equally important to communicate love and concern to them. Rarely is anyone open to correction or discipleship in the moments surrounding discovery of their sin. Instead, the church ought to have a long-range focus when pursuing restoration. Addressing the offender’s spiritual needs, healing the offender’s brokenness, and, if possible, bringing the offender back into fellowship with the community takes time.

As I sat in jail, I was too scared to talk with anyone about what I had done as I awaited trial or a plea agreement (which I eventually accepted). After my sentencing, though, I longed for help processing the direction my life had taken. I desperately needed spiritual guidance and discipleship at this critical time in my life. I was broken, and I needed the help of people who cared about the condition of my spirit to help guide me in the process of healing. My church failed to meet that need, but God did not leave me helpless. He brought unlikely people—other prisoners—into my life to help me, to disciple me, and pray with me. At a time when I had proven wholly unfaithful to God, God never abandoned me.

Today, as I watch my pastor and outside members of my prison fellowship minister to prisoners, many of whom have committed awful crimes, I am learning more about God’s radical grace. I have hope because God “chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things.” It is only because of Jesus that any of us is called righteous, holy, and redeemed (1 Cor. 1:28, 30). Demonstrating divine grace is never easy, but as coheirs with Christ, people of the church are called to be “faithful stewards of God's grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). This faithful stewardship includes being conduits of God’s grace to those who have deeply disappointed us, who have violated our trust, who have harmed others, and who, in human terms, are the least deserving of grace. That is exactly how a church ought to respond to an offending member—with the same divine grace— restorative grace—that Jesus showed us when we were in our own sin.

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