Deuteronomy 4: 1 -- 9
James 1: 17 – 27
Mark 7: 1 – 23
O LORD, who may abide in Your tent?
Who may dwell on Your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart....
- Psalm 15: 1 – 2
Around the world, people of conscience are sick about the sex abuse scandal afflicting our Christian sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church.
You who know me understand that I practice and preach full “ecumenical” acceptance of, and sharing with, our Roman Catholic neighbors, whether they be in Elkton or Ireland or anywhere. So I will not point a finger at “them” as if there were not many evils and flaws in our local church, our denomination, and in Protestantism as it is. All human beings are subject to affliction whether we are innocent or guilty, and we are also all subject to temptation, and we are also all sinners.
Observing the current suffering and scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, I feel I ought to give you-all a bit of historical background about how their situation compares to ours at Bethel.
In the 1500s, a few Christian leaders in Europe— they were all Roman Catholic, before 1517— had such harsh criticisms of the Pope and the Roman church hierarchy and practices, they began to break away from the authority of Rome. However, it should not surprise anyone that the new “Protestant” churches which began to form often set up power structures that rivaled Roman Catholicism in authority and force of tradition.
The troubles that are emerging from the shadows of the Roman Catholic past (both long ago and recent) mostly result from imbalances of power between the “men of the cloth”— or, in some notorious cases, even “women of the cloth” (nuns)— and the “lay people,” the regular Christians in the community. Priests and Bishops and Abbesses and Mothers Superior have held a lot of power, which was magnified by their status as “holy people,” and they far too often used their power to rape, molest, and otherwise take advantage of lay people or subordinates who were supposed to be under their care.
But I hasten to point out that Protestant churches have also created big, bad power imbalances, and far too many Protestant ministers and other Protestant church leaders have misused their positions in order to take advantage of people under their care.
Power offers us temptations: great power offers bigger temptations.
Nowadays, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution is experiencing dwindling attendance, donations, and trust, in a time when people who have suffered abuse feel empowered to come forth and tell their truth. The Catholic hierarchy, from the local church lay leadership up to the Pope in Rome, are forced to listen to the demands that wrongdoers be held accountable. Perhaps in future years, they may make a much more “flat” arrangement for power, in which the “people of the cloth” and the lay people share authority and hold one another accountable in a more equal way.
In our setting at Bethel, we have been living for many years under an arrangement that ought to provide for equitable power sharing between the congregation and the minister. It’s a good thing, that nobody seems to think that the “Minister” / ”Clergyman” / “Pastor” is too high or holy for the lay leadership to hold him accountable.
However— and some of you know this already— this equitable power-sharing comes at a time when our attendance and giving are dwindling, compared to what they were at some points in the past.
And the danger that I or some future pastor will mess up and abuse whatever power we hold is always real. You lay people must remain vigilant and study the ways to hold your clergyperson accountable, so you will be able to exercise your power when you should. For example, do you know how to contact our church Moderator and our Deacons ? Do our leaders know how to reach out to our Association’s Church and Ministry Commission, should problems between the congregation and a pastor get out of hand ?
And that is in addition to (gently and lovingly) holding yourselves, each other, responsible for doing right and avoiding the wrong.
Those who look into the perfect law,
the law of liberty,
being not hearers who forget
but doers who act—
they will be blessed in their doing.
- James 1:25