The contention that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute has been largely discredited by biblical research, but her name still calls to mind the image of a repentant, public sinner, one who became one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples.
Many Christian traditions still honor Magdalene as a penitent, or, as one from whom, as the Gospel of Luke says, “seven demons came out.”
As churches in the Western liturgical traditions observe the Feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22, the way in which Christians deal with public sinners continues to be a sensitive topic.
Sin is hard to define, but most Christians see it as the seeking of one’s own will rather than God’s.
“It’s a distorting of relationship, a brokenness,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
Christians universally acknowledge that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23), and, as the Rev. Billy Moore, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Guntown put it, “The church is made up of and is for sinners.”
Some offenses, however, are more high profile. They are well-known and insidious and, like the proverbial three-ton elephant in the room, they refuse to yield to the politeness that people of faith – and Southerners, in particular – tend to grant one another.
“The disciplinary rubrics of our church use the phrase ‘notoriously evil life,'” said Stephens, but the rubrics don’t define what that means. Depending on how liberally one interprets it, it might include anything from an adulterer to a drunkard to a practicing homosexual, someone whose lifestyle consistently conflicts with the teachings of the church.
“You can’t say that one sin is greater than another,” said Moore, “but some sin, because of its public nature, has the potential to be very destructive if not addressed.”
The Rev. Phil MacLean, minister of Lee Acres Church of Christ in Tupelo, likened the gangrenous nature of public sin to the havoc wrought among the ancient Israelites by the disobedience of Achan in Joshua 7.
“The story suggests that it can, so to speak, defile the whole camp,” said MacLean.
In these cases pastors face the delicate challenge of confronting and trying to change a person’s sinful behavior while at the same time making sure the sinner feels welcome and loved.
Love the sinner
“Jesus said, in Matt. 11, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened,'” said MacLean. “We can’t ignore that first phrase, and we can’t send people – sinners – somewhere else.”
The Rev. John Willis, Jr., pastor of First United Christian Church in Tupelo, said church should be like a hospital. The sick should be welcomed, never turned away.
“People aren’t going to get better if we close our doors to them,” he said.
John Capps, coordinator of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tupelo, said it would be “hard to imagine the circumstances under which we’d bar anyone from coming to our meetings.”
Moore has seen people literally shaking in church from need of chemicals, and he’s routinely shaken the hands of known drug dealers because, as he said, “It’s not my job to tell anybody they’re going to hell, and I’m not going to discriminate.”
That doesn’t mean, however, there shouldn’t be clear expectations that sinners will change their ways. Many pastors feel that failing to attach consequences to consistently sinful behavior creates the impression that the church condones it.
“I don’t have to baptize everybody who asks for it,” said Moore. He could imagine a case where he might not allow a habitual, public sinner to be a Sunday school teacher.
“We don’t necessarily monitor people but if sin were to become obvious and hurtful among the community we would prohibit that person from holding a position of responsibility, like being a teacher,” said Capps.
Willis turns to the Bible for a more quantifiable answer. He said in increments of 30 days, the first step is to counsel the sinner one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, the pastor and two elders should offer counsel. After that, the pastor and two other distinguished church members should counsel the person. Finally, if the entire church can’t persuade the sinner to change, the only option is to “disfellowship” the person.
Stephens said he’s never had to invoke the “notoriously evil life” rubric but said that in his tradition the Eucharist “feeds and strengthens us to meet the challenges before us.” If there were a question as to whether a person’s sinful life should preclude them from receiving, Stephens said he’d likely “come down on the side of a person being fed.”
“Finding ourselves within the biblical stories is one of the most challenging, satisfying and meaningful ways of living our faith,” said MacLean.
The story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps his favorite for demonstrating that sin can cause humiliation but God’s mercy is boundless. He also pointed out that one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew, was a tax collector and therefore a notorious public sinner.
Stephens said his own grandfather was asked to leave a church because of his alcohol problem.
“Families have stories and I remember how, at a time when my grandfather and grandmother needed church the most, it wasn’t there for them,” he said.
Willis said the gospel challenges pastors to have courage. They must be willing to lose members as a result of confronting public sin, but they also must “get involved, seek and save, not stay distant and have nothing to do with sinners.”
The sin that always breaks MacLean’s heart and sends people to his office stems from low self-esteem. Demonizing the people who fall, he said, isn’t going to heal that.
Moore of Lighthouse Baptist put it this way, “Jesus could have kicked Mary Magdalene, and Peter and everybody out of his sight, but he didn’t. God can use a drug dealer, or a woman whose had an abortion to reach people in a way that I never could.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal