My wife and I have just emerged from a very difficult season in dealing with our former pastor and elders in a Matthew 18 process. This process now being concluded, moving forward it is our sincere burden to bring to the forefront a rarely discussed topic, especially in baptist circles – even Godly and otherwise healthy baptist churches. This topic is uncomfortable and difficult to wade through, but in order to not repeat these kinds of mistakes in the future, it is vital that we “take our medicine” and give this question careful consideration. My wife and I, our elders and friends have prayed that God would bring good out of this situation. We believe he can easily do so. We pray he would use our witness in this post towards preventing this from happening in even one other congregation.
The topic to address is this: How should the Matthew 18 process be handled, when the charges being brought to the congregation are about the corporate sin of the pastor and elder team against a brother or sister in Christ? What are the proper roles and behaviors that the elders and the congregation are to exhibit?
With encouragement and consultation from our own elders and close friends who are fully aware of this situation and who also bear this burden, my wife and I write this letter for the edification of the church. Much of this is specific to baptist church polity, but I think our Presbyterian friends will have some takeaways here as well.
In this article, I will first share a summary of our experience to give context to this discussion and provide an example of a “real-world” situation that actually happened to us recently. This is not an abstract “what if” scenario. Following this summary, I will then lay out 9 exhortations for pastors, elders and members to take to heart in order to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
SUMMARY OF WHAT HAPPENED IN 12 SHORT PARAGRAPHS
In this case, my wife and I had been sinned against not by fellow members, but by the pastor of the church who refused to correct public slander against us. This is a church our family loves very much. This church is full of Godly people who love Jesus. We had been a part of this church for 7 years and had very strong relationships with the pastors and the elders. We were long time members in good standing and had no record of causing division of any kind in the church. In fact, we were continually reaffirmed by the leadership in the church for the grace of God in our lives, right up until our departure. We were active in our community group, we taught children’s Sunday School and served faithfully, right up until the last Sunday we were there.
The problems started out when we became subject to intermittent haughtiness and angry outbursts from our pastor over theological differences. Painfully, my wife and I were then gossiped about and maligned by the pastor to our close friends. Even more concerning, when our friends confided to us what the pastor was doing, and I went to confront the pastor about it, he lied about it repeatedly to my face attempting to deceive me about his actions. The pastor was then caught by this third party trying to cover up his actions. Following this, the pastor then admitted to my wife and I what he had done. We forgave him, but we let him know very clearly that we had lost trust in him as our pastor. The pastor told us that he understood why we no longer trusted him. I let him know that we would begin to attend elsewhere. We assumed he would seek accountability with the elders regarding this moving forward.
Though it was painful, we felt we had no other option but to leave the church since we no longer trusted our pastor. We intentionally did not tell the congregation the details of what had caused us to make the decision to leave. We trusted the pastor to deal with his sin appropriately with the elders who are entrusted to provide him with oversight. We trusted that the pastor and elders would not paint any misleading picture to the congregation about our departure. We wanted to move on with our lives, we felt we had to as we were in considerable pain over this. We wrote the congregation a short letter expressing our sadness to leave and love for them. That was it. To the elders we wrote a similar letter, and when we also alluded to some issues we had with the pastor, but we chose not go into details about what the pastor had done to us. We trusted that the pastor would do the right thing and seek accountability, taking responsibility on his own.
Sadly, about two months later, it was brought to our attention by members of the church that in the sermon that morning, we had been publicly associated with a heresy and other false doctrines from the pulpit which we disavow. Our name was not explicitly used but given the timing of our departure, it was evident to many that this was being linked to us. We knew this because members who were there told us this was the perception they had been given by the sermon combined with what was said about us that same evening in the members meeting. We were told that at this members meeting, it was said by the pastor and elders that my wife and I had left the church to pursue dangerous doctrine, linking to what was said in the sermon. Our loss of trust in the Pastor as a result of the grievous sin we had endured from him was completely omitted even though we had made that clear to the pastor. It became further evident to us that the elders had not even been informed by the pastor of what he had done because the pastor had chosen to withhold that information from them. This was later confirmed.
We of course were alarmed because we disavowed the doctrine that was publicly linked to us and it was clear that a misleading perception was given for our departure. We subscribe to the confession held by that church (1833 New Hampshire) and do not hold to nor have espoused any heretical or heterodox theological beliefs. We were shocked, hurt and confused. This was no trivial matter. Many of our long time friends from the church were given the perception by the elders that we believed actual heresy and that we left the church to pursue it.
We immediately drafted a letter to the elders bringing to their attention that the doctrine that was publicly linked to us is not what we have ever believed and that there was now a false perception about us in the church. We called on the elders to correct the false statements that were attributed to us and to enact accountability over the pastor who was continuing to spread false information about us – this time publicly. Given that the senior pastor had withheld information from them which he should have disclosed, we also disclosed to the elders about the pastor’s conduct against us from two months previous that had originally caused us to lose trust in his pastoring. We conveyed our deep concerns that the pastor had withheld his sins from them and that his behavior in misleading others about us was continuing. We made clear that whether this false testimony about us was done intentionally or not, it needed to be cleared up. We never once required them to admit maliciousness or intent. We also repeatedly made clear that we affirm that the elders have a duty to warn the congregation about doctrine they regard as dangerous. The issue was about misleading the congregation in tying us to heresy and other doctrine we disavow.
Our letter to the elders made no difference. In response, they declined to take any action whatsoever. Instead, they told us they had “been given the grace to move on” and prayed that my wife and I would be afforded the same grace that they had been given. They did make mention that for them to even consider our concerns, they would have to get at least two witnesses. This was puzzling to us since the entire congregation were witness to what was falsely attributed to us about the heresy we were falsely linked with and the misleading picture that was painted about our departure. The elders communicated that it was not their intent to slander us and so again refused to take any action. They seemed to not really even understand what it was that we were concerned about, or what we were recommending they do to fix it. Though my wife and I had communicated that we felt the elders still didn’t properly understood our concerns given their confusing and brief response, the elders then took the initiative to cut off all communication on the matter.
Following the elders cutting off communication, three additional witnesses who had heard the sermon and who had also heard about what was said in the members meeting then approached the pastor and various elders with their concerns. All wrong doing was denied by the pastor and elders. They continually refused to take action to clear up the false perception they had given about our beliefs and the reason for our departure. This despite the fact (as they later disclosed) that they knew the congregation had a false perception, and still decided to do nothing. They continually tried to restate that they thought that because they had “good intentions” they were under no obligation to clear things up. Anyone who knows what the 9th commandment requires of us knows that it is not only our obligation to refrain from intentionally spreading false public testimony, we must also proactively protect our neighbors reputation, especially on serious matters. This still holds true if the false perception you gave was inadvertent or if you believe your “heart was in the right place” when you did it. This is nothing earth shattering. This is 9th commandment 101.
At this point it was our strong conviction that we were obligated to bring to light the unrepentant sin the elders were engaging in by their refusal to clear up the false perception they had given about us (bearing false witness). As the elders refused to take action, we also did not believe it edifying or helpful to anyone for the congregation to continue to falsely believe that we affirmed heresy and other doctrines we disavow. Finally, we believed the congregation needed to know about the troubling accountability practices that were in place which were only continuing. Specifically how the pastor was being enabled in his practice of not disclosing grievous sins to his elders, and the fallacious reasons he cited for not seeking elder oversight for his sin. We felt that if we did not bring this to light, if this ever happened to someone else in the future under these men, we would be partly to blame. We stuck to the facts of what had taken place and did not engage in undue speculation about motives or intent etc. We fully disclosed the full record of emailed correspondence between the elders and I along with documentation that showed the pastor had been informed that we denied the false doctrine he linked us to in the sermon. We also sent a brief document explaining what it is that we do believe to clear up the twisted perception the elders had allowed to fester amongst the congregation.
Concerned members of the church who had reviewed the letter reached out to us sharing their deep concern over the matter. Contrary to the elder’s responses, they displayed immediate recognition of what our concerns were and the what we were calling for. That was very encouraging. We are thankful that there were those who carefully read our concerns and attempted to do something, even in a difficult environment which was not conducive to dissent. We pray for all the members of this church going forward that they would continue to seek what is right in this matter. It is never too late.
Days later, it came to our attention that in response to our letter to the church, the elders had written a brief letter to the congregation (we were not cc’d on the letter). The letter further mislead the congregation about what our concerns were and the action we were calling for. They were telling the congregation that my wife and I were demanding they admit malicious intent on their part. This was patently false. This was not a matter of he said / she said. All correspondence was available for anyone to see. To the contrary we had told the elders again and again that “intentionally or unintentionally” they needed to clear up the false perception they had given, especially that we believed in heresy. The elders then organized a “Q&A” meeting for members after the Sunday service (we were not invited). In this meeting, when confronted with questions by concerned members, the elders unleashed a litany of verifiably false testimony about us, misrepresenting us all over again. They continued to double down in misleading the congregation about what our concerns were and what we were calling for. They did not leave the room to allow the congregation to deliberate. They continually and repeatedly falsely speculated on our motives and attempted to engage in guilt by association tactics. Incredibly – they accused us of just wanting to use this situation as a a platform to spread our beliefs and to sow division.
We were dumbfounded. The elders had caused a false perception that we believed in heresy to go forward. Even though they were aware of the false perception they had created, they still refused to correct it. Then when we publicly corrected the false perception that was given, they accused us of just wanting a platform for our views. Again, this was totally false. Despite being repeatedly asked by concerned members if the elders could have done anything differently, the elders continued to deny any and all wrong doing in how they handled the situation and kept trying to turn things back on us. It was truly the saddest, most dishonorable display of elder conduct my wife I have ever been personally witness to. Sadly, as a result of the elders conduct, it seemed that at least some of the members were poisoned against us. Our own elders at our current church, having reviewed the correspondence were appalled at what transpired. Our current pastor has since wrote a letter to the elders of our former church to call them to account for their actions. There has been no response.
This nightmare which has severely injured my family took place in a solid, gospel-centered, “9 Marks” baptist church. A church my family attended faithfully for 7 years with a long record of good conduct and not any record of causing division in the church. How could this have happened?
9 MARKS OF A HEALTHY MATTHEW 18 PROCESS WHEN PASTORS & ELDERS ARE INDICTED
As a pastor, elder or member in one of these same kind of churches, you may have contracted a subconscious belief that your church, your elders, your pastor wouldn’t do that, or the mindset of “it couldn’t happen here”. I certainly did. What we need to realize is that we all have blind spots. Learn these lessons up front so you don’t have to learn them the hard way later. Church government models aside, if at the end of the day, the men appointed to lead the church are not acting in righteousness, the ecclesiastical governance models we advocate become meaningless.
For the edification of the church, and in the interests of helping church officers build and maintain authentic trust with the congregation, here are the 9 exhortations that my wife and I have come up with through dealing with this issue personally. These lessons apply to pastors, elders and members alike. None of these are earth shattering. Most are simple common sense reminders. That makes it all the more concerning that something like this could happen in a 9 Marks type church.
- Congregation – If a pastor sins against you in a grievous way and you lose trust in him, immediately verify with the other elders that they are aware of his sin and have taken meaningful steps to enact proper oversight. In our case, not doing this was our mistake as we found out later that though we had forgiven him personally, the pastor had chosen not to seek oversight and accountability for what he had done to us with his elders. We then found out the elders didn’t require him to disclose to them such sins as what was done to us. Sometimes pastors will wrongfully apply the concept of “not spreading the sin further than the circle of the affected” principle to prevent them from having to disclose serious pastoral abuses. Do not under any circumstances just assume the pastor will seek his elder’s oversight and accountability for his actions because he is a pastor. Forgive him, but do not be naïve. He is a sinner just like you. He can do it again to someone else, and may already be doing so. Having done it to you, you are not acting uncharitably for not automatically assuming he will do the right thing on his own in the future. If the elders refuse to enact meaningful reforms to prevent this in the future, it is the right of the congregation to be aware of the current accountability structures that are in place which allowed for the sin that happened to you to go undiscovered by the elders.
- Elders – You are saints who are all still capable of grievous sin. In the interests of serving each other and in the interests of fulfilling the obligations you have to the congregation entrusted to your shepherding, make sure it is clear between the entire elder team, that you are all responsible to proactively disclose serious sins that any of you commit to each other. Especially those sins which cause members of the church to lose trust in your eldership, whether those members end up leaving the church over it or not. A pastor who refuses to disclose his serious pastoral sins to the elders and seek accountability for those sins is breaking the trust of the congregation who appoints you, and this should be dealt with seriously.
- Elders – In our case, because of the elder’s public statements from the pulpit, the congregation was wrongly given the impression we believed in doctrines we do not hold to, including heresy. The lesson here is: when making any public statements that can be easily construed by the congregation as linking a brother or sister in Christ to heretical views or false teaching, it is of utmost important for you to go the extra mile to ensure you have it right. Linking a brother with heresy is serious business. In this area, you’ve got to look at it with the same level of importance as an airline pilot landing a plane full of passengers. You’ve got to land the plane 100% of the time. And if you really are going to publicly link a brother with denying the final judgment (as in our case) proper due diligence is required. Do not merely ask brother about an interpretation of one or two passages and then assume that because they deny that those specific passages are referring to the final judgment that they therefore deny the future judgment from other passages. In our case, there were many passages that we affirm the final judgment from, and we listed those for the pastor verbally and in writing prior to their public statements. We affirmed that we subscribe to preterism as held by such men as RC Sproul, John Owen, Gary Demar, Jeff Durbin and Douglas Wilson. Slander arises many times simply from gross negligence. If you as elders want to make a broad warning to the congregation about an extreme form of an orthodox doctrine (such as warning about the heresy of hyper-preterism or hyper-calvinism), be careful to disambiguate those extreme views from the person you are linking them to. In our case, this was not done either from the pulpit in the sermon or at the members meeting that same evening. For 10 months following, because of the elder’s refusal to publicly clarify, many of our friends thought we believed in heresy and other doctrines we disavow. This would have still been the case had we not written our letter to the congregation after all other options were exhausted. This caused us great pain and relational strife. Elders, tread carefully here.
- Elders – If you realize you have publicly misrepresented someone’s beliefs, or given the congregation a false impression about someone, don’t delay, don’t make excuses. Don’t let it fester. Apologize immediately – even if what you did was unintentional. If it was unintentional then don’t feel obligated to apologize for having intentions you didn’t have, but also don’t use your good intentions as an excuse to not take responsibility for the false perception you gave. When you misrepresent your brother publicly, do not under any circumstances refuse to publicly clear it up after being confronted about it or you will be guilty of bearing false witness about your brother. The 9th commandment not only includes the obligation to refrain from making false reports about your brother, it also includes the responsibility to protect his reputation, and to proactively take steps to rectify things when it is discovered that a false perception has been caused, even if it was inadvertent, or even if you think your heart was in the right place. If you know you have caused a false perception and you are refusing to clear it up, you can be assured with 100% certainty that your heart is not in the right place.
- Congregation – We don’t know if, or to what degree this happened in our case, but don’t be shocked when you receive a report of an elder sinning or even when your elders as a group fail to do what is right. If our whole faith is thrown into question when they do sin, then what was your faith in anyways? We are not dealing with saints already having achieved a glorified state. We are dealing with fallible men still capable of serious wrong, even collectively. In any leadership team whether in the church our outside, groupthink is a real danger even among good men. This is precisely why God has given the church multiple layers of accountability, proper checks and balances. Even if a pastor or elder has blessed you greatly in the Lord, put your faith entirely in Christ. The congregation must adopt a posture of readiness and willingness to carry out their God given authority and duty to keep the elders whom they appoint accountable.
- Congregation – if a brother or sister (especially ones with long records of reliably upright conduct) brings a concern before you the church, having properly followed the Matthew 18 steps prescribed beforehand, it is your duty to carefully weigh the concerns brought forward. It is now your responsibility. Do not assume elders are immune from this process or that they are justified in acting to prevent this process from happening properly. Do not abdicate this responsibility, or refuse to review your brother or sister’s concerns – even if your elder urges you to disregard it – your allegiance is to Christ first and foremost. Christ has commanded a process for handling disputes that you are to follow. Do not weigh any conjecture the elders make about the person who brought the concerns. Especially conjecture made while the subject of conjecture is not present to defend themselves. Evaluate the concerns brought on their own terms first to see whether they are true or false to the extent that you can. Bring the person who wrote the letter before you to clear up any questions if you need – even if they are no longer a member of your local church. You also may need to review the record of correspondence between elder and the person bringing the concern. I don’t know if this happened in our case, but if your elders are attempting to subvert this process by telling you not to read the concerns brought forward, they are acting like tyrants and are acting outside their authority and they are to be defied. An elder does not have unlimited authority but only to the degree they are acting lawfully and within their alloted jurisdiction.
- Elders – Preemptively train your congregation in their responsibilities should charges be brought against the elders in the future. After the fact, if a brother or sister brings a Matthew 18 letter to your congregation, don’t make the offense worse by making excuses for your behavior or engaging in false conjecture about the person’s motives, engaging in guilt by association etc. Don’t get defensive. Don’t circle the wagons. Don’t poison the well. Stay away from speculation. Due process is in place for everyone’s good, even yours. If in the end you are right, but you subverted due process along the way, trust in your leadership will be tainted as a result of your dishonorable conduct in the process. If the allegations are false then do refuse to accept that you committed them. But earnestly encourage the congregation to seek to understand what the exact concerns are, and what they aren’t. Have that understanding corroborated by the person who wrote the letter. Then encourage the congregation to verify if the claims are true or false and to take appropriate action if they are true. Reaffirm that it is their responsibility to review the claims in careful detail as they would appreciate done if they were in that persons shoes. Leave the room and allow the congregation to deliberate without your presence.
- Congregation – Never bring any frivolous matter, or petty personal slight to the congregation. But, if you recognize that there is serious and unrepentant sin for which the elders will not act, it is not only your option to tell the congregation, it is your duty before Christ. If you are negligent in this duty, and it happens again to someone else, you will be partly to blame. We are called to silently endure the scoffing and sins done against us by the world, but when this is going on in the church, what needs to be done is crystal clear in Matthew 18. As made clear in Ephesians, we are to take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them! It is not the “more spiritual” thing to do to ignore serious unrepentant sin in the church. All this does is to allow such sins to fester and multiply.
- Elders – In a Matthew 18 process, when a brother or sister brings a concern to you, or an allegation of sin, sometimes it can be tempting to automatically put our defenses up, especially if the person coming to you is hurt. Be humble. Make sure you are truly listening to what he or she is saying the offense is and what they are not saying. Especially if they express to you that they do not feel you understand their concerns. Repeat back to the person bringing the concern what you understand their concerns to be and what their recommended actions are, then ask the person if they feel you are correct in your understanding of what their concerns are. Do not twist their concerns to the congregation into something they aren’t so you can manipulate the congregation into dismissing them.
In summary, dealing with sin properly and thoroughly in situations like these is stressful and difficult for everyone: The congregation, the person accused and the person bringing the offense. It is not the path of least resistance; the path we are all tempted to take. After all, our day-to-day lives are hard enough. Are we also called to carry other’s burdens on top of our own? The answer, hard as it may be, is a resounding yes. Burdens are called burdens for a reason. They aren’t called feathery pillows. They can be heavy, but the love of Christ compels us to carry that burden as he carries our own.
Finally, Christian unity is always based on truth and holiness. Never is unity based on keeping silent regarding what needs to come to light. There is a sort of pretended unity which is an illusion in many Christian circles. A bias that seeks to avoid serious sin instead of dealing with it properly. This mindset actually creates division in the church. There is no unity in saying “Peace, peace! Where there is no peace (Jer 6, 8, Eze 14). The one bringing the letter before the congregation is only bringing division if their accusations are frivolous or have no basis in fact. That can be the case sometimes, but be careful that you do not cavalierly sweep the concerns of your brother or sister’s concerns under the rug just because it isn’t happening to you personally. There are no “bystanders”. Do not fail to pay heed to the justice for your brother in need. God takes it very seriously, even to the point of no longer accepting your worship.
10 ”They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth….
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
For Christ’s Crown and Covenant