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"It's only human"
Church congregations are no better than any other club or organisation when it comes to having grumblers and gossips. After all, "Its only human!" we say.
Well, it is human. But the church is not only human; its also Gods. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that:
Churches should be making available God's way of doing things as well as perpetuating human ones. This means we must respond to people who complain, grumble and gossip, in a way that is also more than human. To do this we need guidance, and must have a clearer idea of what the Bible - particularly the New Testament - points us towards. We also need trust and forgiveness, which come from God himself.
2 Growing into unity
In the church, the most destructive thing we can do is to store up resentment or disagreement, or to encourage other people to do this. When we do either of these things, we produce divisions in the church. Or even worse, we end up strengthening and intensifying a situation of division. We add our voice to a clump of negative voices, voices which feel they need to demolish, reject or avoid rather than create. In radio talks first broadcast during the Second World War, C S Lewis observed:
In Britain it seems to be remarkably easy to slip down this slope, in a culture which is known for its negative reactions to innovation and change. David Stubbs, in his book "Assertiveness at Work", demonstrated how the British - unlike say the Americans or the Japanese - tend to highlight the weaknesses of another person's ideas, suggestion or practice and stress the benefits of existing practices, rather than try out new approaches. Edward de Bono has often made the same point in books and TV programmes.
To produce divisions, or to increase them, offends against the fundamental organising principle of the Christian church: that we are called to be growing into unity, with Christ at the head, and drawing others into that growing unity. In a central passage for the church's self-understanding, Paul wrote:
Day-by-day, well-meaning Christians find themselves in the position of listening to someone who has a complaint against someone else in the church, or a relative or friend. And our human reflex will be that it seems helpful and supportive to listen sympathetically, especially if we partly agree with their complaint! But then what do we do after we've heard the nasty stuff?
If we think their complaint is misguided, then we can try to persuade them of whatever alternatives seem true (to us). Or we can involve other people, more expert or informed than ourselves. In either case we show that we value the complaining person highly: highly enough to seek to sort out the situation with him or her and help them, and the accused, "come together to that oneness ... becoming mature people." We also show that we believe in making truth a reality, and in the value of discussing and learning together. When Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and life," (John 14.6) he meant, in part, that truth is personal: we have to learn to be the truth, which does not mean using inevitably partial and often one-sided facts to damage or destroy other people.
3 Agreeing with a complaint
Often, though, we will agree, partly or fully, with their complaint. It is important for every member of a group or community, in an office or school as much as a congregation, to be aware of this! We tend to like hearing the bad side of someone. It makes us feel less shoddy ourselves, on the inside. Usually there are two possible reasons why someone with a complaint is telling me, in particular. Either they expect me to support their view or condemnation immediately (perhaps because I have expressed similar views to them before, or perhaps because of the loyalty expected of friends, if we are). Or they are subtly using me, expecting me to convey their complaint to the accused or to an authority.
Complaining and grumbling illustrate the proverb "Birds of a feather flock together," activities which the ancient non-Christian teacher Aristotle advocated. It is not obvious that this 'flocking' is good for a congregation that wants to be more Christ-like. So, if we agree partly or fully with their complaint, what do we do? Well, firstly at the human level there are three likely steps people tend to take, and we should reflect on how often we follow them ourselves:
"A lot of people are saying ..." This is to play the no-name game.
4 The effects of playing the game
Think through the effects taking part in such action has:
First, the effect on the accused. An anonymous accusation: "People are saying you are wrong," or "A number of people have complained to me about you, but I cant give you their names," tells him or her merely that some people disagree with him or her, but are not willing to test their views out with them personally. Even in a legal case, we expect plaintiffs to bring their complaint before the bar of dialogue, fair discussion and getting to the facts! I may say that a number of people are complaining; but he or she will probably know many more who agree with them. So even on a majority basis he or she will see no reason to change his view or action. All that is happening is that one additional pressure or force is being used against him or her, and because it is anonymous it is even harder to respond to it personally by going to the accuser in love. The accused is much more likely to resist force with force. And the use of force creates division. Perhaps this is more acceptable in a secular club or organisation. In the church it is completely wrong.
Second, the effect on me when I play the no-name game. I had perhaps hoped to be a bridge between the complainer and the accused. But if the complainer has no name, then inevitably it appears that I am really expressing my own complaint, and the accused may be even more hurt or angered because I am not willing to admit this openly. Being a messenger is often a dangerous business - in Greek society the bearer of bad news could expect to be killed. A bridge can only be a bridge between real people, in a role agreed with all of them. You can't be a 'self-appointed' bridge; if you set yourself up as one you just become an enemy to the accused, and sometimes to your friend(s) as well.
Third, the effect on the complainer. He or she is reinforced in his view, and knows that we support him, yet the possibility of sharing truth, of discussing and helping the accused to see where he has been wrong (or vice versa!) has been completely taken away.
Juan Carlos Ortiz has some wise advice from his pastoral experience:
The overall effect of the no-name game is defensiveness and division. It does not belong in the church!
5 A different way to respond
Here is a wise New Testament passage:
This shows us one way of behaving differently, and being more than merely human. It is a procedure that not everyone in a congregation or group will be in a position to carry through, because it requires a strong faith and a degree of personal freedom and the power to forgive; and I would certainly emphasise that passages like this should not be turned into rules for us to follow slavishly at all times. The Spirit of God has been given to us to set us free, not to trap ourselves in sets of rules! But we are only free when we are also true to the same Spirit. And the heart of the message in this passage unmistakably directs us to be led, by Gods Spirit, to deal helpfully and face to face with anyone we would accuse or find fault with. Notice, too, that the purpose of the message, and of the visit, is to "win your brother back" - for restoration in the community. If you pay a visit using the above 'bible guideline' but with the aim of putting your brother in his place, or showing him how wrong he is, then remember that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23). The attitude of your heart is judgmental if you cannot admit to him how wrong you are also.
The pastor of Grace Community Church, California, John F MacArthur, is a conservative and very thorough expositor of Biblical teaching. He understands the strong faith required to "win your brother back" in the way the passage from Matthew 18 outlines. He writes:
In practice, then, what do we do when someone comes to us and wants to involve us in the no-name game? The main thing is to be able to explain that division in the church must be reconciled, not made worse. Hold in your mind and heart Jesus simple saying about any organisation: A house divided against itself cannot stand. (Matthew 12.25) There are bound to be disagreements, sometimes strongly held. But these must be shared and aired, with a view to reaching a new position more acceptable to both in Gods Spirit: an agreed agenda. Without this, no growth in real Christian community is possible. The great evangelist and congregational leader David Watson said:
6 Taking practical action
If we hold true to this attitude and want to major on being a becoming "a fellowship of sinners, who need constantly to forgive one another," then three courses of action are open to us.
7 Speaking face to face
Remember that beginning the gossip and mutterings that launch the no-name game is an attempt to influence people without exposing oneself to evaluation, and should never be part of the churchs way of behaving. There is no advice in the New Testament on how to store up grievances, grumble or complain. For St Paul, we are called ceaselessly to build up the church into a growing unity, not to pull it apart:
The very word church means a gathering, people who come together to meet face to face and to rediscover Christ among them. David Watson again:
Painful or painstaking though it may be, we must help each other deal with grumbling, gossip, grievance and complaint much more fully and deliberately than we usually do. Our first commitment will be to help everyone speak TO each other, rather than ABOUT each other in huddles of cronies or whispered corners, knowing first and foremost that we will always be "a fellowship of sinners, who need constantly to forgive one another."n