Do you ever feel, when you watch a movie, that there was an underlying reason for it, maybe a bit of propaganda, so to speak, that it wanted to promote? It may be only a small part of the movie, but it makes a profound impact. (An example that come readily to mind is a 1944 drama about the life of Woodrow Wilson, the purpose of which seemed to me to focus on the death of Wilson’s dream, the League of Nations, in order to push American viewers to become more willing to enter the United Nations.)
I could be wrong, but that’s the way I felt when I listened to this sermon by Michael Vanlaningham from March 31stat Harvest Bible Chapel in the Chicago area. It seemed to me that the underlying reason, the bit of propaganda, began at about minute 25 when he began to focus on forgiveness.
Michael Vanlaningham, a former professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, is the new “Theologian in Residence” at Harvest Bible Chapel, part of the new “Central Leadership” team that is trying to pick up the pieces from the old leadership that has been falling apart. (I’ve written about HBC twice before, here and here, and you can read more about them and why they’re falling apart at www.julieroys.com and www.theelephantsdebt.com.)
Here is the pertinent part of the sermon (the headings for which you can conveniently see in the photo), from minutes 25-28.
Forgiveness has four implicit promises.
First, I promise I will not dwell on this incident. And those of us who are unforgiving, we just keep bringing it up in our minds all the time.
Second, I promise I will not bring up this incident and use it against you.
Third, I promise I will not talk to others about this incident.
Fourth, I promise I will not allow this incident to destroy our relationship. That is even after we forgive the most horrendous things, I think if there’s real forgiveness there, I think Jesus would give us the capability of being able to sit down and have a cup of coffee and eat a piece of pie with them and carry on a meaningful and kind relationship with them. I think real forgiveness involves that. You probably won’t be best friends, but I would hope that we would have at least the capacity to be courteous and cordial.
Now I just want to suggest I promise I will not bring up this incident and I promise I will not talk to others about this incident, that rules out social media. Listen up. Social media has become social mania. Blogging has become flogging. Tweeting is now beating. And Christians are doing that against Christians. If somebody does you wrong, you don’t go home and post about it on Facebook for your 1000 friends so it’s out there forever guys, it’s just wrong. That’s sin. It’s called slander. It’s called gossip. It’s called something we ought never to do to one another in the body of Christ and oh my goodness how we’ve gotten out of control with that stuff.
We have to learn to forgive.
This man may have been a professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute. He may be the Theologian in Residence at Harvest Bible Chapel.
But he just made up all that stuff about forgiveness.
Those things are nowhere in the Bible at all, nor are they implicit in the definition of the word.
I do understand why he’d want to do it—social media has been alive with news of James MacDonald, recently-fired pastor of HBC, and his allegedly abusive narcissism, with one former employee after another after another offering first-person accounts of their awful experiences with him, and sometimes details about his shocking misappropriation of funds. It is truly sobering information.
And so, there’s damage control to do. In that context, it makes sense to send someone with clout out there to try to make forgiveness mean much more than it really does.
But it isn’t what the Bible teaches.
Furthermore, this teaching facilitates abuse and gives a free pass to abusers.
I’ve written about forgiveness before, most recently about the “forgive and forget” Scriptures, but such a blatantly unScriptural preaching by such a respected man in such a sensitive situation brings forward a good time to address it again.
First of all, what is forgiveness, Biblically? According to the meaning of the Greek word (which he never mentioned), it is simply an open-handedness to release a debt. In cases of “horrendous things,” to use Vanlaningham’s term, the debt could never be repaid anyway; it would be impossible. So the person who forgives determines not to execute vengeance.
But what if your business partner embezzled your company out of a million dollars? He spends it all and can’t repay it. You forgive him, releasing him from the debt, determining to take no vengeance. This is Biblical forgiveness.
But then you hear a friend talking about the possibility of starting a business partnership with that man. It would be wrong NOT to warn him. And that would involve talking to him about what had happened, which is Vanlaningham’s #3 above.
He even goes so far as to call it slander and gossip.
It is not.
Slander, legally, is making false statements about someone in order to purposely harm his or her reputation. Slander, Biblically, is wielding words like a weapon (like the “poison-arrow words” of Psalm 62:5) in order to harm someone.
Telling the truth about an offense in order to help others is not slander and is not gossip. Paul did that to Timothy regarding Alexander the coppersmith in 2 Timothy 4:14. Does this mean Paul was unforgiving? Or does it mean talking about the incident is unrelated to forgiveness? Just yesterday I helped someone post her story, naming her offender. Contrary to Vanlingham’s unBiblical definition, this is unrelated to forgiveness.
In Acts 2 Peter preached a sermon telling the Jews that they had “wickedly crucified” Jesus Christ. But this means Peter was “bringing up” the incident and “using it against” them, the very thing Vanlaningham warned against in his point #2. Was Peter being unforgiving? Or was he warning the Jews about their need to repent?
The book Tear Down This Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in our Churches, by Dale Ingraham with yours truly, has a lot to say about forgiveness, based on the meaning of the word and the descriptions in the Bible.
It also quotes abuse survivors whose abusers used this unBiblical kind of “forgiveness” against them. Here’s one on page 47 of Tear Down This Wall of Silence, from a woman whose teacher at her Christian elementary school raped her in the supply room almost every day:
If I refused to forgive him, I would lose the 45-minute recess and have to stand at the wall. He would stand next to me as I faced the wall doing my time during recess and tell me I knew what I had to do to get off the wall [forgive him].
How could a man quote so many Bible verses to prove his point and guilt a child into proving she really forgave him day after day, week after week for a whole school year and each and every time molest or rape her again?
And, of course, that woman as a child was taught the definition of forgiveness that Michael Vanlaningham taught at Harvest Bible Chapel. And the abuser? He learned his lesson well too. From page 144:
Sexual offenders count it very important to emphasize the forgiveness of God. They want to use God’s grace as a type of force shield to protect their evil behavior, but in truth if the grace of God were at work in their lives at all, it would transform their lives toward godliness, not protect their sin.
After Vanlaningham gave that errant definition of forgiveness above, he told a moving story about John Perkins, Civil Rights leader who wrote about his sufferings at the hands of law enforcement officers in his book Let Justice Roll Down. Perkins found comfort in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and how He forgave His persecutors. God filled this man with a love for those who had treated him so cruelly.
It was a moving story, and a good representation of real forgiveness.
But I noticed that Perkins did indeed think about his persecution, perhaps “dwelling on it,” as Vanlaningham warned against. He did in fact speak about it to others, even the whole world, through his book. So Vanlaningham himself quotes a man who disproves his points.
And do you suppose Perkins would have sat down with his persecutors for coffee and pie? That part was just shocking to me. Vanlaningham referred to those who commit “the most horrendous things.” The person who commits the most horrendous thing against us is one we should be willing to sit down with for coffee and pie, he admonishes, irrespective of whether or not he has acknowledged his wrong.
This is making a travesty of the concept of forgiveness.
Again, forgiveness is a releasing of the debt while leaving vengeance to God. That is all. It does not preclude justice or warning others or trying to get help (all of which would necessitate talking about the offense).
I wish there were two different words, but what I call “heart forgiveness” is simply between you and God, letting go of the desire for vengeance. What I call “transactional forgiveness” is between you and the other person, and can happen only after the other person truly repents. After all, as Tear Down This Wall of Silence observes on pages 128 and 131:
First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Biblical confession means “agreeing with God about the sin.” Only when we confess—agree with God about our sin—does God extend forgiveness to us. . . . Though God stands with a posture of forgiveness for anyone in the world who will trust in Jesus Christ as his Savior, he doesn’t actually forgive until that person does confess, repent, and trust in Jesus.
I would love to quote more of the survivors’ compelling words about forgiveness from the book, but I’ll close with Rachael Denhollander’s now famous words about the important balance between forgiveness and justice in her statement at Larry Nassar’s trial.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.
The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
Michael Vanlaningham would have us believe that because Rachael violated all of his points above—every one of them, 1, 2, 3, and 4—her forgiveness wasn’t real. She has even talked about Larry Nassar on social media (“mania, flogging, beating,” to use the words of the sermon), which Vanlaningham would say is slander and gossip and evidence of lack of forgiveness.
But speaking about what an offender has done is unrelated to forgiveness. Rachael’s words have, in fact, continued to embody the important balance between forgiveness and justice, even as she now speaks about Christian leaders who have abused and covered for abusers.
Seeking justice, warning others, and trying to get help—these things are unrelated to forgiveness. Christians at Harvest Bible Chapel, and everywhere, would do well to remember that.