OVER A DECADE ago, a local evangelical church was victimized by one of its staff who was a trusted worker and a loved member of the congregation. As the assistant to the head pastor with access to financial and other documents, she embezzled over P4M of the church’s collections over time. These she used to purchase a plasma TV, high-end cellphones, and other amenities for her family.
When her wrongdoing was discovered, the congregation was divided over how to address it. Some believed that as an orthodox, Bible-based Christian community, it was bound by 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, in which the apostle Paul speaks against lawsuits among believers. They counseled forgiveness, discipline (meted out internally), and rehabilitation.
Others argued, however, that correctly interpreted, this passage referred only to non-criminal property cases and not to crimes against persons and the state. They opined that this present problem was not a matter involving a few people and their property but a public offense committed against the whole congregation. Justice must be served.
This group also pointed out that, in the context of Christianity, the woman had taken money belonging to God and offered back in His name. Even with the best intentions, the congregation had no capacity to forgive an offense against God. Moreover, she had violated public law. They agreed she should be treated compassionately in personal dealings, but that the church had no right to sweep this crime under the rug.
The incident caused a bit of a rift in the membership, as those who called for mercy became increasingly appalled with the attitude of those seeking justice. The mercy faction preferred to adjudicate the matter internally in keeping with their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6; this was disputed by the justice group. The matter was much deliberated and in the end, the majority decided to prosecute. The woman was charged, convicted, and is now serving time. She is reportedly unrepentant to this day.
I was a member of that congregation and one of those who called for justice. The woman was my friend, but her clandestine pillage of the till was unknown to me nor to any of us who thought we knew her. Many of us felt betrayed; but my personal feelings had nothing to do with my stand on her case. For me, the bottom line was that she had violated the Revised Penal Code. If we as a church took the matter into our own hands and protected her from the law (improperly interpreting Scripture to boot), we would be complicit in her crime.
This all came back to me as I watched the Iglesia ni Cristo last week belabor the principle of the separation of church and state.
In the interest of objectivity, I tried to understand them. They seemed to be working on the basis of the same 1 Corinthians passage. INC spokesman Edwil Zabala repeatedly insisted that they had their own adjudication process for erring members, and that they should be left alone to investigate and, presumably, prosecute this matter. DOJ Sec. Leila de Lima was therefore encroaching on sacred ground when she involved herself in the matter of Isaias Samson, Jr.
It was difficult to follow their logic and, honestly, I can only agree with them if I practice what biblical scholars refer to as eisegesis:
I am an evangelical Christian and read the same New Testament as Roman Catholics and other orthodox (trinitarian) Christians. We will agree, no doubt, that this passage does not give the followers of Christ license to shut out civil authorities, especially where a serious crime is involved.
It is significant that Paul in another letter, this time to the Romans, controversially said
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13:1)
Throughout history, Christians have struggled to respect this mandate. Though it has often been read with some latitude, it is largely obeyed and aptly joined with the demand for good governance and righteousness in national leadership.
Jesus called people to follow Him in discipleship (see Luke 9:23). Many who are serious in their faith have understood this to mean a separation from worldly priorities even as they remain in the world, in favor of an intimate, saving relationship with Christ. This is consistent with Jesus’s own sentiments when He prayed to the Father before His crucixion:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18)
We who call ourselves by Christ’s name are in the world, but not of it. We are here to be salt and light, as Christ commanded us, following the example He set two millennia ago. We are set apart for this work, but we do not stand above the institutions of this world, nor should we coerce or intimidate them just because we can.
It is not right for anyone – especially those who invoke the name of Christ – to vilify a public servant for doing her duty. In fact, we who identify with Christ should commend Sec. de Lima for her integrity, courage, and pursuit of justice because she has upheld the very values we espouse.
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. (Proverbs 30:6)