I am shocked. I had been involved in a discussion involving two pastors, and the one I knew best and greatly respected said forcefully to his colleague, “Stop Demonising” another. Was my pastoral colleague suggesting that his associate was demonising another person about whom he was talking? Was he using the exaggerated language for affect? Was my colleague being pharisaical? The answer to my reflective question seemed to be“No”. He was deadly serious! He was challenging his colleague about the appropriateness of denigrating another with vigour. His colleague thus confronted with tough love, withdrew from the strength of his original comments about the person he was angry and feeling righteous about.
The conversation has haunted me since it took place. Is that what we do when we discuss another in anger and with discrimination that claims to be born of righteousness. Is that what I at times do? The answer I think is “Yes”, and that answer troubles me. The familiar and haunting words of Jesus recorded in the Matthew 7:22. “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother and sister, you will be liable to judgment: and if you insult a brother and sister you will be liable to the council and if I say “you fool’, you will be liable for the the hell of fire.” In the face of this irrefutable statement of Jesus forming and enunciating opinions about others is a precarious practice that impacts their lives, personal spiritual formation, theirs and ours, and the continuing formation of Christian community. Followers of Jesus need to be wary of over simplification of the meaning of Jesus’ telling words.
I recall the inclination of pastoral colleagues I have known to spiral down into bitterness as they contemplate the activities of the people they view as their protagonists in a local congregation or on a committee in which they serve. The tendency of such behaviour is to become obsessive about the dynamics, or the perceived evil of their opponents. When I hear or see this, I recall the author of the book of James speaking of bitter water as a symbol of evil that issues from the abusive speech. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing, my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does the spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (James 3:11;13 NRSV) Bitterness, resentment, animosity, harshness and jealousy is inconsistent with Christian profession or formation (Hebrews 12:12). Pastoral health is never enhanced when these attitudes and behaviours are entertained.
I object. “Hold on” you say. “What about the need to cultivate discernment?” After all we are instructed to ‘discern the spirits’. We are to make decisions about appropriate leaders in the congregations! Pastors are to pray about wisdom rather than to play politics when it comes to the people with whom we serve (James 4:1-2). We are to be leaders in congregations that are called to discipline one another at times of failure and sin. While the purpose of discipline is always to bring people back to a godly path and not to be used as punishment, we pastors are nevertheless to share in implementing discipline. Surely it is valid to stand against those in the congregation who are driven by power for powers sake. We are to stand up to bullies who want to save their family dynasty reputation even to the extent of continuing to condone known pronounced sin and sweep things under the carpet. Is necessary for pastors, and other leaders of integrity ought to stands against all pronounced unethical behaviour.
What about the language of Paul when he spoke forthrightly to the Corinthians or the Galatians? In the latter he pulls no punches and calls the protagonists of the gospel “dogs” and suggests that the knife should be taken to those who want to return to Jewish religious practices and legalism. Furthermore, are not most of the New Testament about the apostles and other first century servant leaders’ struggles for the gospel sake and formation of individuals and congregations? Are we not to call people to be active evangelists, who live with integrity and seek to win people to Christ and to plant more congregations of believers!
Contemporary congregations are no easier to serve as leaders than those of New Testament fame? Some of us find that have borderline personality disorders, obsessive compulsive and other mentally and socially dysfunctional people among among our church leaders and among the members of the church. We may have down right evil people who have wriggled into the fabric of a congregational playing on human naiveté, gullibility, and lack of discernment by those in the local situation. Some of us even have people who have consciously given themselves over to evil and abusive practices that point to sinister evil influences in their lives. There have always been ‘people of the Lie’ who comes as wolves in sheep clothing. You ask me, “has your pastoral friend lost perspective and isn’t he being simplistic in saying ‘stop demonizing others’?
Stop Stereotyping people. Another significant pastoral conversation comes to mind when I think about this. I mention one among many. That is that “if you give a dog a bad name some of the mud sticks.” This conversation was with a man who was being disciplined by the church and he was appealing with me not to concur with the discipline. Like a lot of popular sayings it contains at least a modicum of truth if not much more. It is all too easy to put down another in conversation, by description, by diagnostic assumptions that are not informed, by perceived dubious theological descriptors. “He or she is conservative, charismatic, not evangelical, reformed, garbled in theology, or has no theological education, has had complaints made against him, always been odd … To heed such superficial evaluations made by anyone, particularly people of influence, can lead to permanent discrimination. To thus stereotype a person is to lock her or him in place, away from promotion, advancement and giving them a high profile. This is a contradiction of a central component of Christian transformation as a dynamic work of God the Holy Spirit in persons and community.
In a movement that is person led over and against policy led we are prone to do this to each other and the ‘mud sticks‘ while ever a certain regime if in power and that is disempowering rather than enabling. Debilitating rather than forgiving and enabling. Such actions are contrary to the self giving and life giving love of God. Such categorisation diminishes and feed discouragement and stifles instead of giving life and resurrection.
I think my pastoral colleague was suggesting that in the process of discernment as to who and what is good and godly and what is not we should be slow to anger, gracious and patient remembering that God’s generosity to us was to give life of his son Jesus so that we might know God. Christian should be as lavish as God in their love to each other and in the world around… Generosity listens, and affirms with passion the God given value of the human being in each encounter, whether we agree with the person we encounter or not. Generosity forgives others, knowing that our weakness and the forgiveness we receive from God. Generosity reaches out and obeying Jesus, goes with the gospel of salvation and hope. Pastors must be be Christ centred, consciously and explicitly, full of passionate love for Jesus, or they are nothing. ( Andrew Atherstone, Archbishop Justin Welby, London:D.T.D. 2013)
Take the risk of demonstrating love, faith and hope and work towards reconciliation which is not unanimity, or tolerance but love despite
disagreement. It is able to differ and be diverse without breaking fellowship.
Yes there is a difficulty in where to draw the boundaries and decide when a difference is of such a fundamental importance that a breakdown of relationship is necessary.
 Andrew Atherstone, Archbishop Justin Welby, London: D.T.D. 2013, 102
 Atherstone, 2013, 113.