The church epidemic of presumptive forgiveness

By Dan Webster
Posted Mar 14, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] It was 9 a.m. I had just come home from the very early morning shift loading and unloading bags at the Austin, Texas, airport. I was tired and once again, I had to deal with the big black Ford Bronco parked in the seminary parking space behind the house where I lived. Notes had been left on this truck before by the Seminary of the Southwest staff. Time to have it towed.

As it dangled on the back of the tow truck, a student from the nearby University of Texas came running up to me yelling, “What are you doing? You can’t do that.”

“You’ve been warned repeatedly,” I said.

“You’re supposed to forgive! That’s your job.”

He presumed that routinely ignoring the rules and warnings would be routinely forgiven because we were a church institution. He may or may not have been a church member, but his idea of presumptive forgiveness has stuck out in my memory.

That was 17 years ago. Since then, as a member, curate, rector, diocesan staffer, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the behavior of church members. It’s not something anyone can prove, but I suspect my parking scofflaw neighbor may be more like church folk than I realized. There seems to be an unspoken doctrine of presumptive forgiveness in the church.

I’ve seen it time and time again. Folks agreeing to take on ministries or tasks in the parish or on diocesan committees, and then failing to follow through. This can be as simple as chronically late arrivals or early departures from meetings.

In some cases it’s much worse and in nearly every parish I’ve served, what would elsewhere be considered unacceptable behavior is excused. “Oh, that’s just Bunny. She’s always like that.” Or, “We put up with Thornton because that’s just his way.”

Whenever I ask why folks tolerate such behavior, they usually say it’s because we’re supposed to do so in a Christian community. A few might even cite Jesus’ words to Peter about forgiving 70 times seven.

During this season of Lent we hear a lot about forgiveness. But most sermons will also include how repentance and amending behavior must happen before forgiveness can be offered. So why aren’t we calling one another to a higher standard – one of repentance – when facing behavior that repeatedly undermines the work of vestries, committees, boards and councils?

A senior consultant from the Alban Institute recently told me about a newer church member complaining to a longtime member about certain situations in that church. The longtime member stopped the complainer. “We don’t talk like that here,” she said. “We have a process set up that allows you to direct your complaints through proper channels. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to pray before the service begins.” The newcomer was being instructed on the culture of that community. It was a healthy response to potentially divisive behavior.

We need to have clear boundaries and expectations of one another. We need to be as clear as Jesus when he challenged Peter about blocking his mission, saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” We need to adopt norms for behavior that honors the mission of the entire faith community and call us to be church to one another.

Wardens and vestry members, committee and commission members need clear job descriptions that support the mission and vision of the church. We need to hold our sisters and brothers accountable to a standard of discipleship that builds up the Body of Christ.

This may not be easy and often it is not, but we owe this strong sense of leadership to all members who deserve the church to be as healthy as we can make it for God’s sake.

— The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is the canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland. He lives in Baltimore.


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Comments (13)

  1. Establishing norms and good boundaries is how you build healthy communication. And being forgiving does not mean allowing thoughtless or abusive behavior. We do everyone a goodness by insisting on behavior that up builds people or the community while addressing directly behavior that does not.

  2. Ron Miller says:

    Thanks. Dan. This is a good reminder that even the Prodigal Son (of the misnamed parable) had to decide it was better at home and go there before he was welcomed back.

  3. Good article Dan. We do need to forgive – but – we all need to remember we do have a responsibility to make positive contributions to our community be it city, town, school or church.

  4. chris yaw says:

    Thoughtful post Dan, though I would have to disagree with the notion that repentance and amended behavior need be offered before forgiveness can be granted. I tend to see forgiveness as a gift given for free not granted based on performance. Thank you for causing me to think: Would Jesus have towed that car?

    1. Kim Hardy says:

      Chris – Sounds like Miroslav Volf! Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. 🙂

  5. Bruce Bogin says:

    I do not see any conflict between towing the car or any other form of holding an errant person accountable and forgiveness. What is forgiveness anyway? Is it excusing bad or inappropriate behavior. A man has raped a woman. She might in her heart find it appropriate to forgive him, but can she not also seek his prosecution and incarceration? Where is the conflict?

  6. Joyce Ann Edmondson says:

    “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do…” was said from the cross. Yes, Jesus forgave all of us during his suffering and did not ask the Roman soldiers, or any of us as far as I know, to change before he forgave us.

    However, I agree that many church members presume forgiveness from us while omitting promises to help us or carry out what they promise. I actually miss the “reconciliation” process that asks us to examine our consciences and make amends to those we have hurt (and this takes admitting it) and being forgiven by hearing the words “you are forgiven.” I remember as children, my Catholic husband always took the children aside before they fell asleep and forgave them for anything they had done wrong during the day which I thought was a beautiful expression of the Father’s forgiveness through his Son.
    Peace be with you.

  7. Mollie Douglas Turner+ says:

    Chris Yaw is exactly right: repentance and amendment of behavior are not prerequisite to deserving or needing forgiveness…though it certainly helps to see it when mustering the heart to forgive! We do seem to want “fairness,” as seen in Joseph’s brothers’ fear that his forgiveness would not last beyond their father’s death; Joseph was way beyond that, as God is. But remember, lack of forgiveness is far more damaging to the injured party than to the one at fault, especially in cases like Dan and the parked truck. And forgiveness never dismisses the seriousness of the fault or crime; but it always paves the way for grace and healing.

  8. Justin Walker says:

    Thanks for the article, Dan. Forgiveness is such a difficult concept, even for religious people, and it’s interesting to think about the difference between expecting forgiveness and deserving it. I actually just finished a wonderful book called “Forgiving the Unforgivable,” by Master Charles Cannon, that deals with the difficulties of forgiving and accepting others. It’s a thought-provoking book that anyone struggling with learning when and how to forgive might benefit from. Thanks again for the post!

  9. John Kirk says:

    This would be amusing if it weren’t so sad! The Episcopal Church has dramatically altered the paradigm of sexual morality to the point that it not only permits gay “marriage,” but is coming up with a way to bless it, and you’re concerned that Skip keeps trotting in late to the vestry meeting and Muffy forgot, again, to make the canapes for the altar guild meeting?!?!? Presumptive forgiveness isn’t necessary, Rev. Webster, or any other kind of forgiveness, when we diminish, errode or come near to eliminating, any concept of sin. If something regarded these thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian tradition as wrong, repugnant, an abomination to God, a sin that cries out to Heaven, can now be celebrated and blessed with rite and ritual, then what’s a little tardiness, a little habitual absent-mindedness, among friends? If you have a “priest” that comes out and says that abortion is a blessing, wouldn’t it be a tad ironic for that “priest” to come over all Cotton Mather-ish regarding one’s obligation to show up and flip pancakes on Shrove Tuesday night?

    On the other hand, kudos for believing in Satan…if that is what one should construe from your citation of the Holy One’s rebuke of him in the Gospels.

  10. Magi Griffin says:

    To Chris – WWJD? Perhaps, turned the car over?

  11. Shawn Oujezdsky says:

    A provoking message, though 17 years is a bit long to hold on to such a minor misdeed, though repeated with frequency. Forgiveness is the highest form of grace that we can attain. You may not forgive the sin, but you must forgive the sinner – this will lead to spiritiual healing. What we hold bound, as sin, binds us as well to that sin as we sit in judgement of our neighbor. As far as behavior, we usually have ample opportunity to observe our neighbors in our gathering of spiritual fellowship; if one is frequently tardy or absent they may not be the best choice for office of responsibility. A friend once asked me, “If Christ was crucifed and died for the sins of mankind, who must I kill to gain forgiveness?” Think about it…forgiveness is such a large thing to ask (repentance) and a small thing to give. Many I know would think it foolish to forgive a sin over and over, but God calls us to walk in His way. Love God. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Rather sums it all up.

  12. Doug Desper says:

    Thank you, Fr. Webster, for challenging us not to deteriorate into the mere chaplains of the culture.

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