Conversion and Sin

Every clergyman or minister will know the problem of dealing with an individual in the congregation who, for whatever reason, does not fit in. The church is meant to be a place that gives a welcome to all. But when an awkward or difficult person presents him/herself in one of the pews, a conscious effort has to be made to assimilate that individual into the order of things. There are any number of reasons for a failure to fit in easily. It may be a matter of personal hygiene or social background that creates a problem; it may be for reasons of theology that they are somehow out of place. If the effort at integration fails and the person leaves, everyone may be secretly relieved that the problem has resolved itself. The fact that the departure is a defeat for the church’s stated desire to welcome and love, is quietly overlooked.

Beyond the problem of absorbing the difficult outsider, there is another problem that churches may have encountered which is equally problematic. This is the problem of a well-connected member of the congregation who turns out to have a dark secret. The individual concerned may be a wife-beater or long term scam artist. Because the congregation has treated this individual as one of its own, no one wants to believe bad things about him. The situation is worse when the malefactor is the minister or clergyman themselves. Everyone has projected onto him a standard of goodness which has helped each member feel good about themselves. The revelation of evil deeds has the effect of dragging everyone down. The former idealisation of their leader has, after his fall, left them all feeling involved and thus contaminated by his actions.

In both these situations we have potentially unhealthy responses in the way the church may behave. In the first there is an attempt to avoid handling the unconventional or awkward personality. In the second case, there is a strong reluctance to face up to the fact that church people are as capable of dishonest, evil or perverse behaviour as anyone else. What might be going on in the theology of both these situations? In the first situation, we can say that there is a failure of love. The unconventional behaviour and opinions of the misfit are too challenging to cope with. In a variety of ways which may not always be conscious, church members are maybe failing in the duties and obligations of love and welcome.

The second scenario is a still more challenging one. Most people have as a given that that anyone who gives their life to God and goes through some conversion experience is incapable of real wrongdoing. When this turns out not to be true, it creates considerable dissonance in the minds of church members. The instinct is first to attempt to excuse the behaviour or pretend it has not happened. This attempt at denial may be as much about protecting the reputation of the congregation as it is about an inappropriate gesture of support for the erring individual. Everyone feels something of the shame of the action. The cover-ups that may be attempted are efforts to push away that shared sense of guilt. When this assumed link between church attendance and goodness is broken, everyone feels less secure in their sense of righteousness. The problem of a failing minister is even more acute. As I mentioned above, the individual members of the congregation may have engaged in a process of idealisation. The goodness of the minister has percolated down to give status to everyone who attends. This has been compromised.

At the heart of the problem of a church finding it difficult to deal with the blatant sinfulness of one of its members, is the theology of conversion. What actually happens when someone gives the loyalty to Christ? Is the work of the Holy Spirit involved? When an individual falls from grace after that experience, what does that say about the Holy Spirit himself? Was the person deceiving everyone in the claim to conversion or should we say that the Holy Spirit does not necessarily override human frailty and weakness?

I am unable to give concrete answers to these questions. I would just comment that when people cling to some doctrine of automatic goodness following Christian conversion, they become blind to the possible failings of human nature. A tendency for a congregation to closes rank against victims of abuse to support a perpetrator is not neutral behaviour. When there is overwhelming evidence against an individual who has violated trust in some way, supporting that person will enhance the victim’s suffering. People seem very good at finding a theology that seems to support the interests of their own immediate group. Blindness and deafness often seem to follow when unpalatable facts are presented to people. The supporters of President Trump seem to be unaware of the fact that his proposed taxes will cause suffering and even death for many poor people in his country.

Any doctrine that seems to suggest that a converted Christian cannot sin is potentially an extremely dangerous one. It has the effect that people put their guard down when mixing in Christian circles. Thus, they do not see what may be going on around them. The capacity of human beings to fail does not cease when they become Christians. We still need alertness and even a little cynicism when faced with the phenomenon of human nature. Naïveté is all too common among Christians. There is something particularly ugly about the sight of Christians protecting their own when they know full well that an individual or group of individuals have harmed others. Nigel Davies, the protester outside Trinity Church Brentwood, has experienced the full anger of those who simply do not want to face up to the evils of the past in that church. As we have seen over the months, there is, apart from anger, a great deal of hatred and denial. Such sentiments do little to promote health either for the individuals expressing it or for the wider church. Someone needs to point out to those who berate Nigel that however many miracles were supposed to happen at Peniel/Trinity Church in the past, we still need accountability for terrible human failures. These, as we would claim in this blog, typically centre around the abuse and misuse of power. If my blog has done nothing else I hope it has sensitised my readers to the way that this failing is very common around every walk of life. A proper awareness of this failing as it touches our churches, is the first stage of being able to stop it. As Adrian Plass said in one of his books, we need to be able to ‘spot it and stop it’.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

14 thoughts on “Conversion and Sin

  1. Spot on. Another side of this is the way a church or an individual can turn against for example a clergyman who has provably misbehaved himself. The sense of disappointment can turn to very unkind and aggressive behaviour. I saw that happen when a Baptist minister’s marriage broke down and he found someone else.

  2. I recalled the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” when I read this. Also 1 John chapter one – “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves…” written by a believer. Helpful post.

  3. Stephen, were the recent revelations about Iain Campbell a factor in your second scenario? The widely circulated obituary by Donald Macleod said that Campell was a man of “transparent piety”, yet it appears he had a dark secret, namely adultery.

    [And as an aside – you mentioned Peniel – I can assure you that claims of “miracles” in Pentecostal churches are invariably false.]

    But, overall, it is very simple – we will never be perfect until we reach heaven, so Christians can and do sin, and sometime they sin seriously.

    1. I would like to assure you, Peter, that there were many amazing, visible, physical miracles (apart from any non-visible) that did happen at Peniel, despite the human failings of Michael Reid. I was there, I witnessed them personally over some 30 years, saw them continue in friends I knew well, and I also received instantaneous healing on two very distinct and serious occasions, for problems that had no medical solutions and which have never recurred. You actually do despite to the grace and mercy of God in His willingness to touch people and alleviate their suffering because you want to denounce an individual. I do not defend Reid’s behaviour, which was destructive, but you have to separate what Reid did in his own hateful agenda from what God did out of love and compassion for people.
      This is actually not a new idea to the church. Anglians believe that a fault in the minister does not negate the grace of God in what is being ministered. If I come to God in earnest and seek His help, what sort of God would He be if He said, ‘No, the bloke praying for you is not perfect, so I will withhold healing from you.’??

  4. No. I was not thinking of Iain Campbell though I might have been. The scenario of sexual shenanigans among ministers, especially charismatic ones is common. There is a pattern here but I cannot deal with how it works here. Your comment about Peniel is interesting. As much as I deplore Reid and his ministry, I have no reason to write off every one of his so called miracles. Some may be genuine but that does not stop him being a manipulative scoundrel! Miracles do not ensure sanctity. That is the point of the post.

  5. Regarding Michael Reid, Stephen said he is a “manipulative scoundrel”. I totally agree. And “miracles” in Pentecostalism are the result of manipulation. Preachers like Reid are masters at it – using all manner of mind tricks, even hypnotic techniques, to make people think that miracles and healings are happening.

    CS, can you tell me what miracles you claim to have seen? In the emotional atmosphere of Pentecostal meetings, people tend to lose their sense of reality and they can even see things that simply aren’t there.

    I always remember that when a panel of doctors was asked to examine the “best” healings reported at Morris Cerullo meetings, they could find absolutely nothing that could be considered miraculous.

    I’m not denying that God can do miracles through anyone if He wants to, but there’s no evidence that miracles happen within Pentecostalism.

    Another question for CS – where did the healing miracles occur?

  6. Peter,
    I agree, I spent many years in Pentecostal Fellowships and never witnessed an apostolic miracle, (The Miracles in the gospels and Acts were mostly immediate).
    Also, the way that the claim of being, ‘Born again’ has attracted an absolutism concerns me. Conversion and following Christ is not related to ‘cure all’ once and for all ‘Experience.’ This issue can seriously confuse Young Christians; we need to hear more about, ‘Free Will’ and perhaps, the gift of absolute free will, that absolute, comes from love.

    1. Michael Reid was far worse than a ‘manipulative scoundrel’, but he didn’t control God.

      The healings I received in my own body, I repeat, were instantaneous, beyond medical help, permanent, and life-changing. I will give thanks to God for His goodness in touching my body and putting things right for all of my days on this planet, and who knows for how long after that?
      I will decline your demand to elaborate on the details. I posted in the hope it would be encouraging to other bloggers, but I find the responses to my statement to be disrespectful to me personally and the assertion that there is no evidence that miracles happen within Pentecostalism to be breath-takingly arrogant.
      So I will leave you to it.

      1. CS, I want to believe you. There’s nothing I’d like more than evidence of genuine miracles. But I’ve seen so much smoke and mirrors that it’s difficult for me to accept claims without evidence. I’m sorry if I came across as arrogant and disrespectful – that wasn’t my intent.

        1. That’s ok. I wrote a lengthy reply with details, but feel it is too personal for this forum. Although I will say I understand your skepticism, but you can’t let it close your mind. Anyway, Jesus’s resurrection was a far bigger deal than a minor physical healing.

  7. I have been in and out Pentecostal churches for forty years,if I said that I had seen a miracle I would be telling a lie.
    Also, some people have taken their own lives when promised,”Healing” that did not take place, this is too serious a matter for Christians to accuse each other of being arrogant. It is essential that we are able to test the claims of Christian leaders, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is libity”

  8. I think part of the trouble is the use of the word ‘miracles’. Remarkable things can sometimes happen in an interaction between people when there is ‘faith’ or trust in another person and a particular kind of strength in that individual. It may be a bit like the placebo effect but that does not take away the dramatic quality of these ‘healings’ when they occur. I am giving a paper at my conference in June on the way healings occur in a particular interaction between psychoanalyst and patient. Ultimately all healing is self healing. It can occur in or out of a religious setting. For me the best and simplest model is to understand the way the mother ‘heals’ the child. It is a combination of touch, love and trust. Unfortunately charismatic leaders learn the ‘technique’ and may use it for nefarious ends. You will have to hear more on this as my paper comes into shape over the next couple of months. You will remember how I exposed the blog to musings on ostracism a couple of years ago!

  9. Miracles excite us, it seems to me, but we read that “without faith it is impossible to please him,” so God is more concerned with faith. If God were to show his hand in obvious ways on a regular basis, then where would be the chance for us to have faith? So my personal view is that there are miracles in this life, but I don’t expect to see them too often, and I want to focus on trusting God whether or not he intervenes as I would like.

    1. Indeed. Like that stunning reply from Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. “Our God is able to save us, but even if he does not, we will not bow down to (false gods)”. Really, that is mind-blowingly brave. They must have thought they were going to die.

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