What does Scripture say you are to do when you have a criticism or complaint against another in the church? When you have been offended or insulted or slandered or otherwise possess any semblance of cause for concern?
The world gives you a world of options. You can take your tale to Twitter or Facebook, gather your closest friends to vent over a Venti Caramel Macchiato, shout it from the rooftops, or even silently stew until you harbor a boatload of bitterness.
The world gives you lots of options. But God gives you two:
- You can overlook the offense.
- Or you can go directly to the source by speaking personally to the person against whom you have criticisms, concerns or complaints.
That is absolutely it. We make things too difficult. God makes it so easy. Not that it is easy to actually do, but it is certainly easy to know what to do. We simply don’t like to do it.
Every offense or complaint or criticism falls under these two options: overlook the offense or engage the offender directly.
First, let’s consider overlooking the offense.
Some things simply are not worth dealing with or discussing. Someone steps on your toe or fails to wave in the parking lot or does something really small and out of character or acts within their rights in a way that offends your preferences. Let it go.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)
The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. (Proverbs 17:14)
Most of the offenses in church could probably best be handled by simply giving the benefit of the doubt and overlooking the offense. Knowing when to overlook is hard. Some people never overlook anything while others overlook everything as the Corinthians did even in the case of blatant and egregious sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Still, some things are not worth dying for or fighting for and are best handled by letting go.
But sometimes an offense cannot be overlooked. Depending on the frequency or severity of the offense, a conversation may be necessary and reconciliation or repentance or restitution must be made. In such a case, you have one—and only one—option. Go to the source.
We hate that option. We want to talk to another who can talk to the offender. We want to talk to a pastor to rebuke a fellow member or talk to a fellow member about a pastor. We want to share a critique cloaked as a prayer request. We want to involve others because gossip tastes good.
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. (Proverbs 18:8)
Although a host of passages could be mentioned, two of the loudest are on the lips of Jesus.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
Notice not only the immediacy (leaving a gift at the altar), but also the obligation and importance. As the Old Testament states that God desires mercy over sacrifice, so Jesus is saying here that horizontal mercy between brothers should take precedent over any other religious obligation. This doesn’t mean that you don’t ever offer the gift, but simply that you do so when first reconciled with your brother.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15–20)
Notice the escalating pattern beginning with a person and private conversation. Bear in mind that these are not self-help words of encouragement or a suggestion that is generally helpful or even a generally true proverbial saying. This is a command of Scripture and is therefore authoritative, and wise, and good.
Is Personal and Private Confrontation Absolute and Universal?
Now, there are two exceptions that bear mentioning and I hate to even mention them because some might try to squeeze themselves between the cracks even when they don’t fit, but I think they are legitimate exceptions and worthy of consideration.
First, is the case of something like a critique of a public publication. For instance, if a pastor of another church posts a sermon or article or publishes a book in which they make false statements, you may have the right to respond publicly without first approaching that pastor directly. But that is generally not the case if you have a personal relationship with the pastor or he is your own pastor, etc. See D.A. Carson’s article for a biblical rationale of this exception regarding such things in the public sphere.
Second, there is a potentially extenuating circumstance in cases of legitimate fear of physical danger. For instance, a child or spouse who is being physically abused might have neither the opportunity nor responsibility to go directly to his or her abuser. That said, this doesn’t mean that fear itself is an extenuating circumstance. The fear of losing a friend or being ridiculed or something of that nature is not a valid ground for circumventing Christ’s command. But, when there is actual reason to believe that there is real physical danger, it is likely best to seek godly biblical counsel before attempting any reconciliation.
That being said, such extenuating circumstances are extremely rare and represent such a small percentage of actual criticisms or complaints. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we are commanded and compelled to go directly to the source.
Benefits of Going to the Source
This is not bad news and should not be discouraging. This command approach is actually wise, and good, and loving. Below are four reasons that we should walk accordingly:
1. GOING TO THE SOURCE IS OBEDIENT TO THE DEMANDS OF SCRIPTURE.
First and foremost, this is what the Lord commands.
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives us the definitive and final answer when it comes to someone who has sinned against us. How much more should we follow this pattern when the issue is not even actual sin, but just hurt feelings? If we are not granted the right to gossip or slander when we are actually injured, how much less right do we have when we simply perceive an offense?
But what if he won’t listen? The Bible makes provision for that, but we can’t simply skip a step— lest we disobey Christ.
When should we do so? Matthew 5:23-24 tells us to do so immediately.
2. GOING TO THE SOURCE SEEKS THE TRUTH AND FACTS RATHER THAN FALLIBLE FEELINGS.
Years ago, a rumor started that I had baptized my daughter. I had not. She was about six months old at the time and I am a staunch believer in believer’s baptism; but, the rumor spread nonetheless. I was shocked and hurt and frustrated. But mostly I was grieved. Grieved that someone made up the rumor and grieved that it had circulated to any degree at all without anyone actually ever asking me or even rebuking me for what would have been a betrayal of our church’s convictions.
When you feel as though another has offended you, there are two possibilities. First, the person could have actually done so. Second, you could have misunderstood. But which is it? By going to the source, you have the opportunity to actually figure out which is true and truth should always be our pursuit.
In talking directly to the person who has offended you, they can either repent for their sin or you can repent of false accusations or you can both laugh at a simple misunderstanding, but none of that can happen without discussion.
3. GOING TO THE SOURCE IS THE MOST LOVING RESPONSE TO YOUR FELLOW BROTHER OR SISTER.
Beyond being commanded by Christ, going directly to the source is commended as an act of love. Love seeks the good of others. A parent who refuses to rebuke their kid is not acting in love, and neither is a brother or sister who ignores the responsibility to approach another.
Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5–6)
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. (Proverbs 9:8–9)
If you care at all for those in the church, then you will speak the truth to them, even when doing so is hard. If you don’t care for those in the church, you have bigger issues than this blog can tackle.
4. GOING TO THE SOURCE IS THE MOST LOVING WAY TO MAINTAIN THE UNITY OF THE BODY.
The evangelical highways are littered on every side with church splits and disunity and divisiveness that begins with a few words whispered in a hallway or classroom or living room.
But the Spirit is passionate about unity (see Ephesians 4:1-6 25-32 for example). The repetition is hardly redundant; we need to be constantly reminded that this is not only the ideal, but also the expectation for a church in which the Spirit of unity and peace dwells.
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. (Proverbs 26:20–22)
Christians know that gossip is sinful. And yet we do it. Why? Partly because we still wrestle with the residue of sin. We don’t yet hate gossip as we should. But I would argue that some of the problem lies in the fact that we don’t have a complete definition of gossip. We have defined it as something smaller than what it really is. Like the person who would never “steal,” but has no problem skimming off the top of his expense report or taxes, perhaps many of us have misidentified our actions in favor of a cleaner name.
So, what is gossip? Gossip does not just involve slander or the spreading of lies. It often involves the spreading of true information. Gossip doesn’t even have to come from a desire to hurt the person against which you are talking. Lots of gossip happens in genuine prayer groups where part of the legitimate motivation is to help the one about whom you are talking. So if it isn’t restricted to what is false or what is intended to harm, how might we define it. I think it is best described as any potentially derogatory information shared by someone or to someone who is not directly involved in either the problem or the solution.
There are times to share personal info, to be sure. If a friend confesses an affair to you and refuses to confess to his spouse, you eventually have not only the right but the responsibility to lovingly share that information with her. If someone confesses a murder, you should call the cops— likewise, if someone is having thoughts of suicide or something of that nature. The point is not that there is never a time to share personal information, but that the circle should always be kept as small as possible and should only involve those who are directly involved in the situation and/or who are directly involved in helping to resolve it.
So, what should we do if someone shares a concern or complaint or criticism with us about someone else? First and foremost we should ask if they have already brought up that concern with the offending party. If the answer is no, then we lovingly rebuke the person who brought the concern to us and encourage them to have the conversation with the concerned party. If the answer is yes, then we can dive in and see if there might be need to escalate the concern. But what we cannot do is indulge the criticism or concern or even simply ignore it. In such cases we must be peacemakers in reminding the person of their biblical obligation to take their concerns directly to the source for their own joyful obedience, the good of the church, and the sanctification of the one about whom they have concerns.
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:20)