As Christian leaders have defended Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson over this past couple of months and President Donald Trump over this past couple of years, one is reminded of . . . the opioid epidemic.
The connection may not be obvious at first, but it’s an instructive one.
The New Yorker recently ran an article exposing the tactics of Purdue Pharma, a privately owned company best known for producing OxyContin in 1995, the most popular form of the opium-derived drug oxycodone. OxyContin was originally developed as a long-lasting narcotic that could help patients suffering from moderate to severe pain, especially after surgical procedures. What it became, however, under the relentless and ruthless marketing of Purdue Pharma, was a “treatment” for all sorts of maladies.
OxyContin is one of the most egregious examples of what is known in medical circles as “off-label prescribing.” This is practice of using a drug that has been officially approved to treat a certain problem in a certain population in a certain way for something else: for an unapproved problem or in an unapproved age group, dosage, or mode of administration. Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be prescribed this way and often to good effect by knowledgeable physicians. But in the wrong hands applied to the wrong situations, the drugs can have baleful effects quite different than originally intended.
OxyContin is one of those drugs, of course, as is fentanyl—originally formulated as a veterinary painkiller for large animals. These and similar drugs have ruined many, many lives because they are not being used as intended. They instead are being exploited for illegitimate and harmful use by people who ought to know better.
This brings us to the theological defenders of Patterson, Trump, et al.
Over and over again, these religious leaders have taken beautiful and potent gifts of God and misapplied them to disastrous effect. Grace, forgiveness, humility, sympathy, forbearance, patience—all of these are great benefits of the gospel and of loving treatment of each other in difficult times. But in situations of gross sin, they are to be applied to the right people, in the right circumstances, in the right way.
Normally, according to the great spiritual tradition of the church, a person sins and then is reproved by the Holy Spirit speaking through another person, or the hearing of Scripture, or conscience, or some other way. The sinner then feels compunction, the piercing of the soul in recognition of one’s action, and, if all goes well, responds with repentance.
So far, so good. As the repentant sinner is then assured of the good news of God’s forgiveness, he accepts it gratefully in faith. What must follow, however, is proper response on the basis of that grateful faith: repair and restitution of what he has taken from his victims, reconciliation with those he has hurt, and amendment of life to avoid sinning again.
When this pattern is followed, the community can rejoice and offer a graceful, sympathetic embrace of a fellow sinner in restored good fellowship.
This is not the pattern we have seen, however, from the likes of Robert Jeffress, Richard Land, and others who have defended both Patterson and Trump.
Instead, we have heard equivocation instead of exhortation over what is obviously wrong. We have seen sympathy expressed for the perpetrator, but not his victims. We have watched forgiveness offered without repentance.
It is bad enough to say true things at a wedding, or a funeral, and have them harm the very people one is supposed to be helping: “Yeah, marriage is often really terrible” or “This will all work out for the best—you’ll see!” Well-meaning laypeople who don’t know better can hurt instead of heal.
But when spiritual doctors are applying good theological principles in a bad way to evil effect—the exoneration of the guilty, the marginalizing of the innocent—when they are, in fact, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted…then those physicians of the soul are guilty of malpractice. Their off-label use of great gospel truths should be named as such. And they should be brought up on charges of wilful professional failure and disciplined by the appropriate body.
I say none of this from a position of spiritual superiority. I have sinned, sometimes badly, and have reached too quickly for the balm of forgiveness to soothe my anguish as I confronted my crimes. I have gladly self-medicated, so to speak, using my theological training to reduce and even excuse the wrongs I have done.
Fortunately, I have family and friends who have insisted I behave otherwise. They have helped me take the longer, harder regimen of repentance, receipt of forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and rehabilitation.
My prayer is that Dr. Patterson and President Trump will have such people around them, and that they will listen to their helpful, healthful counsel instead of the dangerous off-label advice, the cheap and detrimental “grace,” of the Jeffresses and Lands, the false physicians.