The Gospel of Punishment by Travis Waits

In our culture of church leadership today there is significant focus on “preaching the Gospel.” To be clear, this was the original mission that Jesus gave the church (see Mtt. 28:16ff). The challenge is that leaders within the confines of American churchianity have lost the application of what this means.

What is missing from this preaching, is the pragmatic applying of the Gospel.

I have written explicitly about how God’s grace violates man’s sense of justice. No where does this show up more clear, than in the application of the Gospel when leaders experience the need for restoration.

As Pastor Danny Silk says, punishment within the church is a condition of “humanity trying to reach heaven” rather than believers attempting to bring Heaven to earth. He states:

“The real difference is vitally important; it is not in their sin, but in what they did afterwards. It is repentance… But know this: repentance only works when the priority of the environment is a heart-to-heart connection.

Repentance does not satisfy the broken rules. … Repentance will not work in an environment where you are protecting a relationship with the rules. In a rule-driven environment , repentance has a different meaning. It signifies your willingness to be punished. You are repentant when you allow me to inflict my punishments upon you for whatever offense you have committed against me. The issues of the heart that led you to make the mistake in the first place is never dealt with, because the issues of relationship and love are never touched.

In a rule-driven culture, the general attitude toward a repentant person is: “you have surrendered your will to me in our environment. I’ll never be able to trust you though, because you have proven yourself to be a lawbreaker, and that fact will rest in my memory for a really long time. Until I begin to forget about how scared I am of you, I’ll never be able to empower you again.”

This is the attitude that presides over what we typically call the “restoration process.” … You pay the price in order to assuage the anxieties of the people in the environment who live within those rules. When we practice this in the Church, we allow ourselves to be defined by the limits of earthly government. When you break the law, the best Earth’s government can do is to say, “We hurt them sufficiently so that you all would calm down.” (The Practice of Honor, p.79 c. 2012)

What he means by this is that, regardless of repentance or not, church leaders who fall in any capacity need to experience discipline so that the punishment fits the crime, so to speak. We all feel better, our justice-meter is soothed when we know someone has “paid” for their misguided choices. Contriteness, repentance, humility, even making amends, these steps do not appease us. In fact, what we each do, is withhold grace until we have determined enough time has passed, enough consequences experienced…enough justice has been rendered, at least for our sensibilities.

As it treats it’s leaders, so goes the church. The vast majority of mainstream church leaders are failing to apply the Gospel. That is why their preaching is irrelevant to a watching world. Jesus said, “you will know my love by their love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

In my experience, Jesus shows up on your worst day, honors your dignity, gives you a hand-up, empowers you (the opposite of condemnation…), and transforms you to lead more powerfully because you have experienced His grace…what a contrast to what the typical church leadership restoration plan is.

It is appalling the way we treat our leaders in the church. We put them on pedestals, then blast away, and somehow act surprised when they are not perfect, make missteps or outright hide their sin from us. For the leader, there are few choices. We all know what happens. A leader confesses they lose their job, their dignity, and influence.

I’m sure many of the self-righteous evangelicals will pipe up now and say, when you’re a leader you’re called to a higher standard (James 3:1 out of context), so they should lose their position. That’s human logic, and has not once reflected an application of the Gospel in God’s economy.

Jesus hung with the sinners, his preference over the religious leaders of the day. He empowered twelve misfits, screw ups, and sinners to be his closest band of brothers…and collectively they changed the world.

If you’re hearing disgruntled angst, good, then I am accurately expressing my frustration with the evangelical lip service that is given to the Gospel. We throw around terms like ‘grace’, ‘restoration’, ‘forgiveness’, reconciliation’…all with the intent of sounding succinct in our theology, but with no intent of practicing any of theses truths the way our Bible defines them. It’s too messy, and it disturbs our entitled justice we have inoculated ourselves within our American churches.

Were we to transform our ‘preaching’ the Gospel to “applying the Gospel‘ I believe our sense of awe and wonder in God would increase. We would experience with greater frequency those “I was blind but now I see” (see John 9:25f) moments that our trust in God, the presence of His Holy Spirit would allow people to be in whatever stage of the process they needed to be. There really would be an increase in ‘signs and wonders’ because, collectively, believers would rejoice and respond in kind, (as the Prodigal’s father did in Luke 15ff…”) and our churches would really be known as hospitals dispensing hope, instilling Grace, and transforming the world because of their relevancy.

How we go about attempting to “restore” fallen leaders speaks not just to church leadership, but really reflects a pervasive attitude, and misguided belief in the very Gospel we claim to preach. This is one reason I love the 12-step movement. These are people who absolutely understand grace, personal responsibility, choosing to grow. In fact, I believe that the 12 steps are a good reflection of the Gospel-in-action today. It should be a requirement for every person, beginning in middle school to go through this process.

The church could do well to adapt it’s discipleship programs to be relevant by focusing on the process as a whole — and not in it’s neat theological boxes. Let us all learn to apply the Gospel of grace, and not just preach the Gospel… What I love about the disciples of Jesus is that they were irreverent, unafraid, and lived courageously…traits that are woefully lacking in the landscape of churchianity today.

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15 thoughts on “The Gospel of Punishment by Travis Waits

  1. Sorry, you have it all wrong. Where are your morals to begin with???? Where is your heart that you should go so wrong to have to repent or punish? God Bless, I wish you the best.

    1. Debbie, I think you are misreading my post…one of my points is that even when we repent, the current leadership culture still feels a need to punish…thanks for your thoughts…

      1. I enjoyed your article and agree that the “restoration process” for whom many would call “fallen religious leaders” or ministers who have failed/sinned (usually sexual behavior) has been a flawed process. However, I think we’d agree that true, biblical restoration is a process. It would not be “love” or grace-filled to thrust a leader back into a ministry situation when inner healing has not occurred. One statement in this article: “In fact, what we each do, is withhold grace until we have determined enough time has passed, enough consequences experienced…enough justice has been rendered, at least for our sensibilities.” The one phrase that gives me pause is “…until we have determined enough time has passed.” If a fallen minister submits to a restoration process or a “restoration team,” I do believe some “time must pass” for healing and recovery to take place. “You who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” (Gal. 6:1) If “restore” is like setting a broken bone or helping something broken to mend, that is a process. And obviously, “grace” and “love” must be paramount in this process that will lead to total restoration. That’s why the Church needs truly “spiritual” men and women to accomplish this – and not a pound of flesh, as you have so adeptly written. Thanks for your insights.

      2. Thank you for your thoughtful response Thomas. Regarding the “time passed…” I am referring to how ‘restoration’ teams are subjective in applying, and defining what this period is. I wholeheartedly agree, there cannot be restoration without repentance and healing.

        However, restoration teams are often clouded in their judgment because of their wounded-ness from the “fallen.” They lose their capacity to be objective … hence the “timeline” of prescribing what an appropriate timeframe of restoration is, (…if ‘restoration’ is determined as even possible…but that is another post…) is more about creating distance to appease fears, and less about the end goal of applying Gal. 6:1. I agree, restore” is referencing the healing from ‘setting a bone’ and it’s literal meaning is also “returning to right relationship.”

        Again, I really appreciate your thoughts , and contribution to the dialogue.

  2. Travis you make some very good points in your post and my response is not meant to be mean or judgmental but is meant to be honest. The one mistake you made in your post is that you distinguish between church goers and church leaders. This is the big mistake of the American church and the very thing that brought you great pain and hard times from your circumstances in Oregon.

    Church leaders are everywhere and are called by different names and have different professions. Just because someone has chosen being a pastor as a career does not make them a leader any more than reading the Bible makes one a Christian or taking an aspirin makes one a doctor.

    Therefore, restoration for “a fallen church leader” is out of line and a man-made discipline. Anybody including those thought of as “church leaders” do not need restoration, they need forgiveness.

    Your pain from your past experiences came through not so much as a passion but as anger in this post and sometimes letting anger out is a good thing. It helps us to forgive our self and others.

    I believe that when we elevate people and call them “church leaders” we create the stage for mistreatment of people. Why? We are all equal in the eyes of God and leadership is always corruptible. The very fact that we elevate people to leader status in the cocky way the American church does, provides fertile ground for the appalling way we treat our “church leaders.” You hint at this in your post but you don’t come out and say it so bluntly.

    What I am saying is that the new evangelical meaning for “church leaders” has created an atmosphere in which we treat pastors horribly fallen or not (I used to be a pastor but respected myself enough to walk away from the abuse). This also sets the stage for abusing and disrespecting the congregation of the church by other church members and the “church leaders.”

    We are all leaders in one way or another and we all have the potential for leadership. Nobody, as you indicated, is called to a higher standard than anyone else. That leads me to my main point.

    We all screw up in one way or another. We all experience pain and judgment when we screw up. We are all responsible for our actions. No amount of God will ever change that fact. Forgiveness will not even have an effect on our outcomes from choices. It is life and life only. We live with our outcomes and move on “leader” or not. We all have had similar experiences “leader” or not.

    Therefore, I hope you are on your way to financial recovery and peace in your life. Part of that recovery requires you to forgive and move past this type of post to something that is relevant. Church restoration is a scam and really means nothing to anyone anymore. I find that the more someone wants to “punish” someone in the name of restoration, the more skeletons that person has in their own closet. The need to punish eases the guilt of “the restoration leader” that they feel and live with. This is the big fraud and scam of the restoration movement. I would be willing to bet you know exactly what I am talking about given your educational background. You and other “fallen leaders” just keep picking the scab off that wound and therefore that wound will never heal. We the public are sick of hearing all the “fallen leaders” whine with self-pity on blog posts. Get over it Travis and move on letting the wound heal. You have more talent than to be stuck in the past unless, of course, the past is still the moment, which I do not believe but it is how this comes across.

    The church restoration doctrine scam is a cheap excuse for continuing to place people on different levels when that is clearly wrong. I do not have any faith at all in so called “church leaders” and their professions but I will not judge them. I wish you peace.

    1. Thanks Darwin,

      You made some very good points, which I do agree with, and yes there is need to focus in a different direction than on the lost cause of “restoration.”

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and encouragement to move on. If only it were that simple. Changing carriers & restarting life is far from easy. Trust me, I would love to have gainful income that could support my family and I presently. Though I do not view myself as damaged goods. However, people are people and unfortunately my experience thus far has been the scarlet letter effect, where the norm is reluctance to engage for their fear that I bring some inherent liability because of my past.

      You do read between the lines well and “hear” my anger regarding the ongoing frustrations & daily reminders of this.

      Forgiveness is an ongoing progression that has certainly allowed me to keep moving. But expressing anger does not mean you haven’t resolved everything via forgiveness. This blog is really the first I have spoken about our process, as I remained silent to the naysayers in the midst of their stone throwing.

      Your comments do remind me of something, and this is not necessarily aimed at you… I do find it continually interesting that by honestly expressing my thoughts, including negative emotions, people interpret that as whining or complaining. As if somehow the pain of circumstances & consequences in standing back up should hurt less…(because ultimately I am the one responsible for my unhealthy choices…). As long as that attitude continues from “leaders” and participants in the church & so called “restoration” communities (counselors/therapists included…), I will continue to speak my truth in calling a spade a spade.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful comments, and for adding to the dialogue with good truth.

  3. Travis thank for your reply. I was hoping after I posted you would not take me as judging you. That I will not do. I just vented some after reading your comments and knowing how cruel people can be. Injustice angers me as well. I could never possibly feel the depth of what you have been through. I do know full well the lack of compassion from well meaning but misguided Christians. I just want to say even though I do not know you; I believe in your efforts and I wish you well in them. Hang in there my thoughts and prayers are with you.

  4. Being a preacher/pastor was my life and calling for 21 years before my moral fall and dismissal from the pulpit. In 1992, there was not much material or guidelines for restoring “fallen” pastor or religious leaders. There was one general book by Gordon MacDonald (Restoring Your Broken World) and one by Jack Hayford (Restoring Fallen Leaders) but most congregations and denominational leaders did not know how to discipline in love and apply restorative grace. Hayford’s book was a response to the fall of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart with good scriptural guidance. My church forgave me of my sins even though they were hurt and offended by my actions but also knew that I/we needed to go through a healing process. Was I frustrated with the way the Elders initially handled my situation? Yes! Did I deserve discipline (or a form of punishment for my misdeeds)? Yes! My issue is not with “punishment” or man-made lengths of time for discipline – my issue has always been re-integration. Once a fallen religious leader is “restored” (healed, at peace with God, self, wife, family, those offended, etc.), how do we (the Church) integrate and introduce them back into their calling or areas of giftedness? Like your article mentioned, churches are slow (overly cautious, hesitant, reluctant, etc.) in accepting back into leadership position a pastor or trusted professional who sinned (usually sexually). It’s the Ash Heap mentality or permanently disqualified or the forever-fallen-from-grace attitude that has always angered and frustrated me. Once confession, forgiveness, discipline and restoration has been completed, it’s time for the Church to reclaim that which was fallen. Man can’t remove God’s calling and gifts – but he can sure be a graceless stumblingblock and pain in the butt. It’s time to quit assisting the devil in his victories.

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