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The Cowardice of Noncompassion and the Sin of Indifference

April 26, 2010
S. Michael Craven
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In my last commentary I wrote about the tragic death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself after months of relentless and cruel bullying. In that article, I addressed the mass indifference to Phoebe’s persecution, in which no one appeared willing to come to her defense or stand in opposition to her tormentors. I referred to this as the “cowardice of noncompassion.”

Recently, I have encountered another kind of cowardice of noncompassion within the church, which hinders the church’s mission and undermines our witness in the world.

A young couple was having marital problems. Within their first year of marriage, the wife had moved out of the home in the wake of her husband’s persistent drinking. Both were professing Christians and therefore they sought counsel—with the goal of reconciliation—from their church. This is a large church—technically a megachurch—with abundant resources, so they were confident they would receive the help they needed. But they didn’t. Instead they entered the bureaucracy of what may be more accurately described as a “social corporation” than a church. Sure, the people were kind, even tried to be accommodating, but the organizational structure (and emphasis) of this church, like so many others, simply didn’t allow for the kind of intimate involvement that the bearing of one another’s burdens and the law of Christ demands (see Galatians 6:2).

In this couple’s case, there was the initial triage conducted by a “family ministry” staff member, a man previously unknown to them who referred the husband to a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group and invited him to visit the Celebrate Recovery class offered at their church. The meeting concluded with a hearty handshake and “I’ll be praying for you” and out the door they went.

Unfortunately, in the weeks that followed. these things weren’t helping, and new issues in the relationship emerged. Upon returning to the church in search of more direct spiritual/theological counsel, they were basically told, “Just keep going to Celebrate Recovery and AA.” The staff member listened but told them he “didn’t have the time” to do more than that. As if that weren’t bad enough, he explained that his restricted time was due to the fact that another staff member (also working in the area of family ministry) had recently resigned after it was discovered she was having an affair! In the end, the couple was left to flounder. There was no attention given to the root (and real) spiritual concerns in their lives that were manifesting this “bad fruit,” and thus no discipleship in which the issues (along with their attitudes and actions) were surgically examined in the light of Scripture. There was no one willing to get involved in the mess that was this couple’s life—to walk alongside and disciple them back into wholeness.

I was introduced to this couple through another couple who were trying to help them; the latter had left this particular church but were still trying to engage said church in the life of the troubled pair. Their frustration led them to me and to our church, which welcomed these folks and got involved. Upon doing so, it was quickly discovered that there were serious issues of sin and past trauma in the lives of both. The husband’s drinking was merely symptomatic of a much deeper sin issue. The wife was confused about her role and her rights in the wake of her husband’s sin. Her pain and heartbreak was pushing her to seek escape from the situation, rather than reconciliation through Christ. The relational dynamics remained dramatically distorted: their relationships with God, themselves, and each other. There were issues of trust: trust in each other and ultimately trust in the Lord. In short, this couple was ill equipped (theologically) to deal with the life issues now confronting them and they needed to be loved and discipled through their crisis not passed off to a program.

I realize that last statement may offend some, since many people have been helped by programs such as AA and Celebrate Recovery. I myself have referred men to Celebrate Recovery, but never as the first and only response. These programs can and often do serve to supplement direct biblical counseling by offering essential peer support. However, one must be careful, as I have often seen people exchange one compulsive behavior with another: terminal therapy, in which they remain forever in “recovery” and never experience deliverance through Jesus Christ. 

You may think noncompassion is too strong a charge. Perhaps indifference better describes the situation; however, this should offer little solace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew something about acting in response to sin and evil said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless…. Not to act is to act.” When sin seeks the destruction of God’s creations, this is evil and the church is called to act, to engage in spiritual warfare and “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11, ESV). Love isn’t sentimental and passive. Love is courageous! Love gets involved, bearing all things, enduring all things in the hope that Jesus Christ will defeat sin and make things new (see 1 Corinthians 13:7)! To love one another as Jesus commands is to act, especially when sin threatens to destroy your brother or sister.

For others, their reluctance to help may be rooted in fear, a fear of not knowing what to say or do. They may feel “unqualified” to wade into complex human dilemmas for fear of making things worse. This is understandable; granted, there are varying degrees of spiritual maturity and theological wisdom. However, all can love and all must take seriously the demand to “renew your minds” so that you are eventually equipped to serve the body of Christ. In the meantime, you can still love courageously by getting others who are qualified involved in the situation, to which you have by providence been made privy.

The theologically learned and mature Christian is in possession of true wisdom and understanding that comes from the Lord (see Proverbs 2:6). What better resource of knowledge and counsel is there than that of God’s Holy Word? The man or woman who has diligently sought the true interpretation of reality as revealed in God’s Word knows the truth of the human condition better than any other. The Christian also relies on wisdom from God himself, who promises to give it to those who ask—our job is to simply walk by faith. Sometimes this means walking into a crisis trusting that God will provide as we go. Doing nothing is a failure both to act in the face of evil (unloving) and trust God (unfaithfulness). Finally, this responsibility doesn’t only fall upon pastors and church leaders but upon the whole body of Christ.

Unfortunately, the case cited here is not an isolated instance but a growing problem that I personally encounter with increasing frequency. Ask yourself how often you see and celebrate restored marriages in your own church, compared to those troubled couples who quietly disappear and later divorce.

The church will be judged by the way it loves one another. Will we love courageously, trusting the Lord to use us as redemptive instruments—or will we succumb to the cowardice of noncompassion? For those in whom Christ lives, love is the only answer!

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : John H. Armstrong  

April 26, 2010 10:46 AM

The church will be judged by how we love another. That sounds so easy it rolls off out tongues and our of our corporate and personal experience of grace. You have touched a third rail in this article and one that needs touching with grace and truth. Thanks for doing precisely that.

Response from : Ronald Newcomb  

April 26, 2010 10:50 AM

Mikes point of the church as a social organization is true on many levels and needs to be understood. We need to seriously categorize actions as to those required of the Body of Christ and those needed for a successful social organization. Any given action needs to be categorized as one or the other, with the potential for overlapping functions.
Many aspects of what a church does is only in the social role. Unfortunately, this often becomes the focus of what we do in a church, socialize, and/or turn the social aspects of the church into our central focus in the church. The leader of the church or social group is not God. Helping them is helpful in the missional goals of the Body of Christ only when we are not stepping on others to do so.
Remember the first lie was, you will be as God. . . So often the social organization, a necessary part of a church can cause us to forget the mission of the Church. The mission is, of course, to save others and make disciples of them. But this discipleship is to Christ not to some organizational paradigm.
Digressing a bit: Any church has a social structure which helps to keep things organized and operating, the larger the church, the more social organization it requires. We have classes, meetings, functions, and people who organize those, and this is necessary to the successful function of a group of people, and organization, a social group. But when people put their efforts, say, of coordinating an event at the church, in front of the needs of a person, lets say, a person with any given addiction (in Mikes example, alcoholism) who walks in and is in need, we have crossed a line, we have miscategorized the group as social as opposed to part of the Body of Christ, compromised the mission, and failed to act as Christians. We have crossed over from functioning as part of the body of Christ and into a social organization which needs to be protected from interruption, from being taken over by someone else in the group, from any number of social change, but not for the glory of Christ, rather, only as a function of the social organization.
The mission of the church, and therefore of sub-church groupings individually, is to help the suffering, convert the lost, and make disciples of those who are not. The mission of the church is not to run a successful group or maintain power within that group. We tend to claim our own little kingdoms within the social organization which threatens to replace, or, at times fully replaces the mission of the church.
You can see this at all levels, from the pastoral staff to the helpers in the pre-school Sunday program.
We also suffer from what could be called a type of fatalism, or perhaps Karma, or God is in Control belief that I dont have to act because (respectively): what will be will be (with apologies to Doris Day), or they deserved that, its their fault, they did it to themselves or lastly, God will work it out. None of these excuses are adequate, but are constantly invoked by believers to prevent disruption of the social organization.
We are the agents of God on the earth. If we do not do our job, he is short one worker and jobs are not getting done. That tug at the heart is the Holy Spirit trying not to interfere with your free will, but get you to do something.
There are more than enough people who refuse to help as evidenced by that New York Good Samaritan from Guatemala who tried to help a girl in trouble only to be stabbed and have 25 people walk by without acting.
Just as the failure to act ended his life, it will surely kill any church. At least it will die on the inside.

Response from : Robert Smith  

April 26, 2010 11:18 AM

I agree with the points made in this article. However, there is another, valid reason why churches and their members may be reluctant to help. When there are "serious issues of sin and past trauma in the lives of both" it requires that a highly skilled counselor should be assisting the couple. An inadequately trained counselor can actually make the situation worse. The couple may get bad advice, but because it is from "the church" they are reluctant to question it or perhaps even believe they have no basis for questioning it.

My wife and I received counseling from a church's counseling center that was harmful and not biblically based. It caused more damage to our family and our marriage. Fortunately, we eventually found an excellent Christian counselor whose work with us is based on solid biblical principles.

Churches should help, but they should also ensure that they have staff who have been properly trained if they are going to do so. Otherwise, the church should refer people to qualified Christian counselors, and follow-up appropriately with the struggling members.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

April 26, 2010 11:29 AM


You make an excellent point however I would emphasize that the knowledge most lacking and therefore most needed is as you point out is, "biblical" knowledge. It is possible to give effective counsel when armed with sufficient theological knowledge; it is indeed potentially harmful provide counsel without it.

Response from : Lonely One  

April 27, 2010 8:23 AM

I am so grateful to see this today. A number of years ago, when my husband left me for another woman, none of the elders or pastors were willing to confront him. My close friends in the church were supportive but leadership seemed unwilling to risk confrontation. Some were generous in offering comfort and even financial help--but I was not able to find someone in leadership willing to walk through any kind of accountability journey.

Several years later the Lord led me to the church I now go to, and I decided to attend Celebrate Recovery. At first, I was so excited--I worked through my inventory and enrolled in a step study--these things were very helpful. But, I could not find a 'sponsor' (someone to be accountable to, a mentor) no matter how hard I tried. One of the leaders agreed to listen to my inventory (part of the process to complete the step study), but no more. Here I was trying to share extremely difficult weighty and deeply scarring life circumstances with a very kind person who was not able to do anything more, and has since not asked me about it. In the two years I was there I found not a single person willing to mentor--again, I have been blessed with close friends who have been a TREMENDOUS support--and, of course, God continues to heal and deliver me, himself, through the Word and by his Spirit, love and power--but I am still floundering on my own without a proper sense of having any kind of accountability, mentoring or leadership. I love church, but it's seriously lacking. It's like driving up to a gas station once a week and then trying to siphon whatever else you can get to keep your tank filled up. Often, the emphasis seems to be mostly about structure, finances and programs--but what about the sheep?

The church has WONDERFUL programs, which are bearing fruit--I want to be careful not to be a grumbler, and I have received most of my greatest blessings through my church family. Jesus loves the church--but it has been my experience that one-on-one discipling is not to be found. I often think about the book of Acts and Paul's personal and intimate involvement with the believers; his willingness to guide, correct, rebuke and intercede for them, and I find myself praying for God to raise people like that up in the body for our day. I truly have felt like open prey for the enemy at times: like the weak lamb on the edge of the fold that others have butted out and the enemy stalks and takes down--God is keeping me, though. My hope is still in him.

Anyway, thanks for at least listening (reading). I felt like no one even cared about the situation.

God bless you!

Response from : michael  

April 28, 2010 1:53 PM

I have good friends who were struggling with serious marriage issues. He was a FT worship leader and youth minister; she worked for an evangelical parachurch ministry. In two different churches, where he worked and they were both involved and well-known, she went to the senior pastor in desperation. They met once at each place with this couple, then dropped the ball, allowing the husband to continue to lead worship. He is now in jail and she is a single mom with 3 kids. Only the Lord knows how much damage was done to the testimony to Jesus Christ as pastors ignored the sin that was obvious to many inside and outside the church.

At times I am frustrated pastoring a small church that is not growing in numbers. But I am comforted by knowing that our pastors/elders actually take care of people and our members are actively involved in loving one another.

Response from : Linda  

April 29, 2010 11:47 PM

My ex husband and I experienced problems from the honeymoon on. We went from one counselor to another. During a separation, I was being counseled by the associate pastor(behind closed doors with no windows) of a church (not a mega church). On numerous occasions he said "you will get married again one day" or "I'm concerned for your safety" He was the push I needed to go along with a divorce. No one came along side us. No one mentored us. No one got to the root causes.
By the way, the associate pastor resigned his position under questionable circumstances. And, I never remarried.

Response from : jerry crawford  

April 30, 2010 10:07 AM

as my local pastor often says, actively "one another " one another


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