Airing Dirty Church Laundry
February 21, 2016
Most pastoral situations involving sin are quite complex. For example, when someone tells me about a person who got a divorce and then they proceed to ask me whether I think there were biblical grounds, I almost always refuse to answer the question. Even slam-dunk cases are sometimes not as simple as they appear.
Anyone who deals regularly with sinful habits, practices, etc., knows better than to quickly speak to hypotheticals or events that one has not been personally involved in. Time and time again I've learned (sometimes the hard way) that "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him" (Prov. 18:17).
Those who feel the insatiable desire to (often) publicly discuss on the internet the sins of another minister or church or presbytery, might want to consider that they are putting themselves in the dangerous position of mis-stating, misunderstanding, or misleading others. You could be causing others to sin by presenting a biased case against someone whereupon others take on that negative assessment.
As a Presbyterian, I confess to being a little bit annoyed at the manner in which the internet can be used to conduct trials, witch-hunts, etc., where ministers and presbyteries are involved. We have mechanisms for dealing with sin in our Presbyterian church government. It isn't perfect, but at least we have a process that tries to take seriously the "peace and purity" of the church.
Before I left for South Africa recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the Pacific Northwest Presbytery and after I returned I was in Toronto speaking at the Eastern Canada Presbytery. After speaking with a lot of ministers at each Presbytery, I was left even more persuaded that this is where a lot of issues can be dealt with carefully, patiently, and biblically. Sometimes ministers do make mistakes, but at least with our system of government they are able to defend themselves in person before their accusers.
I am not suggesting we can't speak to general principles of how ministers and churches ought to act. But once we enter into a specific situation, involving specific people and churches, we might wish to consider whether reading or writing accounts online is really wise or helpful. If we must speak, it should be based on objective facts: e.g., a minister is deposed by presbytery.
There's also the important (but often neglected) fact that a minister in good standing in a Presbytery ought to be treated with a certain honor - though not a blind eye - because of his office (Rom. 13:7). There are ways and mechanisms for dealing with what might be the sinful practices and habits of men in office, but an internet trial, where no ecclesiastical courts are involved, does not seem to me to be one of the better consequences of online discourse.
I believe we can properly critique the ideas or theology of theologians and ministers without compromising the commands of Matthew 18. But, Matthew 18 does give us guidelines where we think sin has taken place. If we air dirty laundry (i.e., sinful acts), we are accusing others of sin and we are looking for repentance. If that is the case, a certain order needs to be followed.
If you really must read something which indicts a minister or presbytery, always keep in mind that the narrative being described may likely be missing key details and facts.
As Christians we are to love the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are grieved when a brother sins, which ruptures fellowship with God and the saints. Are we happy when an enemy falls (Prov. 24:17)?
In our interactions with erring brothers, our goal is to see them restored with God and the body. Jesus gives us clear principles: we go to the brother and make our appeal. There are concentric circles of restorative confrontation, and the emphasis is on the word "restorative."
The problem with "airing dirty" laundry is that it is anti-Christ. That is to say, it rejects the clear teaching of Christ himself. It doesn't aim to restore the erring brother or build up the body. It seeks to tear down, incite the masses, and encourage factions. To make matters worse, it can establish the masses as the court of final appeal. On this approach, the readers of the blog, etc., function as the "church" in Matt. 18:17. But how can the masses restoratively confront the erring brother? How can they care for his soul?
Finally, there is issue of the spirit with which we confront the sinner. Paul encourages the Spirit-indwelt believers to restore the sinning brother gently (Gal. 6:1). How can that happen over the internet? How can that happen when there is no face-to-face contact? How can that happen when you've never met the sinner? I'm not saying it is impossible, but I might not be wrong in saying it is unlikely. So, where there are issues of sin - not issues of theological disagreement - we have to think carefully and biblically about what we decide to air on the internet.