Spiritual Leadership Fails When Applying the Christian Principles of Matthew 18:15-17
Several times in the last few months, I have witnessed a great failure in the way local spiritual leadership applies the Christian principles of church discipline. The men involved are good men, struggling to represent God as best they can. Yet the fault is disturbing, for it promotes an atmosphere of mistrust and disrespect for all parties involved. And when news of such happenings reaches the secular world, the enemies of Christ leap at the opportunity to point and yak.
I do not write this as fuel for those who despise the truth. Rather I write it as a warning and as Biblical instruction to those in the role of spiritual leadership. Even decent men are known to resist truth. And in the world of politics, it is common to quench those things with taint the leaders, even when those things are true.
Likewise, I write this letter as a note to church members who ignore their own sin. If you are called before the legislative body, even if the body is out of order, be sure that it is not for your sins that you are called. But fear not speaking words of truth. God will bear them out.
I also write so that church sojourners may have understanding sufficient to keep them going. We all fall short, even the best of spiritual leaders. If you would change churches do it because God leads your path, not because someone caused you harm.
Last of all, but not least important of all, I write to those who are seeking to learn of Christ from an honest report. When I was young, I left the body of Christ because a group of elders raised sand when my wife dared to question the pastor’s stand on men with long hair. The hypocrisy turned my stomach.
Thirty years later, I left a local church assembly due to the knee-jerk response of a group of immature elders. By openly stating that the church needed to move toward greater maturity in teachings, I evoked an out-of-order rejection of my words. Did I handle it with perfection? Not hardly. In fact, I too responded in a knee-jerk reaction. However, failure to make a perfect delivery never reduces the truth in the message. The first time I encountered “religion” left the church body but that was because I was not saved. For over 20 years I had no use for organized religion. Yet God had a use for me, and in spite of my failures He remained in the shadows of my life.
The second time I left a church assembly, I knew Christ as Lord and Savior. I presented a word of truth that was rejected by an immature body of spiritual leaders. Thus I moved on, but I did not leave the body of Christ, for He is in me and I in Him. Don’t let the religion of fearful men keep you from learning the truth. And don’t judge Christ by His followers, for we all tend to cast a poor reflection of the God within us.
“Perceived” – A Word Those in Spiritual Leadership Have Need To Know
I begin this discussion by introducing the word “perceived” as a core word in church discipline. Rather than defining the receiving party of a church disciplinary action as a person at fault, I draw attention to the thought of a “perceived” fault. Not all leadership disciplinary decisions are based upon prayer and Holy Spirit guidance. At times, church leaders panic, and their response to a “perceived” threat is merely the knee-jerk reaction of pious spiritual leadership. Throughout Christian history, God has sent honest men strong in Christian character to bring harsh warnings to a misguided local church body. When received with dignity, the message awakened victory to the local church assembly. When rejected with anger and scorn, the message spelled spiritual death to the local church body.
Even a cursory reading of Matthew 18:15-17 presents a clear process of church discipline. When church leadership deals with any “perceived” fault in a brother the steps of discipline and correction are as simple as:
- Let there be a one-on-one discussion with the “perceived” sinner
- Let there be a group discussion with the “perceived” sinner
- Let the church hear the issue.
Scripture records it in this manner:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 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,” (Matthew 18:15-17).
When Spiritual Leadership Is Too Fearful To Take The First Step
Now the order of these steps is simple. So why have I seen – and even been on the receiving end – as spiritual men, so-called, failed to observe the order of this Scripture? Although designed as a method for protecting the integrity of the local assemble, this process often merely reflects a shameful example of spiritual leadership.
That church leadership is too fearful to take step one, that church elders should cloak themselves in piousness even as they leap ahead to the power in numbers is a sin perhaps even greater than the “perceived” sin of the target in their sights. Ah, but a sense of safety and superiority is enabled by going directly to the second step. Rather than finding at least one leader with sufficient Christian character willing to “man up” to step one, the second step presents unified force wherein no man need stand in strong Christian character. And none shed tears over the failure.
Aside from a personal experience with such behavior, I have recently visited a church wherein one man is out of synchronization with the leadership of that local assembly. Now I don’t know who is in the right or who is in the wrong in this issue and I ask no questions. I know of the problem because it was introduced in a brotherhood meeting. But not being a member of the church nor personally involved in the argument, I don’t see it my business beyond praying that God’s will be accomplished.
I do know that church discipline doesn’t mean shutting the mouths of those who seek to correct error within the local church body – even if they may be too harsh in their methods. Scripture makes clear that church discipline deals with one who is caught in a sin or one who teaches false doctrine – not one who addresses an unheeded problem within the church. Before calling any solemn assembly, spiritual leadership must make sure that the cause is just. If there is a sin, then address in order as God has presented the process.
In the current situation, I find one of the prominent church leaders seeking to bend my ear on this matter. I asked if anyone had spoken one-on-one with the “perceived” sinner. “We will,” I was told. At this point, I informed the speaker that all discussion should stop until after the offended party or a leader with Christian character visited the “perceived” sinner for a one-on-one discussion. As for myself, it seems that the leadership has displayed a hint of immaturity in the matter.
Now these people are earnest and sincere. But they are also misguided in their manner of applying Scripture. For they meet and they discuss and they plan without following the order of worship. And it stuns me. How is it that elders and others in a position of spiritual leadership are free to gossip, plan and initiate a program that begins with taking two or more to the “perceived” offender rather than dealing with the matter as the Scriptures declare necessary – yet they see not their own guilt? The Holy Spirit calls for men who hold to “sound” doctrine. How can we correct error if we ourselves sin in the process?
“Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers,” (Titus 1:9).
How do you exhort and convince when you start out with the knee-jerk reaction of fearful men? And to what purpose does this serve the body of Christ? Are you protecting the local body from sin or are you merely guarding a personal domain? Ask that question in the wee hours of the morning, when you are alone before God. And then heed the answer.
This form of sin often comes at the hands of decent, God-fearing men. But it should not be. In error, they still follow the patterns of the world wherein judgment, discipline and “perceived” church order is regulated by the power of numbers rather than the might of Scripture. Are there none who will stand upon Christian principles, Christian character, and the Word as it is recorded in Scripture? Are we all so weak in faith as to fear following the entire path of correction?
Thereby the world continues to encounter religion rather than Christianity. And those who are saved become church sojourners even as those who are lost find nothing of value in a body that seeks to destroy itself in the name of a “perceived” sense of righteousness. My brothers, my friends: Killing the voice of honesty is not the answer.
If a man sins, make sure it is a sin before you address the “perceived” fault. And if it is indeed a fault, lay aside the gossip and the planning until after one person with true maturity in spiritual leadership has spoken to him or her in private one-on-one. Only then can you remove pride and pious religion from the second step.
For Seekers and Church Sojourners
Some may complain that I voice these problems before the public. Perhaps you should consider where stood Peter as he preached the charges spoken during the address at Pentecost. Or where abide John the Baptists as he stood “crying in the wilderness. Or who was present as our Lord presented the spiritually hammering discourse of Matthew 23.
Or even more so, why does Scripture so clearly reveal religious faults to anyone with an eye to read or an ear to hear? Is it not that God wants men to find truth in spite of the many errors that have grown up around it? Is it not that God wants men to find salvation by understanding the nature of man, the power of sin, and the need for a redeemer kinsman?
These problems within the church are real. Throughout the ages they have hindered access to the truth. The shortcomings in spiritual leadership do not make the sacrifice of Jesus Christ any less real. In fact, the problems in the church merely substantiate the power of the church to endure, and in so doing it also evidences the reality of salvation through grace by faith in Jesus Christ.
Without the indwelling and sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, none of us would hold the course. We look behind and see a trail of broken relationships, dogmatic religion, false teachers and weak leaders. Yet we also see a trail of restoration, true Christianity, honest teachers and grace-filled God-inspired leaders. So we each strive to do a little better today than what we did yesterday. And by the grace of God, we see it slowly come to pass.
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves; we are pressed on every side, yet not straitened; perplexed, yet not unto despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; smitten down, yet not destroyed;” (2-Corinthians 4:7-9 American Standard Version (1)).