As the economy faltered and recession began in 2008, offerings began to shrink at the church I served. Some members lost jobs, some others relocated because their jobs moved, physical needs of people in the congregation increased, and a general malaise of uncertainty hung in the air.
We cut expenses wherever possible, including some painful staff layoffs. We tightened our belts and ramped up efforts to teach the congregation good financial skills. But still we struggled to pay all the bills, and eventually we couldn’t.
In September 2008, the church couldn’t pay both the mortgage and the payroll taxes. I chose to pay the mortgage, reasoning it was better to avoid the local fallout of failing to pay it. Besides, in previous years we had received several large year-end gifts, and I was certain we could catch up on the payroll taxes in the final quarter of the year.
But giving did not increase as soon as I projected, so I didn’t pay the payroll taxes at all from September through December 2008. The year-end gifts did not come through. And, worst of all, I didn’t tell the elders what I was doing. I lied, leading them to believe the finances were better than they actually were. I continued this deception until May 2009, when I finally came to my senses and confessed my sin.
Since then I have often asked myself how I could have deceived and lied to the elders I loved and respected. Why didn’t I go to them sooner? Why did I believe this was within my control? Why was I afraid? Why did I make the finances of the church my personal responsibility?
Works, Not Grace
I have come to discover that in my years growing up in the church I had become motivated more from a theology of works than a theology of grace. I had begun to wear a mask that everything was OK and I could handle anything that came my way. I stuffed my fear of failure deep inside me and projected that I was capable, was committed to the church, and was a good person. I had come to depend on my own ability and to believe that when I succeed, I am good and when I fail, I am bad and no longer capable.
But without the grace from God to fail, failure to perform brings judgment instead of grace. Such a theology of works creates an environment that is ripe for a broken-world experience.
Some might respond by saying, “But Todd, faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26). I agree, but works without grace are dead also. And this is the trap we often fall into. We know faith without works is dead, therefore we “strengthen” our faith by our acts of service to God through the church. Then a sin enters our life. We pray to God for forgiveness and then look for ways to serve, to show God our sincerity. The next time we sin, the cycle repeats, and before long the cycle has repeated itself so many times that we convince ourselves this is the path to righteousness. (Faith with works, but works without grace.)
So how do we break the cycle? I believe we must return to the practice of confession and forgiveness in a more open setting within the church.
Public, Not Private
The Catholic church got it right when they made confession and forgiveness a regular part of church life. However, in our zeal to profess a theology that Christ is our only mediator, we have made confession and forgiveness more of a private matter; something that is strictly between us and God that we do before Communion in order to make sure we do not partake of the emblems in an unholy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27).
If you study the Scriptures, you find the early church made confession and forgiveness a priority for the life of the church. Confession and forgiveness in the early church was not done privately between a person and a priest, nor was it done privately between just one individual and God. Instead, confession and forgiveness was done in community. I believe that is what is needed to reclaim the theology of grace of the New Testament church.
One of the things I have greatly appreciated is my restoration team’s vision that there should be a public service of restoration. I am grateful to my elders for catching that vision and recognizing the important role it played in my full restoration.
My sin was public and had damaged many relationships within the church, and so they saw the importance of a public service that allowed me to openly and finally confess my sin fully to the congregation and ask for their forgiveness. The restoration team also recognized the scriptural necessity to publicly offer their forgiveness as a response to my confession and as acknowledgement of my acts of repentance.
However, the elders went a step further—which I greatly appreciate. As part of my restoration service, the elders included a time of Communion, signifying the unity we have under the blood of Jesus. Then the elders invited the congregation to linger, so individuals could express their forgiveness toward me, and also so the elders could pray with anyone who felt the need to confess the sin within their own lives.
The elders are currently exploring ways they can incorporate a service of confession and forgiveness into the regular life of the congregation. It is my prayer that many more congregations see the need for regular confession and forgiveness done in community, and look for ways to put that into practice. Who knows, this just might be the beginning of a wave of revival!
This whole experience has taught me that my Lord Jesus has unconditional acceptance of me as I am, not as I should be. He loves me whether in a state of grace or disgrace, whether I live up to the lofty expectations of his gospel or I don’t. He comes to me where I live and loves me as I am.
Thank you, Jesus!
Todd Parmenter works and lives in Lincoln, Illinois, with his wife of 28 years, Pam. They are exploring opportunities to help other ministers and leaders who have experienced a broken world.
My Restoration Reading List
By Todd Parmenter
Rebuilding Your Broken World by Gordon MacDonald (Thomas Nelson, 2004)
TrueFaced by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol and John S. Lynch (NavPress, 2004)
The Wounded Healer by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Image, 1979)
What’s So Amazing about Grace? by Philip Yancey (Zondervan, 2002)
Prodigal God by Timothy Keller (Riverhead Reprint edition, 2011)
The Message of John’s Letters by David Jackman (IVP Academic, 1988)
The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith (IVP, 2009)
The Cross and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey (IVP, 2005)
The Shack by William Paul Young (Windblown Media; Reprint, 2011)
Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning (HarperCollins, 2002)
The Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (HarperSanFrancisco; third edition 1988)
In Search of Guidance by Dallas Willard (HarperCollins, 1993)
Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; second edition, 2010)
A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards (Tyndale House, 1992)
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning (Multnomah, 2005)
Confession and Forgiveness by Ted Kober (Concordia College, 2002)
The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (Baker Books, 2004)
Shadowing God by David McDonald (Samizdat Creative, 2010)
Broken Record by John Voelz (Samizdat Creative, 2010)
Love in Action by Robert Moeller (Multnomah, 1994)
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey (IVP Academic, 2008)
The Autobiography of George Muller by George Muller (Whitaker House, 1996)
Forgotten God by Francis Chan (David C. Cook; new edition, 2009)
Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey (WaterBrook Press, 2003)
Crazy Love by Francis Chan (David C. Cook, 2008)
Mid-Course Correction by Gordon MacDonald (Thomas Nelson, 2005)
Lion and the Lamb by Brennan Manning (Chosen Books, 1999)
Finding the Lost by Kenneth Bailey (Concordia Publishing, 1992)
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Recommendations from a Broken-World Brother
If you are in ministry or church leadership and you are facing a sin that you know will lead to a broken-world experience, I want to encourage you.
Do not withdraw from God. God wants to use this sin in your life to remake you and draw you into a closer relationship with him. He wants to speak to you and teach you. He wants to grow you and he wants to stretch you.
Do not pull back; instead, chase after God. Read as much as you can, pray as much as you can. Put into practice the spiritual disciplines of praying, fasting, reading Scripture, meditation, and quiet time.
Seek out brothers or sisters you trust to always have your restoration to the Lord as a priority. Listen deeply to the words God will speak to you through those people in your life. Be quick to confess and even quicker to forgive.
Choose to respond to the despair of your sin like Peter instead of like Judas. You may have to retreat from ministry for a time, but do the hard work of repentance and restoration. Make relationships a priority. Commit to restoring any relationship the Lord puts in your path. Accept that not every relationship will be completely restored and that God works differently in each one of us. Accept that your sin will wound more people than you realize, more deeply than you realize. Be quick to ask for forgiveness, and always remember that God is faithful.