David and I will shortly be going public with the name of a church where we experienced spiritual abuse. Before doing so, I’d like to address some questions I’ve reflected on along the way.
Is it gossip (or libel or slander)?
Full disclosure – while David and I arrive at the same conclusion, we have different ways of getting there. David gives my route the side-eye, so one of these days he may write a post regarding his own thoughts. In the meantime, you’re stuck with mine.
I already knew what the Bible says about gossip. Gossip is bad. Yet I felt compelled to say something about my experience with abusive church leadership, with the goal of helping others avoid the kind of trauma I experienced. In my prayerful ponderings, I wondered if looking up the actual definition of the word “gossip” would be helpful. (This has since become a theme in my writings and research.)
My mind was blown. Webster’s Dictionary defined gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” In other words, gossip is not simply “saying something less-than-positive about another person.” Gossip is not simply “sharing uncomfortable information.” For it to be gossip, it must also be personal and private. The actions of a leader acting in their leadership capacity is hardly a personal or private affair, especially if what is being shared is a first-hand account. As I’ve written before, this knowledge lifted a weight from my shoulders.
This distinction is supported by scripture. The Apostle Paul listened to reports of negative happenings and responded to them with advice instead of admonitions to “not gossip” in 1 Corinthians 1:11 and 5:1. Paul furthermore publicly called out Peter and then went so far as to tell others about how Peter had sinned and was called out (Galatians 2:14). The Apostle John also wrote negative reports that made their way into scripture, naming specific individuals and specific churches in 3 John 9-10 and Revelation 3:1-3, respectively. Jesus himself said negative things about people all the time (Matthew 23, anyone?), yet we can hardly accuse him of gossip.
Returning to David and I for a moment, there is actually information we don’t share in our coming story, either regarding things we don’t have first-hand knowledge of or that would reveal private information about the person named that we don’t think is appropriate to share. Just in case you were wondering.
And just to round out the topic, libel is writing something false about someone, and slander is speaking something false about someone. They key idea here for both words is false. If what I am reporting is not false, to the best of my knowledge, it is neither libel nor slander.
For further reading and reflection, Rebecca Davis has written extensively about the topic in pieces such as If Someone Offends Me, Should I Not Talk About It?
Have we forgiven?
I think so. To be sure, forgiveness is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. But I don’t wish ill on the person most directly addressed in our forthcoming post. Frankly, I think more harm is being done to him long term by enabling his pattern of sinful behavior of deception and unrepentant, unrighteous anger than in bringing attention to his actions. I don’t wish him to be personally destroyed. I wish him a long, happy life full of the knowledge of God’s grace and a long, happy career… as a realtor. Or programmer. Or HVAC technician. Just NOT as a pastor, given his proclivities toward abuse of power. If someone abuses alcohol, you don’t give them a job as a sommelier, for their own good as much as everyone else’s. If someone abuses power, you don’t give them a job as a senior pastor, for their own good as much as everyone else’s.
In fact, we have deliberately not used his last name, which is rather unique, in our story. That way if he does come to his senses and repent, it won’t show up so easily on Google and haunt him in his new career as a realtor/programmer/HVAC technician/etc.
As irritated as I can get in recounting our story, I feel mostly pity for the person we write about. In a sense, he is a victim of celebrity church culture and is trying so hard to be the next John Piper that he’s missing out on growing the unique talents God gave him. And that is a shame.
Are we following Matthew 18?
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.Matthew 18:15-17
The simple answer here is yes. As you will see, we tried approaching the individual personally and were either dismissed or verbally attacked. You will also see instances where multiple people approached him, including one of his own elders, and nothing was resolved. So, we’re now taking it to the church, as best we know how.
I would add the caveat that treating someone as “a pagan or a tax collector” does not mean shunning or seeking to metaphorically destroy them. The same Jesus who said the above words also told the parable of the Good Samaritan, called a reformed tax collector to be one of the Twelve, and had a reputation for spending time with sinners and tax collectors. Treating someone as a pagan or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting them completely out of our lives.
However, Jesus also did not put unrepentant, unreformed pagans and tax collectors in position of spiritual leadership over others.
There is also the argument to be made that the Matthew 18 process is not the most appropriate process to follow when a pastor or spiritual leader engages in false teaching. In Galatians, Paul recounts what he did when discovering that Peter was acting hypocritically and even leading others astray. “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter] in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'” (Galatians 2:14, emphasis added). Paul confronted Peter, a leader acting hypocritically in his leadership capacity, in front of a group of others, who no record of having approached Peter individually. With no record of having approached Peter with one or two other witnesses. As far as we can tell, Paul confronted Peter in front of the entire local gathering of believers, in front of the entire local church, without having first approached Peter individually.
Just something to think about.
If you don’t trust your spiritual leaders, you’re not trusting God.
This is not actually something I’ve asked myself. But it’s something I heard a member of the church we are naming say in casual conversation, so I’d like to address it here.
There are any number of verses that encourage believers to trust their leaders. And when taken in the context of the entirety of scripture, we see that this is not to be a blind trust, but an earned trust. We can look, for example, at Hebrews 13.
Trust in your leaders. Put yourselves under their authority. Do this, because they keep watch over you. They know they are accountable to God for everything they do. Do this, so that their work will be a joy. If you make their work a heavy load, it won’t do you any good.Hebrews 13:17
Sounds pretty black-and-white. Trust your leaders, put yourselves under their authority, and make their work light.
But what happens when we look a few verses earlier in this very same chapter?
Remember your leaders. They spoke God’s word to you. Think about the results of their way of life. Copy their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Don’t let all kinds of strange teachings lead you astray.Hebrews 13:7-9a
Notice that the leaders whom the Hebrew believers are encouraged to trust are those whose lives have demonstrated their faith. Who have earned the trust of their followers by speaking God’s word and not leading astray with strange teachings. And the only way to tell whether a teaching is strange or not is to test it.
We see this in play with the Berean Jews, who are praised as having “more noble character” and “examined the Scripture every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, emphasis added). They are praised for testing the words of even the Apostle Paul himself and not blinding following.
In contrast, look at Jesus’s words to his disciples when they ask him about the Pharisees.
Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.Matthew 15:14
Scripture contains any number of references to false shepherds, priests, prophets, and teachers in both the Old and New Testaments. Nowhere, that I have been able to find, does Scripture praise those who trust and follow a spiritual leader blindly, simply for the sake of them being a leader. In fact, Jesus frequently saved some of his harshest words for spiritual leaders who were leading people astray, as evidenced by Matthew 23.
In Ezekiel, immediately after a lengthy condemnation of false prophets, Ezekiel recounts how God told him that idolaters are also condemned.
When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the Lord will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.Ezekiel 14:4-5
While I would agree that it is healthy to trust a spiritual leader who has earned that trust and continues to demonstrate that they are acting in good faith, I would caution that we not place a spiritual leader in the place of God. Because that is making them an idol, a practice that is also roundly condemned in scripture.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Please feel free to comment below!