Defence Against Power Abuse in God's Church (Part 2)
by J and J Maring (in Western Australia)
Before we proceed, we wish to give the reason for writing this both at this time as well as publicly...
From the time we left that church at the end of 1992 there has been much anger directed toward us by many people from our past. It is not unlike a vendetta. A persistent "making sure that we are no longer treated in the same way, we are left out and isolated".
It seems to be moved by a desire to hurt us, and in that it succeeds; it does hurt us. We have been accused of divisiveness and trouble-making in the previous church, unwillingness to heed admonition, refusal to be reconciled. We have lived in the same district all this time and these accusations are a persistent "shadow" over our life, frequently drawn to our attention in one way or another. Often people have warned others not to associate with us. These include people we have never spoken to in our life, who cannot possibly know anything other than hearsay.
There has even been difficulty taking part on Reformed Forums on the Web because one is "no longer on the right side of the track" Happily in these situations there are enough people who will think for themselves and do not first need to check which way the wind is blowing; but it takes the pleasure out of participation.
The statement "you don't go to a true church" is conveyed ad nauseam as well as "you have left the true church", "you have left God" or "you cannot be hearing true preaching", "you are disobedient".
We now feel that aspects of this church are sectarian. This means an "intolerance of views, other than one's own" or "a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his/her own." This reflects in individuals who themselves are sectarian. They "honestly" find it impossible to get away from their ingrained thoughts.
We are so tired of these attitudes and decided that if there was such confidence in these opinions without any enquiry into the truth or otherwise, then it is also reasonable to defend ourselves. Every Christian has a task to test the Spirits.
The events as they happened...
After the "objections" against us surfaced in 1990 and we inquired after them, no more was done for approximately a year because Jenny's health was a problem. There had been numerous years of pain, weariness and surgery, which were finally diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. This end result could never have been anticipated by anyone, but did influence the ability to manage life at home.
John too, strongly felt the strain of managing work and home as well as eldership and then this added pressure, which was entirely unnecessary.
After this "spell" when no one appeared to be having a problem, the Church Council (CC) became involved again. The Pastor "told" us he had "arranged" a meeting at our home "tonight" with the aggrieved church members, plus the Pastor and an elder as witnesses.
We were told there had been a request to have "witnesses". They were afraid to come on their own because of "overwhelming" characteristics they were unable to deal with on their own. The Pastor accepted this as normal.
John was further told that the "matters for discussion" would be told to us at the meeting that night. He refused the meeting, stating it was an unbiblical situation, as the complainants had not spoken to us.
It was quite startling to consider what was happening. An objection had been made. We did not know what it was. We had been told it was a sin not to sort it out. The "party" with the objection did not pursue it for almost 12 months. Then it once more raised its head, but "help" was needed to sort it out. The Consistory representatives were willing to provide the help while they had not yet ascertained that a sin had been committed, and they also were prepared to listen to the "gossip" about the character of one of us, without checking on the truth of this in any way whatsoever. All this while John was serving as elder in good standing.
Although the meeting was refused, the Pastor and elder took it upon themselves to come to our home anyway. The evening was dreadful.
We were provoked and threatened by the Pastor. After this John told the elder he could not come back to the CC, as this situation had become completely unbiblical and outrageous.
This resulted in another visit from two Elders and thankfully we were given an "unconditional" apology on behalf of the CC and they asked John to please continue his eldership. The Pastor was instructed to sort matters out personally with John so he could continue without any obstacle or impediment...
Meanwhile at a visit to the "other" members, many and varied complaints surfaced and an admission that there had been intention to "deal" with one of us because of character faults. This gave cause for alarm at the CC and it was said they were admonished. Some of the criticisms were heeded however and discussed at the CC.
As time moved on, criticism of a "variety" of character faults on Jenny's part found acquiescence at the CC meetings and were reported back to us. Careless comments were even made when John was present, about matters, which "supposedly" happened at the School our children attended. There was no evidence offered or any Scriptural proof.
John was admonished for asking Jenny about these matters. That was talking "outside the CC" (never mind the gossip inside the CC) and disapproved of. John was finding work in the CC progressively depressing and difficult. The joy of it had certainly gone.
Jenny's depression became profound and though there had already been medical intervention, it deepened. The affect of being called a "hindrance", "the cause of sin in others", "overbearing", "and bossy" was devastating.
In an appeal for understanding of her distress she used as an example the text where Jesus tells Peter "get behind me Satan, you are a hindrance to me". It was difficult to understand why this was suddenly happening.
Then in frustration she sent a very angry letter to the CC asking them to please stop this character 'bashing". This came back roundly condemned because of its contents and considered completely lacking in respect for the CC.
The elders maintained that Jenny "was" a hindrance to the church members concerned and was causing them to sin by her character. She asked what she could do about this then. The response was "that is your problem, you will have to change." Despairing this, she withdrew her membership from the church verbally. The Pastor made phone contact and asked for the withdrawal in writing so it could be announced. Expressing dismay at this haste, she was told to "take it back" by the weekend or he would make sure it was announced on the Sunday following. A "call for help" to a different elder resulted in an immediate compassionate visit where it was said this was not a CC decision.
A Pastor from the "Classis" church was also appealed to. He also gave compassionate council and on his advice, the letter was apologized for, the "withdrawal" was taken back, and the grievances rewritten in an "acceptable manner". This letter was never responded to and the grievances never addressed.
The Pastor used the first "bad" letter to demonstrate to Jenny, her various character faults including self-righteousness. A reminder to him that the letter had been apologized for and withdrawn, drew the response that "although there is not a doubt that you regret it, it cannot be undone and will be kept as a testimony, should these traits ever be denied." And indeed it surfaced many months later when the Pastor lent someone his "file" on us.
Meanwhile John "resigned" from the church council, which again met with a harsh response that one cannot resign but must "ask to be relieved." There were further criticisms of him in the letter. John rewrote the letter and apologized for the "resignation part" but expressed pain at the further criticism. The elders disagreed between themselves this time on the right or wrong of the CC.
We were fast starting to care less and less. Our Spiritual life was spiraling downhill and any joy in Worship Services had gone. There was already "awareness" in the congregation that we were getting "special visits" and therefore we were also being avoided by a number of people.
All this is so contrary to the way Jesus taught about it in Scripture. In Math 18: 15 He show us how to sort out an "objection".
See: CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN THE CHURCH by Brian Schwertley (as referred to at the end of part 1). http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/conflict.htm.
What to do?
"If a brother sins..." (i.e., a violation of God's holy law, go and tell him his fault).
The fact that Christ is discussing real sin, an actual violation of God's law is important for two reasons. 1.) It means that Christians should not take offense over personality differences, cultural differences, socioeconomic differences and so on. "Furthermore, there are many rubs and offenses that occur in life that may not be directly the result of sin. Some Christians are offended over trivial matters that are not sins at all. Proverbs 10:12 says: 'Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers a multitude of sins.' Plainly every rub and offense cannot be raised and settled. We must learn in love, to forgive and pass by many slights, annoyances and offenses."1 "Much heart breaking and much needless trouble often comes of 'offenses' which exist only in the imagination. A 'sensitive' disposition is often only another name for someone who is uncharitable, unforbearing, and suspicious of others without real cause. The professing believer who has a judgmental, suspicious spirit often is guilty of imputing bad motives to others where none exist, and of finding sinister--malevolent meanings in the most innocent acts."2 God saves all sorts of people, people who you may think are weird, odd, strange, or whatever. Remember, Christ is talking about sin.
It must be a real sin.
2.) The fact that Christ is talking about real sin means that personal charges against a brother must be objectively proved from the Bible. Here Christ protects believers from legalism, subjectivism and all arbitrary human standards.3 Thus, if you are going to go to your brother and accuse him of sin you better make sure it is a real sin and not some subjective feeling, etc. If someone accuses you of sin and you aren't sure of what you did wrong, ask for scriptural proof. This principle seems rather obvious, yet, it is constantly violated in churches today. People are chided and harassed for many things that have nothing to do with sin and everything to do with legalistic, subjective nonsense. Christ is talking about sin. If offenses are not based on God's law but only upon human opinion or imagination, this should be discovered during the three-step judicial process.
A personal sin.
Third, note that the sin committed is personal, that it is against you (singular). Christ is discussing private offenses and not public sins. If the sin is committed against you alone, or if you observe a brother commit a sin in private, then you are required to keep the matter private and go to your brother, etc. Public sins are handled in a different manner. A sin that is public and known by the whole church requires a public rebuke and repentance.4 The expression against you distinguishes between secret and open sins. John Calvin says: "For if any man shall offend against the whole Church, Paul enjoins that he be publicly reproved, so that even elders shall not be spared; for it is in reference to them that he expressly enjoins Timothy, to rebuke them publicly in the presence of all, and thus to make them a general example to others, (1 Tim v. 20). And certainly it would be absurd that he who has committed a public offense, so that the disgrace of it is generally known, should be admonished by individuals; for, if a thousand persons are aware of it, he ought to receive a thousand admonitions. The distinction, therefore, which Christ expressly lays down, ought to be kept in mind, that no man may bring disgrace upon his brother by rashly, and without necessity, divulging secret offenses."5
Who do you tell it to?
There is a principle gathered from this passage regarding the extent to which the sins of other believers may be discussed with others who have not witnessed any sinful behavior. Unless a sin is of such a gross scandalous nature that makes it an inevitable public scandal (e.g., murder, civil crimes, etc.); then, if a sin is witnessed by a small circle of believers, these believers should deal with the problem privately and not spread the matter before the whole church. "The Bible indicates that a sin ought to be confessed as widely as the sin's direct effects extend (cf. Matt. 18:15ff.)."6 Furthermore, if a sin is committed before two to three people the matter is already at step number two; for there is no need to gather witnesses. If the small group of people cannot achieve reconciliation, they may go directly to the elders of the church.
A second principle or application regarding the personal nature of the offense "against you" regards busybodies. If a Christian overhears a conversation between two believers in which he thinks something offensive was said by one believer to another, it is the person's responsibility to whom the statement was directed to either overlook the matter in love or confront the person who made the statement. The person who overheard the conversation has no business taking offense and spreading the matter around the church when the person to whom the statement was made has not taken offense and would like to drop the matter altogether. If you believe that a brother is covering a sin that is so serious that you think it needs to be dealt with, then go to him privately and discuss it. But Christians who go about the church and meddle in affairs that should not concern them are gossips and busybodies and unnecessarily disturb the peace of Christ's church.
Tell them in private!
Fourth, note the offended brother is to go and confront the brother who sinned alone.7 "You, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone." (vs. 15) This is the first command in our text. This is a divine imperative from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the three-step procedure for dealing with a brother who has committed sin is not optional for believers. These are not suggestions. These are not just words of advice. Every Christian, every elder, every pastor and every church court must strictly obey Christ's instructions. No excuse is acceptable for violating this passage.
The verb (elegxon) translated in various translations as convict, tell, reprove, or show, means to rebuke so as to bring conviction. One is to rebuke or confront with the purpose of bringing sin home to the conscience; to awaken the person to a consciousness of guilt.
One thing important to note regarding Christ's command to go, is that the offended party is responsible to go. You do not wait for the offending brother to come to you. You must seek him out and speak directly to him.8 If you are the one who has been wronged, why does Christ demand that you take the initiative? Because Christian love always regards the welfare of a brother as more important than oneself. Remember, the whole context of our passage is humility and concern for the little ones of the kingdom. Christ has just spoken about the lost sheep and about the need to go to great lengths to rescue the one stray lamb.
How to approach someone?
How are you to approach the sinning brother?
First, you are to approach your brother in a spirit of Christian love and humility.9 You are to go as a physician to a patient or as a Shepherd goes after lost sheep. Philippians 2:3-4: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." You do not go to your brother to punish and humiliate but to help and to save. Receiving personal justice and satisfaction for our hurt feelings takes second place to seeing our brother repent. Any professing believer who takes a gleeful satisfaction in the downfall and public humiliation of other professing Christians is not acting in accordance with the spirit of love, concern, and humility which runs throughout chapter 18.
Second, you are to go and point out your brother's sin in a calm rational manner. You are there to convince, to win over your brother. You will almost certainly not succeed at your task if you lose control of your temper and insult or mock your brother. Acting like an arrogant jerk is not the way to convince anyone. "Christian reproof is an ordinance of Christ for the bringing of sinners to repentance."10 It is not a debating society or contest. Remember, this is your brother for whom Christ died. No matter what he has done, place him above yourself. Do not act in an unseemly manner or in any way that would unnecessarily jeopardize your mission
Third, although our text assumes that actual sin has been committed, no matter how convinced in your own mind of the justice of your cause, you must carefully listen to and weigh your brother's argument. (This assumes of course that he doesn't immediately agree with you and repent.) Christians have been mistaken on many occasions; therefore, you must carefully examine your brother's case. You must consider the possibility that your accusation may be a mistake. Even if you believe that you have an open and shut case, you must give your brother a thorough opportunity to respond. "The one raising the issue must be prepared (have a mind set) to hear new evidence, and show a willingness to give his brother the benefit of the doubt. In effect, he says, 'Here are the data that I have, now let me hear your side of the story.'"11 Colossians 3:12-13: "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do."
Fourth, you are to go alone; that is, in private. Christ has set up a very good rule in His church for His people "that Christians should not speak of our brother's faults to others, 'till we have first spoken about them to that person personally, and privately."12 Proverbs 11:13: "A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter." Proverbs 26:20: "Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases." There are a number of reasons that going alone is the best and most biblical course of action.
Why go in private?
The first reason for reproving your brother in private is to protect the reputation of your brother.13 It is natural for earthly, blood brothers to look out for each other's welfare and to be concerned about each other's reputation. Earthly brothers often go out of their way to squash gossip and rumors that besmirch the reputation of another family member.
As Christians we often fail to recognize the importance and significance of our brotherhood in Christ. Earthly brothers are held together by blood, by parentage. But Christian brothers are one in Jesus Christ, regenerated and brought together by the Spirit of God. Our relationship to each other is spiritual, permanent and is a public testimony of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Speaking of those who clothed, fed and gave water to His people, Jesus said: "Assuredly, I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40). Christ so identifies Himself with His body, the church, that to care for His people is to care for Him; that to persecute His people is to persecute Him; that to ignore the needs of His people is to ignore Him. Thus for believers to ignore Christ's command to go privately to our brother and instead seriously damage his reputation through gossip is a great sin. It shows a lack of love and concern for our brother. You must show more of a concern for the reputation of your brother than even for your own reputation. 1 John 3:14-15: "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Woe unto you Christian if your ignore Christ's command and damage the reputation of your brother for whom Christ died.
Another reason to go to your brother privately is to protect your own reputation. Christians are not infallible. Sometimes Christians are totally wrong concerning the behavior of a brother. Believers have heard things wrong, misunderstood statements and actions and so on. Sometimes Christians have a poor knowledge of God's word and law, and regard things to be sins which are not sins at all. Thus, if you go to your brother privately and discuss the matter and discover that your perception and/or accusation is wrong, then you can ask for forgiveness (if necessary) and reconcile. The issue is settled right there, privately, and no harm of reputation comes to you or your neighbor. If one does not follow Christ's command and spreads false and damaging information around the church about a brother, then whose reputation will be seriously damaged when the truth is discovered? The accuser's! The accuser will suffer a loss of trust and credibility in the congregation. Thus the accuser's ability to admonish others and minister in the body will be curtailed until trust is restored.
A third reason to go to your brother privately is to preserve the peace of the church. Often when accusations are leveled against a brother behind his back and spread throughout the church and the accuser and accused disagree, factions will develop within the church. People have a tendency to take sides in a dispute. When those on opposite sides become heated and obstinate, often the result in a serious schism among the brethren. How many churches have a split because someone did not obey Christ's simple command to go to a brother privately and keep the matter secret? Such divisions often take years to heal. It is a great sin to bring dissension and strife into the body of Christ. Elders have a solemn responsibility to ensure that Christ's instructions are followed. Those who disobey Christ and bring strife and bitterness into the church must be rebuked publicly before all. When church rulers know that Christ's command has been violated and yet do nothing, they are partly to blame for the chaos this brings to Zion. Church courts must insist that Matthew 18:15ff be followed.
Fourth, sins are to be kept private and dealt with immediately in order not to bring reproach on the name of Jesus Christ. Christians are Christ's representatives to the world. They are to set an example before the heathen of the power of Christ to save and sanctify. When professing believers treat each other in a manner inconsistent with the Gospel, the world notices and mocks both Christ and His church. David's murder of Uriah and his adultery with his wife Bathsheba gave "great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme" (2 Sam. 12:14). Calvin says of this verse: "they had their mouths at the ready to curse God and His church. Now we see here that although God hates fornication and every other crime, He values His honor so much that when we expose His name to shame by unbelievers, that it is a much more dreadful sin than any other that we could commit--for unbelievers are just waiting for an opportunity to make fun of true religion, and spit out blasphemies against God, and so crude remarks are on the tip of their tongues, like torches ready to set their rage aflame."14 Therefore, when Christians do not follow Christ's command and act with contempt for their brothers and the church courts, they dishonor Christ by their gross hypocrisy.
Why are you to go to your brother? As noted, you are there to convince your brother of his guilt. You are there to achieve a biblical reconciliation. The passage says: "If he hears you, you have gained your brother." Which means that the erring brother has agreed with you, admitted his sin and that you are now reconciled with your brother. But what constitutes a biblical reconciliation?
Note, whenever sin is involved it is simply not enough to say "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." Jay Adams explains why: "An apology is an inadequate humanistic substitute for the real thing. Nowhere do the Scriptures require, or even encourage, apologizing. To say 'I'm sorry' is a human dodge for doing what God has commanded."15 The biblical response is to say: "Yes, I am guilty. I have sinned against you. Will you forgive me?" The reason that an apology is inadequate when actual sin has occurred is because it does not elicit a proper biblical response. When a Christians admits his guilt and then says: "Will you forgive me?", the Christian who has come to confront him regarding his sin must say: "Yes, I forgive you." This places the ball in his court. He must either explicitly forgive or openly rebel against
When the brother says, "I forgive you," he promises never to bring the matter up against you; never to bring the matter up again to others (even his wife); and never to bring the matter up to himself by dwelling on it and dredging up bitterness, etc.16 This, beloved is biblical reconciliation. Apologies are fine when sin is not involved (e.g., when you accidentally bump into someone at the shopping mall) but they should never be used as a substitute for biblical reconciliation.