Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sending Preachers To Jail

When does the state have the right to jail a pastor for preaching bad doctrine? This story seem to contain that:
A Black Earth pastor convicted of conspiracy to commit child abuse for advocating the use of wooden rods to spank children has been sentenced to two years in prison.
It seems like this story is from Wisconsin. Now I don't doubt that this guy is saying something rather stupid and dangerous. But I also don't doubt that he believes it as part of his religion. So what has happened? The state has said we can punish a pastor for preaching something if the state deems it might hurt someone. Not that the teaching directly hurt someone but that we can imagine the teaching could inspire someone to hurt another person.

Do we want to go there? How long will it take before this gets applied to church teaching on homosexuality? Any sermon that inspires bullying should be illegal? Where is the line? Do you actually have to call for violence? No. When I was a kid bullying involved violence or a very obvious threat of violence. Now bullying can just involve verbal attacks. What precisely must be said? Homosexual morality involves drawing some distinctions between homosexual acts and homosexual inclinations. So you have several things going on here:
  1. Pastor or priest teaches the doctrine
  2. Layperson hears the doctrine and acts on it towards a person with same-sex attractions
  3. Same-sex attracted person interprets those words or actions
Step 1 is where we hope the truth is preached in a loving way. But pastors don't always get their preaching right. There should be a significant margin for error allowed before the state should inject itself and make the preaching illegal.

But even if the preacher does make all the right distinctions and make clear his love and compassion for same-sex attracted people there are going to be some in the crowd who will come away with something different. Especially when you have a topic where there are a lot of deep seated ideas and perhaps a lot of woundedness. People will often process sermons strangely. We are talking about potentially a very small number of people behaving badly as a result of this preaching. It happens all the time. People try and fight evil and they end up fighting the people who symbolize that evil to them. In spiritual warfare as in real warfare attacking the wrong target happens even to the well intentioned soldier but the results can be very bad.

Still, even if the preacher teaches the right doctrine and the person communicates it in a loving and respectful way there is still a chance it could all be misinterpreted by the same-sex attracted person. Many times these people are very young. They are feeling a lot of guilt over their sexual thoughts and actions. They are being told not to feel guilty and that the real problem is those that are making them feel guilty. So you are talking about people who can put some very strange spins on things. Then they can show a ton of problems, depression, suicide, violence, drug abuse, etc. Society desperately want to avoid saying these people feel real guilt for objectively immoral acts. So they look around for people to blame. The nearest person who has communicated the wrongness of the acts in question ends up taking the rap.

The point is that very reasonable preaching could easily be deemed harmful by society. What is the principled difference between the Wisconsin case and how society is likely to see preaching on the immorality of sodomy. The consensus against spanking children with wooden rods is greater. But for how long? Courts often only listen to what the intellectual elites are saying so the consensus on gay sex seems strong to them.

There is an assumption is society that doctrine does not matter. That it is just some rambling about God that can be safely ignored. The truth is doctrine is very dangerous. Bad doctrine can cause real physical harm to yourself and to others and to society. Even true doctrine is dangerous. Like true love in Romeo and Juliet. A few misunderstandings and something good becomes something tragic. But the courts don't get that. So they are likely to conclude that real danger implies that it somehow is not doctrine. That it is crossed over into something that is not religion and therefore can be regulated by the state. It has not. Real doctrine is every bit as dangerous as telling parents to beat their kids with wooden rods. Just like the idea of having the state rid society of bad religion is dangerous.