A teenage girl stood before the congregation as her pastor made an unusual announcement and a special request. Looking at her that day, no one would have known; looking at her a few weeks later, many would have begun to suspect. She was pregnant. She was not married. What should she do now? What should her pastor do?
The End of Her Life as She Knew It
She had acknowledged her guilt. She knew that she deserved nothing�that is, nothing but condemnation. But her pastor also said more.
Her pastor announced to the congregation that she had confessed her sin of fornication to him and that she was now with child. He furthermore announced that she had repented of her sin. She had acknowledged her guilt. She knew that she deserved nothing�that is, nothing but condemnation.
But her pastor also said more.
The pastor announced publicly to the congregation what he already had announced privately to her: that God had forgiven her of all her sins, including this one; that in Christ she is a new creation; that through the Spirit of adoption, she is God’s own dear child and an heir of everlasting life in His kingdom of grace. With confidence, she could look back toward her Baptism, knowing that God has washed away all her sins. With joy, she could look forward to receiving the Lord’s Supper, knowing that Christ once and for all gave His body and blood for her redemption.
Her pastor did not stop there. He had a request as well as an announcement. “Will you, as her brothers and sisters in Christ, now also forgive her? Will you receive her back into this congregation as a fellow heir of everlasting life?” The congregation replied in the affirmative.
And that was the end of the matter, but also a new beginning.
A New Beginning
No longer did she live in fear, no longer would she wear the rags of shame. As the baby grew and she began to show, people did not whisper any of the standard inquiries: “Did you know she’s pregnant?” “Which boyfriend was it?” “Doesn’t she know any better?” “If my daughter ever….” In place of gossip, there would be generosity. When people spoke about her it would be to help, not to humiliate.
In place of gossip, there would be generosity. When people spoke about her it would be to help, not to humiliate. “Let’s sit next to her this Sunday.” “I’m sewing some booties for the little one’s feet.” “I wonder if she’ll need help finishing high school. Perhaps I could tutor her this summer.”
Most of all, there was grace. “I’m so glad you know you are forgiven,” people could tell her. “I know I need God’s forgiveness for my past, too. That’s really what church is all about.”
The Real Meaning of Church
Unfortunately, the young man who got her pregnant did not attend church. He did not step inside the building. Nor was he a member of the 501(c)3 organization registered as a church with the IRS. But the sad part has nothing to do with these externals and everything to do with the real meaning of church.
“The church,” wrote the Lutheran reformers of the sixteenth century, “is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (Augsburg Confession VII, 1). When the pastor and the young lady met privately for confession and absolution, that was church. When the congregation gathered publicly around the same Gospel message that in Christ all our sins stand forgiven, that was church. As Luther explained (Large Catechism II, 55):
Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and Sacraments, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here. Thus, although we have sins, the grace of the Holy Ghost does not allow them to injure us, because we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but continuous, uninterrupted forgiveness of sin, both in that God forgives us, and in that we forgive, bear with, and help each other. Ordinarily, the mutual forgiveness of which Luther speaks can take place quietly. “Love covers all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). Sometimes, however, the situation requires a more open corrective. “For where the sin is public, the reproof also must be public, that every one may learn to guard against it” (Large Catechism I, 284). What a joy it is when public reproof is followed by public repentance and public reconciliation!
The preceding story is true. A young lady really did confess her sin before her congregation, and they really did forgive her. This happened on the basis of what Christ Himself accomplished for her and her congregation two thousand years earlier.
As in the Church, So Also in Our Homes
Because the Christian home is the Christian church in miniature, a cycle of reproof, repentance, and reconciliation regularly takes place within godly families, just as it does among the larger family of God. When a parent pauses to help two feuding children get to the root of the matter, apologize, and forgive, that parent models for them what occurs on a grander scale in the divine service when the members of a congregation confess their sins and the pastor absolves them in the name of Christ.
What a privilege parents have to herald that Gospel message in their homes, even as pastors proclaim it in their congregations. Wherever such a message is heard and believed, there the Holy Spirit grants lasting peace.
Confession and absolution are the lifeblood of the Christian faith, for there we confront our sin face-to-face, and there Christ removes our sin and guilt, embracing us with His free gift of love and teaching us so to love one another. Just as parents teach their children never again to mention a sin that has been forgiven between siblings, so also the Christian congregation learns to live anew with their reconciled brothers and sisters. What a privilege parents have to herald that Gospel message in their homes, even as pastors proclaim it in their congregations. Wherever such a message is heard and believed, there the Holy Spirit grants lasting peace.
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their children in Mankato, MN, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College.