Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Like Sharks in the Water?

For some unfathomable reason, this question has been on my mind lately: How are we, as Christians, to respond to leaders who are guilty of wrongdoing and are also unrepentant?

Do we, as many will do, wink and nod and maintain the status quo? Maybe the leader in question is a best-selling author or a trendy conference speaker in high demand. Is he a guest on national radio and television broadcasts? Perhaps he’s the pastor of a large church, which donates large sums of money to good and Godly programs. Popularity trumps just about anything else in today’s Church, after all.

Or do we, as many will do, circle like sharks who’ve caught a sniff of blood in the water, seeking every opportunity to rip out another hunk of flesh? Should we pounce on weakness like a cat on a mouse? Do we dispense with any mercy or compassion at all? Do we shoot our own wounded?

Luckily, we do not have to figure out the answers to such questions, because God has given us a Bible. And, in that Bible, He has given us instructions as to exactly what we are to do.

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. (1 Timothy 5:19-21)

First, we are given a standard of proof for establishing the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any accusation. This standard of proof, “By two or three witnesses,” is the same standard taught throughout the Bible. (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16) The proof required to establish a charge against a leader in the church is neither more nor less rigorous then the standard of evidence required for establishing a finding of wrongdoing against anyone. Indeed, an accusation against anyone is nothing to be taken lightly. Evidence, weighed by established rules of evidence, must be required to confirm any allegation. If the evidence is insufficient, then the accusation must be dismissed. But what do you do if the data supports the charge?

While the procedures are virtually identical, Matthew 18:15-20 gives us more of a step-by-step detailed procedure then does 1 Timothy 5:19-21. It is likely that Paul expected Timothy, who “from childhood” had “known the sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:14), to be familiar with Biblical rules of evidence, and rightly so.

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matthew 18:15)

This process that Jesus laid out assumes that you have the knowledge that your brother has indeed sinned. You have looked into the evidence, asked the tough questions, established the facts for yourself, and are convinced that there is sin that needs to be confronted.

Seek out the sinning brother in private, and confront him with his sin. This is, for many, the most difficult part. It is easy to snipe and backbite and feed the gossip machine, but it is hard to confront someone to their face. But it must be done. If we love someone, we tell them the truth, even knowing that the truth will cause pain, embarrassment, or worse.

If the Holy Spirit uses your confrontation to bring repentance, that’s great. You will most likely now need to come along side and lend support during the process of restoration and reconciliation. But if there is no repentance, it is time to move on to the next step.

"But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. (Matthew 18:16)

In the next step, you confront him again, but this time you bring one or two other people with whom you have shared both your concerns and your evidence. Face it, at this point you have assumed the role of a prosecutor who needs to make his case, and you now need to make the case to other people.

By now having to convince others of the conclusions that you have already reached, you are also giving someone else the opportunity to fact-check you and to possible keep you from going off half-cocked and bringing false accusations. For this reason, you want to approach people known for integrity and fairness. If you can now convince two impartial people of the brother’s wrongdoing, then you again confront your brother as a group.

"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)

And now we’re back where we began, with Paul’s instructions to Timothy about how he should handle accusations brought to him as an elder in the church. First, if the person bringing the accusation has not taken the required steps to establish the facts, the church elder should not receive the accusation. Second, the elder should examine the evidence for himself as well as verifying that the sinning brother has already been confronted privately. Third, the elder would be wise to confront the sinning individual privately himself, and offer another chance for repentance, before taking it to the church as a whole.

But, “Those who continue in sin,” are to be rebuked “in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Once rebuked before the church, if he still remains unrepentant, he is to be shunned (intentionally avoided) and denied the fellowship of the church until and unless he repents. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one… Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)

Now, at every level, as the circle of people who are “in the know” widens, each person does not have to start over and confront the sinning brother privately. They are certainly not commanded not to. They can, if they so desire and think it might be useful, but they are not required to. When it reaches the level that the elders are required to rebuke the sinner in front of the whole church, everybody in the church doesn’t have to then go privately to the individual and say, “I understand that you’re sinning. You need to repent.” (Although, that might just have quite an impact, now that I think about it. Imagine a line of people out his front door, waiting to confront him…)

Finally, Paul tells Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”

Be fair about this. On the one hand, you don’t believe everything bad that you hear about someone just because you think he’s a jerk and you don’t really like him anyway. He might very well be a jerk, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of what he’s charged with.

By the same token, you don’t stretch the benefit of the doubt totally out of all reasonable proportion just because the accused is your golf buddy. In the case of a pastor, elder, deacon, or other leader in the church, he may have done your wedding, or baptized your kids. He may have even baptized you. You still need to accept that he might be guilty as charged, and follow the evidence, and not your feelings.

In Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus says that, if we follow His instructions, then our actions will be confirmed in heaven. (No, these verses are not about prayer meetings…pfft!) And it is no accident that the very next section of Matthew deals with Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35), as the whole goal of all of this is to bring the sinning brother to repentance and restoration with the church, the fellowship of believers.

This is the way that the Bible tells us that discipline in the church is to be maintained. Frankly, we don’t follow this near enough. My question to you is, if you are aware of allegations of transgression, what are you doing about it? Are you obeying the scriptures?

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