Thursday, October 22, 2015

Expose Not Blind: On the CHC Verdict

SCRIPTURE: John 8:1-11
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: October 23rd, 2015.

But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
NOTE: This is a special edition of Sabbath Walk written in response to the wide interest surrounding the recent court judgment of the controversial use of funds for a music ministry outreach arm of a Church. It is a matter of both public and theological interest. In this article, I argue that as lights of this world, our calling is to expose the darkness and wrongs of this world, but not to make people blind with our glares of justice and self-righteous stares. The condition of the soul can only be touched by the Holy Spirit. 

Swirling around the minds of many in Singapore is the thought of judgment day. On October 21st, 2015, the judge of the widely followed trial of six leaders at City Harvest megachurch wrote:
I am satisfied that six accused persons are guilty of all the charges against them.”
Is this “satisfied” one of glee that spouts out “You deserved it!” or “I told you so?” No.

Is this “satisfied” something like a hungry diner completing his fifth round of food at a buffet table? No.

This “satisfied” is essentially made on legal grounds, after all the evidence presented by the prosecution before the Judge have been duly considered and deemed overwhelmingly satisfactory for conviction. There is nothing personal even though everyone in the court room would have a personal opinion. On the part of the judge, I believe that there is no intent to gorge oneself on Schadenfreude, unlike some observers who loved to watch the prey being ravished by predators. It is purely and simply a legal matter, albeit with lots of public interest.

A) Wide Interest

(Photo Credit:
“Guilty!” says the major papers that have furiously covered the entire trial since June 2012. In a city-state that is arguably the financial center of the region, money matters do attract lots of attention. Whether one is an interested member of the Church or a distant observer from far, it does not matter. With each trial day of revelations, surprise twists and turns, infighting, and the complicated web of transactions, people’s curiosity is piqued. Some are attracted by Serina Wee, the Internet “goddess” whose fashion styles stunned and captured their wildest imaginations. Others are amazed at how friendships and camaraderie among the leaders collapse when the tough gets going. A lot of faithful church members from the struggling CHC congregation continue to hope for the best for their esteemed leader, Kong Hee.

The interest increases as both supporters and accusers trade verbal blows, especially on social media. With over S$50 million being talked about from a supposedly non-profit organization, one begins to marvel at how times have changed. Traditionally, small churches have struggled financially due to their size. The larger the Church, the healthier the financial state. As a megachurch, the numbers are staggering.

B) Mike's Perceptive Comments
A lot of people have written about the verdict and some have even asked for my opinion. In a haste, I replied with the famed John 8 case of the woman who committed adultery. I could have explained more, but I wanted to put something out there first, while I take time to reflect on the implications of the verdict. Among the many varied responses to the judgment, one of the more notable ones comes from a Facebook friend of mine. He is one of the most astute and eloquent writers I know. He gave his take on the CHC case with some good interpretations of John 8. He believes that there are three differences between the CHC case and the John 8 situation.
  1. “First, that was a set up, a trap.”
  2. “Second, it backfired.”
  3. “And lastly, the adulteress was remorseful.”
All of them are very good observations and should spur us to study the passage even more closely. I am one of the beneficiaries of this iron-sharpens-iron essay. Thanks Mike!

Whenever a counter-point is made, care must be taken not to over-react, lest we sway to an unhealthy extreme. My intent is not to counter my persuasive friend but to expand on them. Mike’s concern is basically about people using John 8 as some kind of a never-judge-them-like-the-Pharisees imperial decree. He wants readers to examine the passage for what it says, and not according to what we want it to say. He desires us to understand the CHC and the John 8 case independently first, and where appropriate, to make a connection. His first point was classic. Indeed, it is true that it was a trap. Comparing with the CHC judges and lawyers, the religious leaders had an agenda, a vicious one. They had every intent to convict and to stone the woman. The CHC case has no such intent. Embezzling money is no justification for capital punishment. Likewise, “theological legitimacy” is not necessarily legal binding. In that sense, Mike is right. We must be careful not to use the Bible out of context.

C) Take One: Message is For All

Having said that, like many, my concern is not about the prosecutors but about the many observers and especially the members of CHC who have placed lots of hope in the integrity of their leaders. Obviously they would be disappointed by the outcome. While Jesus knew that the whole thing was a set up, a trap, He also knew that there would be many onlookers and curious people in the crowd.
“Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.” (John 8:2-4)
My response: Even if the whole thing is a trap, Jesus gave his answers not only to the scribes and Pharisees. He wanted the rest of the audience to hear. In other words, His teaching applied not only to the accusers but also to onlookers; not only to the scribes and Pharisees, but to all persons gathered around the adulterous woman in the center of the court.

There are many onlookers in this CHC case. I am one of them. I am not a member of the megachurch. Neither am I close friends with the six leaders. As a distant observer, we can write all we want but can we at least understand the pain and disappointment of a loyal CHC member? Can we see from their perspective of the whole event? Is it not natural for any person to try to put up a defense of their embittered leaders, regardless of how weak their defenses are? Jesus was forced to say “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” only after persistent efforts to make Jesus judge the woman. Jesus not only refrained from judging, he essentially forced the accusers to back off. It is like saying, “This woman has already been judged. What more do you want? Her pound of flesh?

D) Take Two: Warning is For All

In this manner, I think we can learn not to persist in judging the CHC case, or to persist in making the seemingly unrepentant to repent. This persistence to insist on our brand of justice can be worrying. Though I am not a member of CHC, I know a lot of them are young. This is where Romans is instructive.

  • “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” (Rom 14:1)
  • “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbour for his good, to his edification.” (Rom 15:1-2)
Take no pleasure in the misfortunes of others. When a member of the body of Christ is hurting, we all hurt. If we consider the people at CHC as fellow believers, we should come together to pray with them, that there would be healing and unity in seeking the Lord more. Even though we feel strongly about young people being misled, we cannot force them to do things against their will. If we are indeed serious about their well-being, make friends with them. Build a relationship with them. Pray with them. Care for them. Don't just throw arguments at them as if they are absolutely wrong and we are totally right.

Mike’s second point is interesting. Even if the whole trap backfired, we need to ask, by how much? Mike is understandably worried about the unwitting trust by the younger members on their popular leaders. People who literally worshiped Kong Hee would be devastated by the judgment.

My response: Backfired yes, but in which direction? Did it cause the accusers of the adulterous woman to back off willingly? Or did the whole matter only emboldened the Pharisees to find a more vicious way to attack Jesus? My read of John 8 is that the real trial is that of Jesus, not the woman. It was Jesus defending Himself with wisdom and in appropriate use of the law.

Why did I say that? Look at verse 6 of John chapter 8. “They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.” (John 8:6)

Be careful not to put Jesus on trial with our accusations. Matthew 7 warns us:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

It will come round. Interestingly, Jesus was eventually tried and convicted not because of the law, but because of the people’s desire to kill Jesus. When the legal system is manipulated for the purposes of men, the result is injustice. Pray not only for the CHC folks, but also pray for the lawyers and legal personnel. They are doing their best in their due diligence to ensure that the fullest justice be served. Pray also for ourselves, that our desire to see justice being served does not propel us on a witch-hunt mentality to cast stones, shoot arrows, or to tip the powers to inflict maximum punishment on the guilty ones.

Are we pure in heart? Are we saints? Or are we sinners who also need mercy and grace?

E) Take Three: We Are Called to Expose, Not Blind

Finally, Mike observes that unlike the CHC leadership, the adulterous woman was remorseful. This is a worrying situation, especially when the younger members of CHC not only refuse to accept the judgment, but to continue to profess their innocence. Note the timing of the supposed remorse. Jesus’ words made the scribes and Pharisees leave the adulterous woman alone. There was no “Sorry” or self-pronounced confession by the woman that triggered the exodus of the accusers. It was Jesus’ words that convicted or prevented further acts of violence. Any remorse comes about not because of some legal judgment but because of the woman being caught red-handed. The woman knew right from the start that she was wrong when she committed adultery. The same cannot be said of the six convicted leaders. The CHC leaders rationalized about their use of funds and didn't feel it was a serious sin enough to be convicted in court. There is a difference.

Note once again that the Pharisees’ target was not the woman, but Jesus. In the same light, as far as the rest of us, the onlookers are concerned; I like to say that once the judgment is made, the attention shifts away from CHC and the justice system of Singapore. It is now about us; our reactions; and how we can humbly let God’s Word speak to us. With the wide press coverage, we are faced with three temptations:
  • The temptation to judge the six CHC leaders: “Why can’t they just admit it!”
  • The temptation to play the arrogant hero: “I told you so!”
  • The temptation to take the high ground: “Thank God that I am not like the CHC people.”
My response: Is it our place to make them feel guilty? Is it our role to play judge on their feelings? Is it our duty to force them to be repentant? Is it our calling to play the executioner and the persistent Pharisee to humiliate the young members of CHC based on the wrongs of the six leaders?

I don’t think so. That is why I believe that Jesus’ warning to the rest of us not to cast the first stone is so important. Light can expose the darkness, but is light called to obliterate the evil persons? No. That is God's prerogative. Is light expected to fire bullets or shoot missiles in order to destroy the ones exposed? No! That is God's call. We can point out the mistakes but it is not our duty to judge the ones in error. We can expose the wrongs but it is not our responsibility to put a knife at the throats of the guilty ones to force a confession. We can say all the right things but if we do so with the wrong spirit, we are guilty of the very sin that Jesus had warned us about:

Are we Judge See? Are we the prosecutors of the Singapore courts? Are we the spiritual holy men that God had specifically appointed to throw the first stones at the CHC leadership? I don't think so. We need to leave it to the authorities appointed to deal with such matters. We can argue, explain, rebuke, or debate. Let that not degenerate into name-calling, trolling, or insensitive comments about people, especially when many members of CHC are hurting and feeling a sense of injustice. They do not need more sarcasm or barbs of cynicism. They need understanding. If we want to correct them, do so gently and with lots of love. Being a light means to expose constructively, not to blind people excessively. The former builds up. The latter tears down.
He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:1-3)

Any rebuke must be in the spirit of speaking the truth in love. Lynn Buzzard, a lawyer who was also first director of the Christian Legal Society writes: "Justice is a dimension of God's character." When we claim to say or do things in the name of justice, do we demonstrate Christlikeness? Do we exhibit God's character when we claim to speak for God? Be careful of the old demon of hypocrisy. Be on the guard against injustice. Also beware of the temptations to think too highly of ourselves until we dumb others down.

Larry Osborne reminds us in his very good book about the dangers of pride and exclusivity when behaving self-righteously.
When it comes to our unity in Christ, we constantly have choices to make. How will we respond to our brothers and sisters in Christ we wouldn’t have chosen if we had been given the choice — in light of our spiritual unity or in light of our earthly differences? The choice is ours. We can always find a way to get along. We can always find a way to pick a fight. But the choice we make will always have huge ramifications, not only for us but also for all the people we hope to influence and reach for Jesus. They’re not too likely to listen when we’re beating each other up.” (Larry Osborne, Accidental Pharisees, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, p144)

Any forgiveness must be in the spirit of knowing we too need forgiveness. In all cases, we need to remember that the CHC brothers and sisters are not our enemies. They are our neighbours deserving of our love. We love because Christ first loved us. We love because it honours God. We love remembering that we too were sinners when Christ himself died for us. Did God wait for us to be remorseful before coming to earth? No. He demonstrated unconditional mercy and grace to us. We need to do likewise regardless of how righteous we feel and how unrepentant others are. Pray for all, including for ourselves not to sin.

So what do we do when the convicted refuse to repent? Honestly, there is nothing much we can do except to pray. When asked, we can give our opinion. We can point out the flaws or the wrongs. Other than that, be careful that we do not start wearing self-righteous hats to parade our views. We are just one careless word or foolish statement away from becoming the very Pharisee that Jesus vehemently rebuked.

THOUGHT: "Emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God's gratuitous love." (Gistavo Gutierrez)


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