Did you hear the one about John Terry and the Archbishop?

By Jonathan Bartley
February 7, 2010

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter yesterday with, amongst others, Ruth Gledhill from The Times.

It followed the comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a press conference, about former England captain John Terry:

"Clearly, a lot of people think there isn't a problem there and that’s a pity because adultery is adultery. It’s a shame that we lost that sense that faithfulness matters. I’d like to see it back," Rowan Williams said.

Ruth wrote a blog about it entitled: 'Archbishop of Canterbury condemns John Terry adultery'. My question to her was why his comments were being interpreted first and foremost as 'condemnation', and whether she would have run a similar headline for Jesus' response in a similar situation?

In the Gospel of John, the religious leaders are recorded as coming to Jesus with a woman who they said had committed adultery. She was being publicly shamed. Appealing to 'God's law', they were asking Jesus for a message of condemnation.

There are of course lots of other dimensions to the story. It is a highly political situation with the religious leaders trying to set a trap for Jesus. The woman is a pawn in their game. (Also, where is the man who was presumably also involved?) But in the midst of it all, Jesus resists their call for a message of condemnation. Instead he turns the spotlight on the accusers, suggesting that they should look at their own failings and shortcomings. He then turns to the woman and specifically says that he doesn't condemn her. He goes on to offer instead a positive message, urging her to go and live in freedom from sin.

Many Christians would undoubtedly consider a church leader to be a bit too liberal if s/he did the same thing today. There seems to be a need for them to hear first the unequivocal condemnation before they can deliver their 'Good News'. Significant parts of the UK media also clearly feel that the church should be taking a more condemnatory line and that this is part of its job in order to deliver 'sound moral guidance'. Others, if not feeling this specifically, are certainly keen to latch onto anything that might be interpreted in such a way. It makes a good headline after all.

Many Christians will also defend their position by making a difference between the sin and the sinner. It is proposed that you can condemn what John Terry did without condemning him. Things of course are never that clear cut. It is also to employ a strange dualism which divorces a person from their actions. (Alien certainly to New Testament understanding, particularly of faith and works being inseparable).

But even if one accepts the dichotomy, Jesus' approach was to do neither. Indeed, he positively resists the calls to condemn. Of course, Jesus believed unfaithfulness was sin. But his concern is not to deliver a moral lesson about adultery. It is to show his genuine love for the woman. He goes out of his way not to single out either the woman, or what the woman has allegedly done. Instead, he suggests to her the path that she should take in the future, so she can turn her life around (in theological terms 'repentance' or 'metanoia' - literally, turning right around and heading in a different direction). She can now live a life of liberation, free from sin, and also the burdens that the religious leaders would place on her. His message really is Good News.

Here ends today's sermon ;)

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