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The ‘no-name’ game

Pastoral guidance on how to respond to grumblers and gossips

© Andrew Knock (1997, 1999)


1   "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, "It’s only human!" we say.

Well, it is human.  But the church is not only human; it’s also God’s.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that:

"gossip is usually the worst evil in a congregation." (Spiritual Care p 39)

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.


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:

The real test is this.  Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.  Is one's first feeling, "Thank God, even 'they' aren't quite so bad as that," or is it a feeling of disappointment, even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I'm afraid, the first step in a process which if followed to the end will make us into devils.   One is beginning to wish that black were a little blacker ... later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  ("Mere Christianity" pp 103-4)

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:

Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism: there is one God and Father of all mankind, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all ... And so we shall all come together to that oneness in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God; we shall become mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ’s full stature ... By speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ who is the head.   (Ephesians 4.3-5, 13 & 15)

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.


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:

  1. We could take it no further. "It’s enough to be a safety valve," we may say.  "It’s good to help them let off steam!’  But while taking the lid off the pan stops an explosion, it doesn’t stop the water boiling, and it can still lead to a fire in the kitchen! Doing nothing leaves nothing done.  The grievance remains a grievance, cut off from the source of the complaint.  Division remains division, and may well be reinforced as a result of our sympathetic support.
  2. Or we could offer to discuss it with the accused person or persons.  This is admirably generous, as long as when we offer to be a bridge-builder, we mean to build bridges between real people, rather than between labels, and as long as all the people involved agree that we do so.
  3. The worst thing we can do is to carry the complaint anonymously to the accused person.  "Oh Reverend ... Oh Mrs Jones ... I really feel you ought to know that people are very concerned (about what you have done).  What?  Oh no,   I couldn't possibly say who, but I only want to help you by letting you know that a lot of people are troubled ..." 

"A lot of people are saying ..."  This is to play the ‘no-name’ game.


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 can’t 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:

A woman in my church hated her daughter in-law. Every week this woman told me new stories. One day I said, "Stop it! My ear is not a garbage can." That’s the problem. Those who enjoy – or even merely tolerate – hearing someone’s old grievances are inadvertently becoming garbage cans themselves … And you will begin to stink as a result. You will take on the aroma of the environment in which you place yourself.

If someone comes to unload garbage on you, see if you can give wise counsel. If you sense that the person doesn’t want such help, say ‘ Let’s go and tell this to the person involved, and then we can settle it for good.’ (God is closer than you think, p 54)

The overall effect of the ‘no-name’ game is defensiveness and division. It does not belong in the church!


A different way to respond

Here is a wise New Testament passage:

If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault.  But do it privately, just between yourselves.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother back.  But if he will not listen to you, take one or two other persons with you, so that ‘every accusation may be upheld by the testimony of two or more witnesses,’ as the scripture says.  And if he will not listen to them, then tell the whole thing to the church.  Finally, if he will not listen to the church, treat him as though he were a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18.15-17)

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 God’s 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:

Reconciliation is always the goal when we confront someone about a wrong done.  If your confronting aims at punishing the offender, or if it is simply a means of castigation and censure, you are confronting with the wrong aim in mind. 

The process Scripture outlines for dealing with sin in the flock is called ‘church discipline.’ As with parental discipline, the goal is correction. Church discipline is successful when it brings about repentance and reconciliation. When it is unsuccessful, it ends in excommunication. But excommunication is never the desired goal; restoration is.

Church discipline is not antithetical to forgiveness. In face the instructions in Matthew 18 outline exactly how forgiveness should work when a believer’s sin has implications for the whole flock … The public aspect of discipline is a final resort, not the first step. The point of ‘reporting a person’s offence to the church is not to get church members to shun the sinning individual, but precisely the opposite: to encourage them to pursue that person in love, with the aim of restoration. (The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, pp 132, 135-7)

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 God’s Spirit: an agreed agenda.   Without this, no growth in real Christian community is possible.  The great evangelist and congregational leader David Watson said:

It is one thing to speak the truth in love, and quite another to speak the truth in negative, destructive ways.  Even if our criticisms are 100% right, a critical unloving attitude is 100% wrong – and God is very concerned with our attitudes and motives.  Remember that every fellowship is a fellowship of sinners, who need constantly to forgive one another.  The consequences are serious if we don’t forgive.  (See Matthew 18.21-35).  If you have a suggestion to make about what should or should not be done, take it directly to the person concerned; never discuss it negatively behind his back.  (Pastoral Letters)


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.

  1. When someone comes to us, we may continue to listen sympathetically to his or her complaint against another.  We should now have a little more insight into the fact that we are probably not an objective listener in this, but are already seen by the messenger to be of a similar mind.  Having listened, we should say nothing to the accused at all – and explain this honestly to the person who is complaining – except to speak on our own authority about our own opinion.  If we do this, and find that our ideas are changed as a result of this conversation, we should then convey this back to the grumbler!
  2. A more creative action is to realise that, in the church, confidentiality goes with confession.  Confidentiality goes with professional role in many organisations, and in the church it goes with confession.  If someone asks us to listen to his or her grievance, we can accept that responsibility and share his or her words with God in prayer.  We should then seek to help them become freer of their restricting and uncomfortable complaint by acting in other and more positive ways.
  3. Really the most Biblical action is to indicate to the grumbler, friend or not, that you are committed to the Church, and therefore that you put unity before division.  For this reason you are happy to hear his or her complaint, in order to help him or her, as a grumbler, to test it out against the truth of the whole life of the church and its people.  You may either:-
  • encourage the grumbler to speak personally to the accused, with or without your presence
  • or ask the person or persons accused to come and speak personally with the one doing the complaining.


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 church’s 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:

Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.   And do not make God’s Holy Spirit sad; for the Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free.   Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort.  Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.  (Ephesians 4.29-32)

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:

In order to be a church we must come together (Matthew 18:20; Acts 2:1.42.46).  There are far too many four-wheeler Christians - those who come only in a pram or a taxi or a hearse to church to be hatched, matched or dispatched.  In no sense do we belong to the church unless we regularly gather with God’s people (Hebrews 10:25). 

We need each other.  If I take one page, I can tear it to shreds easily.  If I take a whole book, I cannot tear it at all.  And others need you, even if you don’t feel you need them ... An atheistic psychiatrist has said that the church has failed people because it has not yet discovered the secret of community.  Whatever we call ‘mine’ should be shared with others.  (York Tape Letters)

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

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