It is difficult but necessary to approach the question of "letting go" in terms of forgiving or releasing the sins, offenses and abuses in an unhealthy church environment. This article will explore Scriptural texts and practical ideas on how to put an unhealthy and hurtful church experience in the past.
Interestingly, the words most frequently translated "forgive" in the New Testament are the Greek noun "aphesis" and verb "apheimi" for this concept. These words have the connotation of separating, putting off, removing when used in this context. They are derived from apo, from, and hiemi, to put in motion, send. (ref. Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1-697) . So the idea of "letting go" is closely related to the idea of forgiveness.
The Pauline epistles tend to use the Greek verb "charidzomai" as in 2 Corinthians 2:10, 12:13, Colossians 3:13. It is a cognate of the word for "grace" and thus has to do with the giving of a "gift" in light of an offense (ref. Brown, op. cit, 2-122).
Yet the idea of forgiveness is frequently defined incorrectly in an unhealthy church. In that environment, forgiveness often means a denial that any damage or hurt took place, and a denial that wrong was done. As might be expected, such definitions of forgiveness don't validate the offenses done to members of the body of Christ but rather serve to perpetuate the unhealthy environment. Thankfully, such definitions of forgiveness are not consistent with the Scriptures.
From the ministry and example of Jesus as well as the history of the early church, there are several valuable lessons we can learn concerning forgiveness.
1. Jesus was not consumed or overwhelmed by the sins and gross failures of others. Not only was Jesus fully aware of the sinfulness of mankind, he was particularly aware of the sins of the religious leaders and the system that gave them power and oppressed the people. While there are instances where Jesus addressed these things passionately (e.g. Matthew 23), in general the picture of Jesus in the gospels is not one of a man preoccupied, consumed or persistently indignant due to these things.
2. It might be easy to dismiss observation #1 on the grounds that these sins were not directed toward Jesus personally. But even as the sins of the religious leaders came to be directed more and more toward him personally, culminating with the crucifixion, Jesus still does not give the appearance of a man consumed by these sins. In fact, upon the cross he utters, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34), showing that Jesus did not focus upon wrong done to him. He saw a bigger picture.
3. While Jesus is able to avoid being focused on these sins of others directed toward him, it does not prevent him from speaking directly, frankly and passionately about these sins both to the offenders and toward others in general (e.g. Matthew 15:14; "blind guides").
4. Jesus did not require his followers to confront the corruptions in the system individually (as in the spirit of Matthew 18:15-17) or to "try to make it better." Instead, he told his followers, "Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit" (Matthew 15:14). In passages where Jesus instructs some form of obedience to these leaders (e.g. Mt 8:4, 23:3), he shows respect for the Law and the priests' role in the system even though it had become corrupted. Such obedience was mandated by the law and hardly an endorsement of the corrupt leadership and system.
5. In Luke 23:34, Jesus does not condone or ignore the sin of those crucifying him. Instead, he calls it "sin" and then forgives it. This pattern of recognition of sin and subsequent forgiveness is key to understanding a Scriptural perspective of forgiveness.
6. In Luke 23:34, Jesus appears to be able to separate the evil sin from the person who was created for a greater purpose than to perpetrate such sins. This is part of the "bigger picture" Jesus was able to see concerning sins. Of course, Jesus' crucifixion had massive implications concerning the redemption of mankind, and this was another part of the "bigger picture" that he was able to recognize.
7. Another part of this "bigger picture" was that Jesus knew how sophisticated social and religious systems work, and that some people were more culpable for the sins of an abusive system than others. He knew Pilate was guilty of condemning an innnocent man, but he also said that those who handed him over to Pilate were guilty of a "greater sin" (John 19:11). Pilate was doing the dirty work of the Sanhedrin, and Jesus knew it. Something to keep in mind about an abusive system-- those who mete out abuse and harshness are often "middle men" in the system and are the recipients of similar treatment from their higher-ups as well. This doesn't completely excuse individuals from their responsibility for their actions, but it does help us understand it better.
8. From the cross, Jesus' utterance of forgiveness seems to suggest that his inclination to forgive sin did not depend upon the sorrow of the offender. There are other questions raised here beyond the scope of this article--e.g. here he asks the Father to forgive these sins, in other places he simply pronounces sins forgiven, and in still other places penitence seems to be a key to the pronouncement of forgiveness. Regardless of those discussions, the point here is that Jesus desires to forgive apart from the penitence of the offenders. He does not carry indignation toward those who crucified him to his grave.
9. In Jesus' words of forgiveness to those crucifying him, he cites their ignorance as a factor. Perhaps if we viewed those who sin against us as not knowing any better, it would be easier to forgive them.
10. Considering that Jesus used the crucifixion to redeem all of mankind, he certainly had the last laugh over Satan, the Sanhedrin and Pilate. He fulfilled the Scripture, "he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
11. Concerning his followers, Jesus said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4). In this text, we see a pattern: an offense, truthfully identified as sin, sorrow expressed, and an individual forgiven. The point of this text is that Jesus does not condone holding grudges when there is sorrow on the part of the offender. He wants his people to forgive as he forgives them (Matthew 6:14-15).
12. In the church age, forgiveness takes on a slightly different shape. Generally, Christians are enjoined to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13). This presupposes that offenses will generally be a part of church life and that in the humility of church life all have some form of penitence for their offenses in general. The church is a community of grace where offenses are routinely committed and forgiven.
13. However, it is evident that not all sins are forgiven upon commission. Jesus allowed for situations where the apostles might not forgive the sins of some (John 20:23). Paul forgave sin in a particular situation only after repentance had taken place (2 Corinthians 2:10). Further, church discipline exists in various forms (Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:11 et. al.) to draw attention to serious unrepented-of sin that remains. It is evident that these sins are not trivial nor routine. Some sins are more serious and/or damaging and require more serious action.
14. It is critical for the life of the church that sin be identified as such, especially in the case of more serious and damaging sins. The matter in which Paul confronted Peter for excluding the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13) has Peter condemned. No doubt Peter had repented of this sin and was forgiven. But the sin was serious, striking at the very validity of the cross to draw together Jew and Gentile. This incident was mentioned later by Paul in the Galatian epistle for the purpose of instructing his readers. Similarly, Jesus forgave those who crucified him, yet Peter could still refer to the sinners as "wicked men" (Acts 2:23). The gospels record the sins of the apostles and others at various times, yet often these sins were forgiven. Part of forgiving sin is calling it "sin;" part of being forgiven of sin is the freedom to call it "sin" without being perpetually discredited or shamed. It is doubtful that Peter would ever say, "Can we quit talking about that Gentile incident in Antioch now?" Or can you imagine Peter wanting to remove stories of his sins during the earthly ministry of Jesus from the gospels? The church's ability to clearly identify right and wrong is a higher priority than protecting any church system or leader.
15. Forgiveness is never to be mistaken with misidentifying something sinful as something else (a bad idea, difference of opinion, minimizing it, etc.). Likewise, forgiveness is not pretending that wrongdoing has not taken place or that harm has not been done. In the incident with Paul and Peter, Paul records that "even Barnabas was led astray." Leadership sins have harm and impact that must be seen and stated explicitly. Citing such stories shows the harm that can result from them. It is NOT "unforgiving" to make mention of such incidents for the purpose of instructing and warning others.
16. Some have cited Hebrews 10:17 ("and remember them no more") as "proof" that sins previously repented of should never be mentioned again. A preacher advocating this view might say, "If God doesn't remember it, why should you?" Some Christians hear things like this and feel incredibly guilty for "remembering" sins toward them. However, this is terrible exegesis and logic. God is fully aware of all sins that have ever been committed. Many are recorded right in the Bible-- is he really unaware of these? Does his Bible have blanks in those spots? When he says he "remembers them no more" it is a figure of speech indicating that they have no bearing upon future dealings. They have been forgiven as though they had been forgotten. Was Paul in sin for bringing up the Antioch Gentile incident to the Galatians? Was he remembering something that should have been forgotten? Clearly, any past sin, identified as such, can be used for instruction (ref. Romans 15:4) . It is extremely important for the church to be able to identify what is sinful, and drawing upon past incidents allows it to do this. Forgetting past sins can set the stage for them to be repeated.
17. Differences of opinion cannot be forgiven, because they are not sin. Differences of opinion on "disputable matters" must be respected by all (Romans 14:1, 15:7). Problems arise when one attempts to bind such an opinion upon others, or to assail others for being unspiritual or "less" for having that opinion. Sometimes, one man's "disputable matter" is another man's "core doctrine." Resolving this dilemma is beyond the scope of this article, but isn't it evident that if there is a dispute about something by otherwise faithful Christians, it is by definition a "disputable matter?"
18. In cases of dispute regarding matters of opinion, sometimes a separation of some sort may be necessary (e.g. Acts 15:36-39). However, efforts should be made to make these amicable.
19. False teachings must be confronted and identified as such. They should not be excused, ignored or treated as mere differences of opinion on disputable matters. The New Testament is full of examples of apostolic writers identifying false teachings and making them well known (e.g. Romans 16:17-18). Casual forgiveness (as in the spirit of Colossians 3:13) is not offered to false teachers as these are beyond the scope of normal Christian interaction. False teachings constitute a severe threat to the church and the church is warned accordingly.
Having said all of this, I want to avoid lazy, spiritual-sounding counsel to the victims of spiritual abuse to "just be like Jesus." Anybody can say, "just be like Jesus" in a given situation, but actually doing it is something else altogether! We can be inspired to follow his example and have his example point the way to what is right-- but we live in a fallen world.
So we can know what is right in these areas, but we are not likely to be able to do it quite like we'd like, as soon as we'd like. We need God's help through the Holy Spirit, the support of those around us, and time to deal with these experiences.
Moving on to the next chapter of your spiritual life can also help. The more you're living for today and the future instead of dwelling on the past, the easier it is to move on.
Until a sin or offense is recognized and understood, it cannot be forgiven. By its very nature, spiritual abuse often takes months and even years of work to understand. As one evaluates and unravels traumatic incidents of spiritual abuse, it is inevitable that more sinful things will come to light. Journaling and discussing the abuse with trusted ones or competent counselors can help the victims of spiritual abuse understand what happened. Certain events may trigger painful recollections of abuse as well. Each of these requires identification as sin and the same "putting off" discussed in this article.
One other great issue lingers for those who have suffered mistreatment and abuse in a church setting-- it is the question of justice. Granting forgiveness may seem like justice won't be served, that wrong won't be recognized, perhaps even that you won't be vindicated or that shame and denigration will continue. However, forgiveness allows wrong to be recognized and the forgiver to be elevated. And as Jesus entrusted justice to the Father we too can entrust questions of justice to him.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
If victims of spiritual abuse or unhealthy church systems don't eventually let the offenses go (once they are properly understood), it is like being damaged twice-- first by the actual offense, second by its lasting impact in crippling the life of the one offended. Freedom comes not in persuading the abusers of the wrong and harm from their sin (though this may be possible and helpful), but from releasing them as Jesus did. This is not easy, but by recognizing wrongdoing and then forgiving it, victims of such behavior can experience the validation necessary to let go and move on.