“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Witch!” Cried one of the young girls. “She has bewitched me. Her spirit visits me and invites me to sign the Devil’s book!”
1692, Salem, Massachusetts.
Chaos ruled the town. The cry of “witchcraft” plagued Salem as many young members of the town accused others of being witches. The town was in an uproar. Judges from around the state were brought in to oversee the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
Nearly 150 people were accused and arrested for being witches. 20 people were executed; including one minister who at the gallows recited the Lord’s Prayer and yet the judges still executed him.
Samuel Sewall was one of the judges at these trials. He was a prominent member of Boston. He married into a well-off family. He was a faithful member of his church. He attended prayer meetings. He was known as one who would sing Psalms, and daily read his Bible. Yet, he condemned people who were innocent to their deaths. His hand had a part in one of the darkest moments in American and Church History.
Yet, five years later a change happened. In a church meeting, he handed a letter written to the congregation. Sewall stood as the minister began to read. Samuel Sewall took on all the blame and shame of the Salem Witch Trials. He repented of his actions when none of the other judges did. He asked for forgiveness. A well-off man, a prominent citizen stood in front of his church repenting.
The Church… A Community
The church is known as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). It is also seen as a community of believers helping and encouraging each other (Acts 4:32-35).
Many verses in the New Testament encourage believers in their relationships with one another:
And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25
Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
These two passages speak to one facet of the church: community. There is supposed to be interaction with each other in the church. However, it requires openness. In order for us to provoke each other to love and good works, to encourage each other and to admonish each other with God’s Word, there must be openness between believers in the church. This means we can reveal our dark places and sin. It is iron sharpening iron. Some call it accountability, and, from Scripture, it is a necessary part of the church.
A Closed Openness
However, is this openness happening in our churches?
In many churches, there is a culture of appearance. Some wear coats, ties, and dress. While other churches are more casual. Yet, there is a culture of appearance. We want to appear as having things all together. We want people to look at us. We wear the right thing. We say the right words. Why? We want to be perceived in the right way.
Yet, does this promote a community of openness? It promotes a closed openness. We only allow people to hear what we want them to hear. We may even open about sin in our lives, but we word it in a way so we are not perceived in a wrong light.
Jesus has something to say about that, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. (Matthew 23:27)”
We quickly say we are not like the Pharisees, because we do not reject Christ. But, why did Jesus say this? He was condemning their hypocrisy. They looked great on the outside and were respected. Yet, they were full of sin on the inside. Nothing more than a rotting grave.
We dress ourselves up for church and we say the right things. But, are we honest with each other (even if it’s only with a small group) about our sin? Or do we hide the sin we know to be true like skeletons in our closet?
This can be boiled down to one thing – Fear of Man
The Blessing of Openness
When we set aside the fear of man in order to be open about ourselves, we see a change in ourselves and in our churches.
When you read the life of Samuel Sewall, there is a change that happens. After his repentance, his theology begins to change. He begins to shift from a works based mentality before God to one of repentance. He doesn’t see God’s blessing rising and falling based on his works, but the blessings of God based on his Advocate before the father.
This happens to us, individually, when we open up. When we say what is really going on internally, we see the light of God clearer. Our personal theology begins to change. First, we are honest about our state before God. When the sinner opened up about his state before God, he walked away forgiven; unlike the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). Second, when we see our state before God as a sinner we see Christ as the Savior who frees us from sin. We become Galatians 2:20 Christians. Openness changes our perspective of ourselves and God.
In our church, openness shows to each other the working of God in our lives. We get to see the Word of God and the Spirit of God at work. We get to see that our church is built on redeemed sinners who depend on the daily grace and mercy of an all loving and self-sacrificing God; not built on culture or tradition. Accountability for a church to be Word centered and “Word-Living” becomes a result. A community of encouragement and admonishing with God’s Word emerges.
The passages use words like provoke, encourage, and admonishing. How can we do that as a church unless we are willing to open up to each other?
Not Flaunting Dirty Laundry
Hopefully all of us at one time or another have done laundry. It is appropriate that we do not flaunt our dirty laundry. Yet, we all know what people wear; even the more “embarrassing” items. Knowledge of something does not mean we flaunt it.
This is the same with openness in the church. We can be open about our sin and dark places God has brought us through. It is not a celebration of sin or wallowing in mud. We celebrate the Savior who conquers our sin. Knowledge of one’s sins leads to a boasting in Christ over flaunting the sin.
Paul and Openness
Does Paul promote openness in the church? There are passages about confessing your sins to one another and bearing each others burdens. However, there is one passage where openness was shown in the church of Corinth:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Paul could only say this if the believers in Corinth were open about their pasts. To say, “some of you used to be like this,” is to say he knew their past. They opened up before him and their fellow believers.
Romans 12:9-16 says, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”
Paul commands every believer to be like this. Yet, for this to be apart of our lives we must be willing to be open.
Being a Modern Samuel Sewall
Samuel Sewall was a prominent man in Boston and in his church. Yet, he repented of his actions in the Salem Witch Trials.
I couldn’t help but think, “How often does this happen in our churches today?” How often are we opening up so we, individually, and our fellow believers can be encouraged?
How as a church are we doing with this? Are we more concerned about how we are perceived or how we are being encouraged by each other to live for Christ? Do we hide behind our appearances and culture in order to hide sin? Sin when it remains hidden will kill us. John Owen said, “Kill sin, or sin will be killing you.”
Are we more like the Pharisees than we realize?
It will hurt our pride and our self-consciousness when we open up. Openness does show our true state as sinners, but it glorifies a Savior who is the only one who can change us. The church is a history of Christ changing people from condemned to redeemed. Why should we stop that history with our pride?
An open believer promotes an open church which promotes an openness to God’s Word and His Working. Lives can only be changed when we are open with ourselves and with each other in the church as we cling to God’s Word.
Samuel Sewall’s last words speak to the change that occurs when we are open: “If any man sins, we have an advocate with the Father. Looking to Jesus, He is the only remedy.”