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Thoughts on Church Scandal

You may be surprised to learn that the word scandal does not occur in the most common English translations of the Bible. And yet the word seems to have entered the English language in the 16th century to refer to the discrediting of Christianity through the reprehensible behavior of a member or members of the faith. One of the earliest uses comes from George Herbert, who identifies church schism as a “scandal” (Priest to the Temple, chapter XXIV). John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce in 1791 that he regarded the church’s support of the slave trade an “execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature” because it was an offense against human dignity.

Perhaps, like the word Trinity, it had to be invented, so frequently has the church had opprobrium heaped upon it for its hypocrisy and corruption. I remember becoming (self-)conscious of this when, soon after I was ordained, investigations into allegations of child abuse at Mount Cashel Boys’ Home in Newfoundland were reopened. My wearing of a collar, which had inspired a degree of public trust and affection, now marked me out for caution. Many clergy gave up wearing collars in the early 1990s as a result.

And of course, scandal continues to plague the church. In 2014, the 12,000-member Mars Hill Church in Seattle fell into division when its pastor, Mark Driscoll, was accused of plagiarism and bullying behavior and was forced to leave. More recently, the international ministry known as Hillsong, a 150,000-member church for celebrities and a studio of much contemporary Christian worship music, fell under scrutiny for its financial practices and reports of sexual misconduct by one of its founders.

Add to this list notably disgraced Christian figures like John Howard Yoder, Jean Vanier, and Ravi Zacharias; documented sexual harassment at the evangelical publishing house Christianity Today; and, closer to home, the sorry stories involving Bruxy Cavey at The Meeting House in Toronto, or the prominent Canadian evangelical scholar John G. Stackhouse Jr., who has been fired from a faculty position after an investigation into reports of misconduct, and the public perception of the church as a place full of imposters and lacking integrity is underscored.

Now, while these things are so destructive to the reputation of the church in the world at large, what is often unreported is the harm done to the Christian community. Even in cases in which investigations conclude that allegations were unfounded or malicious, there is an erosion of trust that may take years to restore. I remember a situation when the elders of a congregation had reason to believe that someone was stealing part of the Sunday collection. The pastor said the leadership began to unravel in mutual suspicion until it was discovered that the culprit was the building’s caretaker. Innuendo and even the hint of impropriety can compromise years of faithful ministry. St. James warns, “The tongue is a fire” (3:6).

This is really what scandal is about. While the English word scandal is not found in the Bible, the Greek root of the word, from which it was taken, is. The noun skandalon and the verb skandalizein occur 40 times in the New Testament. It is often translated “stumbling block,” as when Jesus rounds on Peter in Matthew 16 and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (v. 23), or when he admonishes his disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

The possibility that we might be the cause of an offense that undermines another’s relationship with Jesus is a very serious matter indeed. And, of course, although we often associate scandal with sexual sin, we can be the cause of another’s stumbling for other things that seem to us quite benign. St Paul felt the personal freedom to eat food that had been offered to pagan idols, for instance, but in the knowledge that others might be offended (the word is skandalizein), he resolved never to eat such meat (1 Cor. 8).

I do worry sometimes that our insistence on our “rights” as Christians can sometimes be an obstacle in our witness to others. I will run the risk of being provocative by saying that Canadian churches that defied legislation having to do with gathering, vaccinations, and wearing masks during the pandemic may have occupied a politically and possibly even theologically defensible position, but they did little to enhance the image of a community of people whose primary purpose is to glorify Jesus by serving those for whom he died.

And on this concluding note, I wish to observe an irony. There is a bigger scandal in the church that we rarely read about in the news. Only this scandal lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It is a grotesque scandal, involving the miscarriage of justice and the death of an innocent person. And the offense in this scandal is that it was our rebellion, self-centeredness and sin, that brought about his execution, and this continues to be received as an insult by every proud member of the human race. This is what St. Paul called the scandal of the cross. “We proclaim Christ crucified,” he declared to the Corinthians, “a stumbling block (skandalizon) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

If the current scandals of the church can be eclipsed, and the harms they have caused be healed, it will only be by the power of this greater scandal. For it is in this Scandal that we find both our forgiveness and the model of self-sacrificial service that is inimical to the abuse of power in all its forms.

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