Stigmas Aren’t All Bad

by May 12, 2015ChurchLife, Piety5 comments

One of the missions of contemporary culture, perfectly consistent with the grand narrative of liberalism, is to destigmatize various identities and behaviors traditionally considered sinful in Christendom. Identity and behavior can’t finally be separated, of course, and one of the most successful moves the destigmatizers have made is to weld them together. A gay man in this view is—he just is—”a homosexual,” rather than a person who commits homosexual acts.

This makes perfect sense given the worldview of the destigmatizers. There is no agreed-upon standard by which one person, and/or his behavior, may be considered “normal.” To call autism a deviation, for example, is to imply the existence of a norm—why can’t evolution ensure that a certain tiny percentage of hominids be idiots savants? Mightn’t there be some evolutionary advantage conferred upon a group which includes people alert to things that others miss, people who know what day of the week July 2, 1973 was?

I’m not saying that autism should be stigmatized, of course. It isn’t a sin. Likewise, it is unfair to illegitimate children to place them under a stigma. They didn’t do anything to deserve condescension or meanness. And I have access to a transcendent moral standard by which I can make such judgments.

But because I have that access, I can also say that stigmas aren’t all bad. “Stigma,” it seems to me, has become a sneering word for “community expectations I don’t happen to like.” But part of the value of being a Christian is being placed into a community built by God in which certain behaviors are stigmatized. Adultery is stigmatized at my church. If that cramps a man’s style and inhibits his freedom, think what it does to his wife and kids. It protects them. Without commenting on any individual divorce, the consensus view among conservative Christian leaders today seems to be that a lot more women and children would have been protected if the church itself had maintained a stigma against divorce.

I pastor some baby Christians who are not church members. And I regularly tell them, “You need to join a church (hopefully mine), in part because you need to be ‘kick-out-able.'” Christians need and want the pressure of the expectations of others. Right next to the clearest New Testament command to go to church is this instruction, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). The flip side of that encouragement is stigma. I want stigma to be attached to uninhibited media consumption in my church. I want to see child and spousal abuse stigmatized. The same goes for a lot of other bad stuff.

Jesus came to heal the sick, of course, and there is a fine line between appropriate stigma on the one hand and gossip or failure to forgive on the other. There’s a man in my church who apparently did something real bad. So bad I don’t know what it is, and so bad that he apologized for it (without giving details) in front of everybody. The church leadership, I presume, did not encourage him to announce his sin precisely because they believed he was repentant and shouldn’t be stigmatized.

But please, fellow church members, don’t let me get away with sin. Put pressure on me. I need it.

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  1. Paul M.

    I agree generally with your point in re the necessity of stigmatizing sin in the sense that we should call sin sin. It’s also worth noting–as I’m sure you would’ve if this had been the first in an extended series of posts on the topic–that it’s vital that stigma stem from a robust appreciation of depravity. I stigmatize others behavior because I know just how similar it is in essence to the desires of my own heart. I plead for others to repent and turn because I am aware of how desperately I need to continually repent and turn.

    Too often, conservative churches do plenty of stigmatizing, but they do so from a place of self-righteousness. It’s the chasm of difference between “Thank God I’m not like other people” (Luke 18:11) and someone who has in the back of their mind, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). As wide as the difference is, it’s insidiously easy to slip into the mindset of the Pharisee. You see a young mother enter church without a ring on her hand and think, “Thank goodness I made better life decisions!” Or the dominant thought in your mind about the homeless looking man in the pew behind you during worship is, “Man, he stinks!”

    Indeed, I think it’s interesting to think about the origins of the word “stigma.” It’s the Greek word for brand or mark. The context was a tattoo, mark, or brand that visually set slaves off from freemen. As such, it was a term of disgrace and denigration. So it is interesting that for Christians the term became associated with the marks on Christ’s hands and feet from the crucifixion. The stigma that once symbolized slavery, death, and defeat now pointed towards freedom, life, and victory in Christ. So when we stigmatize others for their sin, we first ought to be reminded of the brands that once marked our own slavery to sin. And then we ought to look up at the cross and see there etched on Christ’s body the marks he bore for our sin.

    • Mark Ward

      ¶ 1: Fully agreed!

      ¶ 2: An excellent passage to bring up. Agreed again.

      ¶ 3: Beautiful.

      I’ve wrestled a bit with this topic, because as a second-generation conservative I recognize that community expectations set up by people whose hearts were in it can get transmuted by the time you reach the next generation, or the next. The young people in my own church, for example, have inherited a set of expectations about dress and entertainment that they might very well have come up with themselves if they were forced to plant a church without their parents, but we all know there’s a big difference between volunteering to clean the basement for your mom and being told to do so. How a new generation establishes the stigmas it will retain and the latitude it will allow is part of its calling.

      I also feel a lot of grace toward someone whose parents never had any expectations for them and who got messed up as a result; I do feel less grace for a person who did wrong despite knowing better. I think I’m supposed to; it’s part of living in a moral community. But I think I can honestly say that I’ve felt like the publican countless times, and that I am eager to forget “stigmata” if people will repent—just as I hope that people will not hold against me the time I got fired (long story), the various girlfriends that didn’t work out (longer stories), and the angry outburst I had on the ultimate field that one time. I apologized for all of those sins and don’t defend myself in the least. Non-Christian Western culture doesn’t want me to stigmatize anyone in the first place, and antinomian Christian culture wants me to forget the stigmata before people repent—and expect others to accept my sins without my having to apologize. But, for example, I think I owe it to my friend X, and to her ex-husband, not to accept her re-marriage without a hard conversation. 1 Cor. 5:9–13 would seem relevant here.

  2. Paul M.

    Yeah, there’s definitely a different code of conduct for how we ought to relate those who claim the name of Christ while indulging in open, unrepentant sin. In those cases, stigma is an entirely appropriate concept, I think.

    Unfortunately, it’s all too common for churches to stigmatize the unknown visitor while winking at the transgressions of brother or sister (or pastor!) so-and-so.

    • Mark Ward

      I honestly can’t say that’s true from experience watching others. I can say I have felt that temptation myself. I can also say that once I got the “pastor” label, I saw the other side of hypocrisy and unjustified-stigma charges. I’ve met numerous people who were mired deep in sin and yet eagerly rattled off their good deeds and character traits as soon as they found out the position I held. A few of those people actually sort of stuck around in the ministry long enough for their sin to become evident to everyone, and when I confronted them about it, most of them fled. Thankfully, a few have not, but I’ve regularly imagined what those who did leave have said to others: “They’re a bunch of hypocrites. They looked down on me because I didn’t fit in.” I can’t be sure that’s what they’re saying, but when I hear them say that to me about other churches, I often wonder if the hapless pastor or church lady who is the object of their scorn wasn’t trying to do exactly the same thing I’m trying to do.

  3. Tom

    I tell people when they join the church I pastor, “By joining you’re basically saying, ‘I want to follow Jesus so much that if I ever go astray and won’t repent, I want this church to discipline me publicly’ (as per Matthew 18).” Now I have a great way to sum that up: “kick-outable.” Nice! Thank you.
    Biblically joining a church is a self-humbling act, and out here in the Northwestern US I’ve really noticed how it is a test of obedience to Christ. I’ve been in circles where membership was taken for granted, and therefore it almost lost its meaning. (I should probably qualify and say that I took it for granted and that I didn’t really understand its meaning). Not here though!