A very bad experience I once had in trying to put Matthew 18:15-17 into practice

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it

A wronged believer might seek to carry out Jesus’ commands, but he will not get very far.  The structure of most churches will not allow him to do what Jesus said.  Even if he tried it, he would be thwarted by the system itself and by the leaders.  I speak from personal experience of this.  Some years ago I went to see ‘Rick’, the leader of the church I was then part of.  I was actually the Chairman of the Trustees of that church and he was the main full time, paid leader. 

I had become increasingly concerned about the way Rick was operating.  He was getting a well-deserved reputation within the town for being worldly, carnal and dishonest.  However, I got absolutely nowhere in trying to raise these issues.  The entire system obstructed me instead of helping me.  My own experience on that occasion of attempting each of the stages of Matthew 18 was as follows:

Stage One

When I spoke to the leader privately, one to one, he rejected what I had to say to him, even though it was all true and fully documented.  Instead of facing the real issues, Rick attacked me for raising them.  He then set about telling lies about me within the church to prevent me from being able to take matters any further.

He deliberately ‘got in first’ to stop me being listened to or believed by other people.  He did it all very craftily, partly because he was so dishonest, but also because he had had a lot of practice at handling such complaints and challenges.  He had already had substantial previous experience at doing this with others who had tried to complain before.

Stage Two

I saw the leader him again, this time with two witnesses present.  But he lied brazenly, in front of them, about what was happening.  Amazingly, when the two witnesses left, Rick then openly admitted to me that he had been lying to them about it.  When I asked why he had lied to them, he just shrugged his shoulders and said: “Well, I had to defend myself“.

Unfortunately, the two witnesses were of no use at all.  They were concerned only with trying to smooth things over and were not sufficiently robust or vigorous.  Indeed, they weren’t robust at all, as Rick knew very well.  If they had been, he would never have allowed them to get involved.  So, they did not actually want to tackle anything, for fear that it would create some unpleasantness or controversy for themselves.  Thus they may as well not have been there at all.

Stage Three

I wasn’t even permitted to implement stage three and bring it to the whole church (over 200 people).  The leadership team didn’t want me to, despite it being commanded in Matthew 18.  I now know why.  Some of them were behaving very carnally and dishonestly themselves.  They didn’t, therefore, want any of these facts about the leader, or themselves, to come out.

Had such information been allowed to come out to the membership, a lot of people, who already had growing concerns of their own, would have been able to see the wider picture.  They would have ‘joined the dots together’ and realised that there was a consistent pattern of behaviour and of covering things up.  The leaders as a whole were not willing to risk any of that becoming known.

I was by no means the first to tackle Rick.  There had been several people beforehand with similar concerns.  Many had already left the church quietly in the past, without any of the other members getting to know why they had left or the matters which they had raised before leaving. 

Instead, on each occasion, false explanations for these departures were given out by Rick.  They always seemed to make sense.  He found a way, every time, to put the blame on those who had left and the members always believed him.  Moreover, the leaders also used to make earnest sounding pleas to the remaining members not to ‘gossip’ or not to ‘believe anything said about an elder’ etc. 

It was all said very insincerely, just to stop people asking questions.  However, it worked.  These deliberate lies and tactics prevented the wider membership from believing, or even speaking to, those who had expressed concerns.  I didn’t realise any of this till later.  Then, when my turn came, I thought I was the first, and only, one ever to have any concerns.  So did all the others who had tried to tackle Rick before I did.

Stage Four

The leaders had already skipped stage three, and they completely avoided stage four as well.  Rick himself remained a member of the church and he even continued as the leader.  Nothing was done to confront him or to expose him.  Instead of the elders discussing his misconduct with the whole membership of the church, Rick himself spoke to two leaders of separate churches in the town.  However, they were both his friends.

He then arranged for them to see me to discuss my concerns or, more accurately, to pacify me and get me to be quiet.  Just like the two people from within the church who had acted as witnesses/mediators, these two external leaders had no real wish to deal with anything.  They were not willing to do anything robust or decisive, which might cause them to get their hands dirty.  In particular they were nor willing to confront Rick about any of his behaviour.  All they wanted was to “resolve matters amicably“. 

However, what they really meant by that was just meant to sweep it all under the carpet and stop it from being spoken about any longer.  There was not just a lack of appetite to tackle the real issues.  They were absolutely determined not to tackle any of it, and to prevent me from doing so either.  

In their own way, these two external leaders were kindly people.  To a certain extent they meant well, albeit in a weak and misguided sort of way.  However, they were never going to be willing to grasp any nettles or tackle anything head on.  Their only aim was to calm things down.

Above all, they wanted to protect the interests, and the career, of Rick, their fellow leader, no matter what he may have done.  It was more like trade unionism, where a couple of shop stewards are protecting a fellow shop steward, regardless of whether he is right or wrong. 

I actually put that point to one of the external leaders, i.e. that they were acting like a trade union for leaders, rather than as a church.  He smiled nervously and agreed with me, but then shrugged, as if to say “What else can we do?  We’ve got to stick together“.  I had put my finger right on the truth and he couldn’t deny it.

I was so naive at that time that all of this deceit, evasion and scheming was shocking to me.  I could hardly bring myself to believe that leaders in our own church, and other churches, could act so wrongly, and without any apparent concern about what Jesus thought of them.  They seemed to have no fear of God and no wish to do what Jesus said in Matthew 18. 

Neither did they want to cooperate with me to enable me to do what Jesus said.  Had I not been such an assertive and professionally qualified person, I would never have even got past stage one.  It was exceptional to have got that far.  Nobody before me had ever done so.  Many others had tried to tackle this leader before me, but they had all achieved even less than I did. 

In the end it had a very sad ending.  Rick wasn’t able to keep up appearances much longer after his clash with me.  Within a year or so, he had totally given up church leadership, left his wife, and found another woman.  Also one of the other members of the senior leadership team, whom I will call ‘Peter’ left his wife as well.  He was the main one who had opposed me and who had so stridently obstructed my questions about the leader. 

It also came out later that Peter himself had been having an affair, for a long time, even while he was on the senior leadership team.  It then made sense as to why Peter had shouted me down when I had raised the issue of the senior leader’s carnal lifestyle.  It was all too close to home for him.  In particular, he didn’t want to allow this Matthew 18 process to lead to any questions being asked about himself.  

So, all the attempts that various church leaders had made over many years, to cover things up achieved nothing good.  It just caused more damage and even more people got hurt.  It would be good if I could say that my experience was exceptional and that this kind of thing doesn’t happen elsewhere, or to anybody else. 

Sadly, I can’t say that.  It is actually close to being the norm. I have since come to learn, from many other people, that they have had very similar experiences all over the country.  It is by no means a merely local problem.

In fact, several years later, I left another church as a result of the leader’s behaviour.  I did so because it came to light that that leader’s character was also seriously flawed.  His conduct was controlling, manipulative and deceptive.  However, this time, once I had realised what was going on, I did not even attempt to implement the Matthew 18 procedure. 

I took no steps to do anything about it, other than to telephone the deputy leader of the church to say that we were leaving.  I also wrote a private letter to the leader, and his deputy, explaining my concern.  Again, it got me absolutely nowhere.  The leader just sent back a brazen and evasive reply ignoring all my points.  The deputy leader of that church did nothing to assist either. 

He just got annoyed with me for being “unhelpful” and for writing a “critical letter”, even though it was private and was sent only to the leader and to him.  As was the case when I tackled Rick, they both saw the person who was raising the concerns as being the problem, not the person about whom those concerns were being expressed.  That is a very typical response.

On this second occasion I largely kept out of it, having learned my lesson the previous time.  However, three other families who were members of that second church made a valiant attempt to deal with the issues.  It lead, curiously, to two leaders from another local church being invited in, supposedly to “mediate”. 

It was all remarkably similar to what had happened in my own case, some years earlier.  In the same way as before, all that these two external “mediators” wanted to achieve was to smooth things over and to get people to be quiet.  Again, there was no attempt to genuinely address any of the character issues, or behavioural problems, in the life of that leader. 

This second episode happened years later, in a different church, and in a different town. Yet, the techniques, used and the attitudes and approach adopted were all startlingly familiar.  I have set out the brief facts of those two separate church disputes for two reasons:

a) Firstly, to enable me to explain the issues of forgiveness which arose out of it, i.e. my own need to forgive the leaders who had wronged me, plus the other leaders.  Their half-hearted intervention had served only to cover things up. They obstructed the proper Matthew 18 process, rather than helping to implement it.

b) Secondly, to consider why it is so difficult even to discuss, let alone resolve, disputes within a church.  If it isn’t operating in a biblical way then genuine, meaningful attempts to deal with disputes between Christians are usually impossible.  The unbiblical structure, and the worldly and carnal model of leadership, which has now become the norm, will not permit it.  Moreover, that obstruction is generally deliberate, not accidental.  Allowing such things to be openly discussed and dealt with within a church is too dangerous in their view.  Far too much is at stake for them personally, in terms of careers, salaries, houses and pensions, not to mention ego and pride.  Therefore they simply don’t let it happen.

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