Many people - including a lot of Christians - think the Bible is too judgmental.
It’s considered a faux pas - or sometimes hate speech - to give too much attention to sin and the coming wrath of God.
And it’s not just the Bible that’s the problem. It’s Christians who are judgmental. We just use the Bible to amplify our hate.
So we prefer to focus on God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. No matter what the problem is, we cough up some religious words like gospel and mercy, and then we move on.
But this perspective needs revision.
There’s a trend in the church that I call “toxic grace.” It’s responding to abusers with grace while shunning their victims .
Toxic grace is what the world witnessed, to its horror, at New Life Christian Church. After the church’s pastor said he had committed adultery, his congregation responded with applause. Their celebration of his ‘courageous vulnerability’ is a scandal.
But then his victim took the microphone and told the truth. The pastor’s sin wasn’t a consensual affair. No. He had groomed her and repeatedly sexually assaulted her as a teenager. Then he’d spiritually abused her to coerce her into decades of silence. And then, when he told the congregation, he misrepresented the details. Their pastor was revealed to be a predator, a bully, and a liar.
So what happened? Did the church surround the victim with support and ask their pastor to leave the building? No. Instead, the church surrounded their pastor, laid hands on him (a sign of support), and prayed for him . In their statement the next day, they continued to refer to the sexual assault as an “affair” and “adultery.” They also emphasized their commitment to providing “support, encouragement, counsel and forgiveness” to their former pastor.
Toxic grace uses Christian language in a way that causes tremendous harm. It tells the world that Christians will embrace sex offenders while we downplay the damage done to their victims. It indicates that our Bible - and our theology - are tools of oppression rather than divine words of freedom.
The truth is that God is holy. So his wrath will be poured out on the wicked.
Do you wish there was justice for Putin in his brutal war against Ukraine?
Do you long for Xi Jinping to be held accountable for the concentration camps he’s filled in Xinjiang?
Do you desire that rapists like Ravi Zacharias, a man who died peacefully at home, will be held accountable?
Do you hope that murderers who shoot up elementary school students will experience just consequences?
Then you might want to believe there’s a holy God who will judge the wicked.
That theology leads to the kind of righteous indignation that Russell Moore showed us when he spoke about how the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders handled claims of sexual abuse. He said, “[It’s] more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”
Serving as a pastor, a denominational executive, or a ministry leader won’t protect you. Far from it!
Jesus’ harshest words, by far, were for the “brood of vipers” who appointed themselves as the religious leaders of Israel. As Dr. Diane Langberg says, “If we love the abuser we will know that true repentance is slow and hard, and their words and promises cannot be trusted. Keep in mind that one of the most powerful weapons of deception is the use of spiritual language.”
We need to recognize that abusers have slipped into the church and preached toxic grace to protect themselves and prey on more victims. And sadly, they’ve influenced well-meaning but naive spiritual leaders to repeat their harmful message. So you and I need to recognize this error and vigorously oppose it.
Don’t use toxic grace to minimize sin. Instead of using Christian terminology like ‘grace’ as a way to whitewash evil, reckon with the horror of evil. Putin is said to wear a crucifix around his neck and be a Orthodox church member. So is he off the hook? Or is his association with Christianity while committing war crimes a ground for further condemnation? We need to grow up and demonstrate mature discernment.
Thank God for his wrath against evil. If it weren’t for God’s wrath, I’d lose hope. There is so much suffering in this world. Evil seems to prevail time and time again. So is justice a pipe dream? Or is it just delayed beyond the horizon of what I can see?
Vigorously oppose evil in the pursuit of justice. If God hates what is evil, then we should too. When a police officer murdered George Floyd, it was appropriate for God’s people to be indignant. When someone targets and murders Asian women, killing eight people in one day, we should announce our unconditional condemnation. When a pastor misrepresents assault as an affair, we should call the authorities. As Dr. Karen Prior says, “Worse than wolves disguised as sheep are the ones disguised as shepherds.”
Don’t be a judgmental bully. The critique I mentioned at the start is fair. Instead of waving it away, we can repent. Let’s be gentle, kind, and respectful. Let’s show our neighbors that we love them. But gentleness is not an excuse to be passive observers of evil.
Cherish grace in your own life. I write with fear and trembling. I need God’s grace. I am not claiming to be without sin. I am keenly aware of my shortcomings and recognize I still have blind spots. I’m not the person I want to be. I treasure the kindness of God towards me. Yes, I believe grace is available to anyone who wholeheartedly repents and trusts in Christ. The thing is, we’re not looking for a tearful speech, but a transformed life.
Keep moving forward. As we imperfectly do our best, we keep clinging to God’s grace. I’ve found that God’s love and forgiveness are what animates my joy and passion to turn away from sin. And as we cleanse ourselves from what is wrong and lean upon God, we will gain the purity of heart and the endurance that we need to represent him in the world.
To sum it up, meditate on what the Lord announced through Isaiah, “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.”
Toxic grace protects the abusers and dismisses the victims. It’s wrong. It’s foolish. It’s harmful.
But true grace is transformative. It cleanses our hearts as we pursue justice. May this one day be the message and the witness of God’s people.