Guilty Victim or Sinner?

Proverbs 18:5 NRSV
It is not right to be partial to the guilty,
or to subvert the innocent in judgment.

Ted Haggard was, at one time, the senior pastor of a mega-church in Colorado. He also was a closet homosexual. He lived two lives, one in the public eye, one in secret. A gay lover “outed” him and the scandal became a national disgrace. He was terminated at his church (with a very liberal severance package), placed in counseling with three well-known pastors (including Tommy Barnett from Phoenix and Jack Hayford from Foursquare), and surrounded with what was thought to be a good support system. He abruptly left that support system a few months ago and returned to his home in Colorado where he is now selling insurance and bagging on the Church in general.

He recently did an interview Newsweek:
“Full Christian forgiveness eludes him. He believes that New Life cast him away when he needed it the most. As he says in the movie: ‘The Church has said go to hell.’ Haggard now thinks that he lashed himself too hard. ‘I understand why when a criminal is caught they will sometimes admit to things they didn’t do,’ he says. ‘I wanted to overrepent, and I think I did overrepent. In my [resignation] letter to the church I said I was a deceiver and a liar, but I hadn’t lied about anything except to keep quiet about what was going on inside me.'” (from

Unfortunately I believe that Ted Haggard is a victim in one sense: he, like many American Christians, is a victim of bad doctrine. He evidently believes that those who sin deserve a great deal of sympathy, understanding, and “help” in dealing with their sinfulness. He is right, however, that the Church failed to deal with him in a biblical manner. But what I think he doesn’t realize that a true biblical manner would have been far more severe than he received anyway.

What point is there in this? The point is that we, as a society, have become partial to the guilty. Rather than seeing sin as something from which the guilty needs to repent, we see sin as a result of dysfunction or abuse from which the guilty needs to be healed! The Bible never sees sin in this light.

The story of the woman in adultery is often quoted as a justification for not “judging.” Here is the passage from the gospel of John:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:3-11a NRSV).

This is the portion of the story that is most often told. What has been left out is the rest of what Jesus said to the woman: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (8:11b NRSV). Now, here’s what’s interesting. Jesus did not deal with the cause of the woman’s decision to sin, to commit adultery. Often, in that day, women went into prostitution because their husbands had divorced them and their own families refused to take them back. The women had no means of financial support and their only options were either to become beggars or to become prostitutes. So the possibility was that Jesus was telling this woman that begging (and starving) was better than sin. Another alternative (for the adultery) was that this woman was in a loveless marriage and had found happiness with another man. Jesus was telling her to leave that relationship (cold turkey). There are a number of alternatives for why the woman chose to commit adultery. Any of them might have a solid psychological foundation.

Jesus didn’t deal with any of that! He simply (and rather abruptly) told her “from now on do not sin again.” In other words, while He was willing to forgive, He wasn’t willing to tolerate or excuse.

We need to be careful how we construct our thinking. Considering the guilty victims rather than sinners creates an entire set of doctrinal problems that places our thinking at enmity with scripture (and thus, with Father God). We are commanded in Romans 12:2 to “renew our minds,” to think as God thinks, to align our beliefs with that of scripture. We are to forgive easily, but we are not to ever tolerate or excuse sin.

If Ted Haggard had truly known that, he would have known that believers are admonished “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:10 NRSV). In other words, his isolation should have been much more complete. Rather than receiving over and over, he should have been cut off from everyone in the Church. Why? Because such isolation is often what drives one to repentance. As it is, Haggard appears to have become simply more adroit with his excuses.

He still needs our prayers.