I was talking recently with a friend about the differences between the way I used to prepare people for ministry (back when I was working in a seminary) versus the way I do it now. The biggest difference by far is the degree of experiential learning I insist on. We aren’t just going to learn about the Lordship of Christ; we’re going to put it to work by seeking to hear what He has to say to us and obeying, by praying for the world to come into submission to His will, by sending demons packing.
That focus on experiential learning does many things. It weeds out the people who want to be hearers, but not doers. It inculcates a great reverence for the truth, because we see it set us and others free in practice. But it also forces us to come to grips with the messy business of real application, which is frequently a lot harder than discussions in seminary classrooms make it sound.
In the seminary classroom, the prevailing questions would be “What is right?” or “What is true?” — both outstanding questions for a Christian to ask. But for many students, there was also a prevailing assumption that once those questions were properly answered, the proper course of action would be obvious. Well…not so much. Other students had a persistent case of the what-ifs: they could spin out endless scenarios that impossibly complicated any discussion of application. For both these problems, the solution is actual application to a particular situation.
For example, several years ago I was involved in an online forum for survivors of a particularly abusive group of churches. Many of these survivors posted anonymously because they were terrified of reprisals against themselves and their families. Meanwhile, active members of the churches in question would periodically come on the forum to defend their pastors, and would routinely challenge the anonymous posters to approach the pastors directly in line with the guidelines of Mt. 18, to identify themselves, and so on.
How are we to think about this?
In a way, the church members were obviously right. The Matthew 18 guidelines for conflict resolution must be adhered to; they are not merely a suggestion. And how about the golden rule? Would the anonymous posters want someone to post anonymous accusations about them on a public forum for the whole internet-connected world to read?
Moreover, there is no biblical precedent at all for anonymous accusations, and why would there be? The whole point is to bring about resolution of the conflict, and that can’t happen as long as the accuser remains anonymous, can it?
So that settles it, yes?
Not so fast…
First of all, for a number of these anonymous folks, the Matthew 18 standards had been tried. When they approached the pastor about his transgressions alone, he abused them and then lied to others about the conversation. He had his congregation so fooled, or so cowed, that for the most part nobody was willing to accompany the offended party to confront him a second time. As for telling it to the church…forget it.
Secondly, let’s look at the Golden Rule again. Suppose you had been brutalized by such a pastor, and suppose, broken and battered, you spoke up about it, only to incur further abuse and reprisals. Suppose you discover an internet forum where you can talk with fellow victims, receive some help and validation, and begin to heal, a place where you can speak freely without reprisal, because nobody would know who you were. Would you want that chance? Thought so. So why would you deny it to someone else?
Let us not forget, too, that there is a biblical example of speaking publicly to this sort of failure and abuse in a pastor’s ministry — III John. John the Apostle is more than willing to speak frankly in his letter about Diotrephes’ character, and also promises to address the problem more directly when he comes in person.
So the whole picture is a bit more complicated. Of course it is true that reconciliation can only happen if both parties are at the table, and neither one is hiding behind a cloak of online anonymity. And of course it is true that reconciliation is desirable. But reconciliation is not the only thing at stake here. Battered sheep need wound care. They need time in the spiritual hospital. That healing cannot happen in silence. The wounds need to be addressed in community with fellow believers.
What this means in practice is that the anonymous party will probably end up telling his story more than once. As a battered sheep who is simply trying to heal, he can share it anonymously and get some help. As he recovers and becomes, not just a battered sheep, but a Christian soldier prepared to do battle with wolves, he will tell the story again — but this time he will identify himself, give specific names and dates, and handle the reprisals as the cost of doing business. The goal with a battered sheep is to grow him into a Christian warrior. But growth takes time, and we have to start him from where he is — which is what God does with us.