I was 12 years old when I stopped believing all Christians were good people.
We had gone to this particular church since I was around 5 or 6 years old. Even though it was ultra-conservative — no pop music, no movies, women didn’t wear pants — everyone seemed kind and loving.
Members greeted each other with, “Good morning, Brother Anderson,” or “How are you doing, Sister Miller?” They would ask about the older folks’ aches and pains and how the new babies were sleeping.
And at every service — Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening — the preacher would ask for prayer requests. People would stand up and tell everyone about the issues and concerns they had, and the preacher or another church member would pray for those problems.
These people really cared about each other.
My view changed, however, one deceptively lovely spring evening.
As the service started, something was off. Rather than the joyful songs we normally sang to begin the service, the music minister had chosen hymns that were usually reserved for the altar call, “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling” and “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” The atmosphere was somber.
Then the preacher came to the pulpit.
“Tonight we have a very sorrowful matter to bring before the Church.”
“Someone in our midst has committed a grievous sin. As the scriptures tell us, when we, the Elders of the church, learned of this sin, we were required to go to him, because as Luke 17, verse 3, tells us, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.”
“For this reason, we questioned our brother to find out if what we had heard was true. When he confessed his sins to us, we counseled with him about how to handle this matter due to his position of leadership in the church.”
“So the Elders and I have decided that the right thing to do is to follow the remaining portion of Luke 17, verse 3, which says, “If he repents, forgive him.”
“In order to do this properly, since he is a leader in the church, we believe that his confession and repentance should be made before the church, so that the church can forgive him.”
Then the preacher called the Youth Minister up to the stage and told him it was time to confess his sins.
I sat there in that hard wooden pew and watched in shock as the Youth Minister stumbled through a written speech detailing his year-long affair with a single mother in the church. He said it was a terrible sin that he had committed, and he was resigning from his position. He said he had asked God to forgive him, he had asked his wife to forgive him, and now he was asking all of us to forgive him.
And then began the most unforgiving act of humiliation I have ever witnessed — or participated in.
The Youth Minister moved down in front of the stage, and the preacher instructed all of us — men, women, and children — to form a line, shake the Youth Minister’s hand, and tell him that we forgave him — as if it was our role to forgive sin.
I was amazed at how quickly the line formed, people rushing up with a frenetic energy, eager for this symbolic stoning.
Was it peer pressure? Mob mentality?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I still feel shame at having participated.
But there I found myself in that line, walking to the front, to face this man’s disgrace.
In that moment, as I reached to take his hand, what I really wanted to say was, “I’m so sorry. Loving, forgiving people don’t do this to each other.”
But I didn’t.
I just said the same words everyone else said. “I forgive you.”
And we both dropped our eyes in shame.
As I returned to my seat and watched this spectacle continue, I began to realize that these were not the kind, loving Christians I thought I knew.