When news came out about Ravi Zacharias and his sexual predation, I was devastated, but not surprised. It's always heartbreaking to find out that someone you hold in high esteem is guilty of heinous evil, but history, experience, and my Christian worldview move me to expect that such things will occur. As Dr. Clay Jones says, these things aren't inhuman, they're what humans do. The state of humanity is not rainbows and butterflies, it's sin and wickedness. Without transformation and a community of accountability, sin has a tendency to work itself out to its final, hideous form of exploitation and destruction.
I can't tell you how many stories I have heard of sexual abuse being brushed under the rug for pragmatic reasons. In the minds of church leaders, they are defending the peace and purity of the church by asking the victims - the weak - to keep their mouths closed. They're defending peace in that they are preventing the masses from asking questions about God, evil, suffering, and the power of the Holy Spirit's transformation in those who claim to be Christians. Peace, if defined as the absence of conflict and discomfort, is thus maintained for almost everyone - for the masses who don't know any better, for the leaders who don't want to answer tough questions, and for the victimizer who can continue in evil. But peace is not sought or acquired for the victim. "Peace" is bought at the price of the sacrificial lamb - the poor, innocent scapegoat who bears the wicked deeds of the oppressor, and the wicked silence of the whole community.
Leaders also brush evil under the rug, or fail to bring it to light, because they seek to protect the purity of the church and the purity of Christ. If a popular Christian leader were to be found committing great evils, what would that do to the purity of the church? There would then be a huge stain on the name of Christ, wouldn't there be? The problem, of course, is that the purity of the church is already compromised by the wicked actions of the victimizer. So what church leadership really means by purity here is really perceived purity. They can see the existence of impurity, but they don't want anyone else to see it. Rather than expose the stain and resolve it, they allow Christ and his bride to continue being tarnished with wickedness, and they allow that wickedness to grow unabated. So long as nobody sees the impurity, it's like Schrodinger's cat. It exists, but not really, provided the box is kept closed through silence and willful ignorance.
While we could talk about the consequentialist ethic which drives leaders to make these compromises, I'm not concerned with delving into the issues of sexual abuse in the church right now (you can find my podcast season on consequentialism here). I instead want to take a bird's eye view of a problem I think is currently endemic to the church in the United States. I want to discuss how our churches are using peace and purity as a bludgeon rather than a genuine goal towards which we move.
Peace and purity isn't merely a concept which perpetuates sexual abuse, it's also used as a cudgel to stop meaningful discussions on race. Time and time again I have seen the church downplay the issue of racism by dismissing the discussion of the problem as a threat to the peace and purity of the church. Notice that it isn't racism which is viewed as the threat to the church, but rather the discussion of and meaningful addressing of the evil of racism. Actual racism is dismissed as a non-issue, as something we've already dealt with, as a political ploy, as a product of ideologies which are antithetical to Christianity (e.g. CRT), and the list goes on. "Peace and purity," then, are used to suppress any meaningful discussion about an issue which has plagued the American church for centuries. The victims become the problem, and the victimizers are allowed to go uncontested. As long as we keep the box closed, we don't have to face what we would find inside - whether that be a dead cat, or a dead church.
Sexual abuse and racism are two of the areas I've seen peace and purity weaponized the most, but its applicability certainly extends into many other issues. In general, peace and purity is evoked any time a group - whether that's a powerful minority, a small majority, or a large majority - wants to control a situation. It's the Christian version of political correctness. Whenever a group wants to domineer another group, they frame the dissenters as not seeking the peace and purity of the church. To refuse to kowtow to this pesudo-peace and purity, then, makes one divisive and immoral. Addressing the wrongs done by another or by a group acknowledges the conflict already present, yet it's the acknowledgement of the conflict that's viewed as a threat to peace, not the conflict itself. It's part of the reason the church has a reputation for blame-shifting and making the victim out to be the victimizer - the very thing which happened in the Ravi Zacharias case. We don't seek peace, we seek silence and the absence of conflict. We don't seek purity, we seek ignorance.
What is Peace and Purity?
Richard Foster, in his book "Celebration of Discipline," described a moving scene from a Quaker meeting. In the meeting, a majority had come to advocate for a certain position, but there was one dissenter who just couldn't get on board. Rather than move on with the majority decision or pressure the dissenter to conform, they all went back to the table in an attempt to reach consensus. This consensus wasn't just a formality of business, but every individual sought to hear the case all over again, with the goal being to hear, listen, and all discern the Spirit together. The goal was unity and the other, not expedience and majority resolution. (Hear a beautiful explanation of Quaker consensus here).
While I might disagree with a good portion of Quaker theology, I think we can see that their idea of peace and unity is far better than ours tends to be. Peace isn't the absence of conflict, as Stanley Hauerwas wonderfully explains. In fact, true peace requires conflict and confrontation. When a brother or sister sins against us, we aren't to ignore the problem, but confront the problem. When someone disagrees with a decision we are making, we don't simply bypass them or view them as an impediment to bring into conformity with voting our way. When a minority group expresses their experience of continued offense, we listen rather than defend ourselves. We seek unity by directly addressing the issues and by laboring together in our dissonance. Conflict is not the end goal, but it is the necessary tool to reach the end goal of peace and unity. Overlooking sin and bypassing disagreement is not peace, but rather the seeds of disunity, anger, and even more wickedness.
Unfortunately, our modern understanding of peace as an absence of conflict has mixed very badly with another American problem - consumerism. It is quite common for members of churches - even longstanding members - to simply leave a church when conflict arises. When a pastor does something they don't like, the music changes, the leadership makes a bad decision, or whatever else - members simply leave without a struggle. While I'm not at all saying there aren't legitimate reasons to leave churches, it strikes me as extremely problematic that many abandon churches at the time they need divergent voices the most, without first attempting to bring issues to light and without struggling for resolution. We think we're doing the body of Christ a favor by bringing "peace" in our refusal to bring confrontation to bear, when in reality we are fostering our own comfort and refusing to struggle through difficulty with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than being the iron which may sharpen the other irons, we bow out in the name of "peace." And the church finds neither peace nor purity, because problems are bypassed rather than confronted and addressed. The community is not made better, and neither peace nor purity flow forth.
I would argue, then, that peace and purity are not the avoidance of conflict and blemish. Imagine if that were God's definition of peace? Jesus would never have entered a fallen world of conflict, he never would have taken on the struggle of humanity, and he would never have gone to the cross. Where is the peace, as we tend to define peace, in doing all that? Likewise, Jesus would never have confronted sin and death, taking both of those impure and detestable things upon himself. But of course, Jesus did the opposite of what our modern churches do and advocate. He recognized that conflict is to be addressed head on, even at a cost to self, and purity often means taking the stain of evil and judgment upon oneself. Peace and purity, as Jesus shows us, are not obtained by avoidance, but rather through incarnation and cross.
Whether it's addressing sexual assault, racism, or general church issues, Jesus shows us the solution for true peace and purity. Conflict and confrontation are vital to peace, as is incarnation and cross. Whether you are on the right side of an issue, or on the wrong side, we are to bear up with one another. If Paul calls us to take Caesar's blows and Peter can call the oppressed to submit in whatever position they find themselves, we can take criticisms and judgment from fellow church members for exposing the conflict and sin most would like ignore. Our goal ought not to be comfort and a lack of conflict, but the working towards unity and the betterment of our brothers and sisters. If the other is in sin, we are to love them and correct them, seeking their repentance and restoration because we love them, and when need be, snatching them from hellfire. Likewise, we ought to lovingly hear out the other, because they may have something, through God's Spirit, to teach us.
When we leave communities without an attempt to confront problems, we do the church a disservice. If we leave places where we are known and where we know others, we lose the power to speak into the lives of others, and we lose the opportunity to have others who know us speak into our lives. We lose peace and unity, and in the wake of that tragedy, impurity is primed to grow both within us and within the church, as it can more easily go unseen and unchecked. When the conflict we ignore isn't exposed, it doesn't magically disappear. It lurks and grows in the deepest recesses of our souls and churches, fed by bitterness and self-righteousness, until it one day rears its head as a creature larger than we ever intended it to be.
If you are using "peace and purity" as a bludgeon, or if it is used as a bludgeon against you, know that this is no tool for peace, nor for purity. It is a tragic concoction of Christianity's form of political correctness, the weaponization of piety, which insulates us from critique, stymies change, and leaves a wake of disunity and victimization in its path. But the good news is that we can be little Christs - incarnators of humility and love, who can boldly extend our hands to others, even if those outstretched hands lead to cross. Christianity isn't merely a religion of ideas and beliefs, but one of action and example. If Jesus suffered and died for us, his enemies, to be unified with him, ought we not also to be willing to suffer and die for those we call brothers and sisters? Unsurprisingly then, the answer to peace is the same answer it always is in Christianity. It's not God, Spirit, or Jesus alone, but gospel - God, Jesus, and the Spirit in action. The gospel is the good news of God working his character out in time, as he always does, in agape love. As we have become partakers of this good news, so are we now to shod our feet with it and take it into the darkest parts of the world - even and especially our churches. The gospel doesn't come in silence. It is declared from the mountaintops. The gospel isn't carried by our voices alone, at least not very far. It's carried by the feet of those who act.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!"