Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And suspicion?
The fruits of the Spirit included on this list should look pretty familiar to anyone who has spent time in a church. So should the final item—even though it's certainly not a fruit of the Spirit.
It doesn't take a new Christian long to discover that the church is full of damaged people, healthy wheat and toxic tares growing side by side. If a church leader is of the toxic tare variety, those affected by the leader's poisonous words or deeds have to find a way to reconcile the sinless life of the Christ they follow with the hurt and confusion they've experienced as members of his body. To move forward, many of us re-brand our innocence as naÏvetfamp;copy; and our newly minted sense of suspicion as wisdom.
But I believe that as our suspicion grows, our ability to trust God, and others, gets lost in the translation.
Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman's oft-cited 2007 book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters, pointed to the cumulative cultural effect that broken Christian leaders and followers alike have on a watching world: "Outsiders most common reaction to the faith: Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it is meant to be. Every Christ follower bears some degree of responsibility for the image problem; it is not helpful to assign blame to those who have made mistakes." Those outside the church are damaged by our shared spiritual blunders, but so are Christians, who live the paradox of being both perpetrators and victims of our own mistakes.
Lyons and Kinnaman emphasized that assigning blame is counterproductive when it comes to addressing the church's image problem, but there is a flipside to their contention. Those who stumble while representing or leading us from the platform inject visible new reasons for creating a culture of suspicion in and about the church. Progressive theologian Tony Jones reflected on the recent story of former-evangelical-turned-gay-activist Azaraiah Southworth "outing" Southern Baptist author and speaker Jonathan Merritt in the media run-up to the recent Chick-fil-A "buy-cott." Jones makes an important point about the standards by which we judge the microphone-holders in our world: "If you put yourself forward as an purveyor of public ideas, your life is open to scrutiny. It may not be fair, but it is the way of our world, the world of the panopticon."
God judges more strictly those who teach, and his Word calls each of us to be wise and discerning disciples. But when our trust is damaged by the failings of our leaders, it is remarkably easy to allow Spirit-breathed discernment to degrade into suspicion, an earthbound and warped version of wisdom.
My own leaning toward suspicion was honed after more than a decade where it seemed that my family and I went from one disastrous church situation to the next, including a porn-addicted, adulterous pastor whose secrets were known and safeguarded by his leadership team, a church that split in the wake of a wicked firestorm of unchecked gossip, and a congregation paralyzed by the effects of staff nepotism. I received additional validation that my self-protective suspicions were justified when a string of high-profile Christian leaders including Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Morris Cerullo, Paul Cain, and Ted Haggard each fell like oversized dominoes during those years.
My damaged trust was a perfect breeding ground for suspicion. I relied on that suspicion to shelter me from further possible hurt from church leaders, and called my cynicism wisdom. The patient example of some faithful friends and family members helped me discover that godly wisdom leads to greater trust in Christ and the courage to again trust his people. This trust continues to heal those old wounds in ways that suspicion never could. I've known others who've experienced spiritual abuse who have learned to trust again as they've talked through their experiences with a skilled counselor.
Increased trust does not mean we turn a blind eye to sin, mute the Spirit's discernment, or clobber common sense. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, heal and deliver, he told them, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
The Wild West of the Web requires shrewd-as-snake critical analysis from us as we sift truth from skewed information and opinion. Our relationships at a local, three-dimensional church up that requirement, analysis in the midst of the mess and beauty of life together. Suspicion suffocates our fellowship with one another and stifles spiritual growth. Prayerful reflection and analysis can re-form trust in us, even in the face of discouraging news about a leader. We have to come to terms with the fact that the path is indeed narrow, perhaps even more narrow than we may have first realized when we first began walking it.
We're left with a choice when we're hurt and disappointed. We can set up camp in suspicion's cul-de-sac, convincing ourselves that we're still on that narrow path. Or we can exercise the trust that says to God, "Yes, I will continue to follow you" and takes a leap of faith in the form of a single step forward, toward restored relationships and believing the best about our siblings in Christ.