Dealing with sin and relational breakdown in an authentically Christian way will always involve the practices of confession, repentance, forgiveness, personal reconciliation, and (where applicable) reparation. These practices come out of the gospel and our basic experience of being Christian. By definition Christians confess their sins to God, turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, and are confident of finding forgiveness and reconciliation with God in Jesus’ name. This is a wondrous thing and all Christians know it! But what is often missed is that this same gospel that transforms our ‘vertical’ relationship with God also transforms our ‘horizontal’ relationships. In Christ we are reconciled to God and to one another. What that means is that the practices that define our relationship to God must be a core part of all Christian relationships. They must not be reduced to unattainable ideals or non-essential add-ons to being a Christian. These practices are simply the gospel’s ‘horizontal’ application to our relationships with one another.
We should be confident that these practices can and do work where Christians are willing to use them. But we should also recognise that there are many potential roadblocks to their effectiveness, the main one being the willingness or ability of both parties to engage in them. Most of what follows applies to all conflict resolution between Christians, but we will return to the issue of the mistreatment of ministry staff before the end.
1. Christians are to confess their sins to God and to one another (1 John 1:8-9; James 5:16). When we have wronged someone we should confess to them that we have wronged them, apologise, and ask for their forgiveness. Confessing to doing something wrong should be specific and not vague, since it involves taking responsibility for our own actions. It should be sincere and not involve making qualifications. Saying “I’m sorry, but…” undermines any sense of taking responsibility since it offers a reason or excuse for what was done. It can also be very painful for the person you are apologising to if it feels like you are apologising without actually apologising. If you as the person confessing believe that the other person has also wronged you, handle that as a separate issue afterwards. Their guilt makes no difference to you taking responsibility for what you did. Furthermore, handling wrongs on both sides simultaneously leads to confusion too easily.
2. Repentance is turning away from sin. Since Christians will continue to battle with sin, repentance must be a regular feature of the Christian life. Whenever sin is identified in our lives we are to turn away from it and live God’s way instead. Repentance must not be confused with feelings of sadness or regret. Horrible situations tend to make everyone feel bad, regardless of their particular involvement. When you have wronged someone else then your sorrow is only godly if it leads to repentance for the wrong you have done (2 Corinthians 7:10). If you have wronged someone else in a serious way, then take the time to tell them how you have turned away from your sin and plan to change your behaviour in the future. This could be immensely helpful to them and will ensure that your repentance is not mere sentiment.
3. Forgiveness is a promise to cancel out the wrong done to you and to move forward without it standing as a debt that you hold against the person who has wronged you. Many people today mistakenly think of forgiveness in therapeutic terms: it’s a way of dealing with or ‘letting go’ of our own feelings of hurt. Dealing with our pain is important, but in the Bible forgiveness is a relational action not just a personal one. It cannot be done in isolation from the offending party, especially since the larger goal of forgiveness is reconciliation . For forgiveness to come into effect and reconciliation to be possible, the offending party must recognise their wrong, confess, and repent. It is important to emphasise that forgiveness must never be demanded by the wrongdoer. This can easily be another way to bully their victim. We can never command another person to forgive us, even if Jesus can (and does: Luke 17:3-4). It is never our place to demand forgiveness of someone we have wronged. It can be asked for, but it must not be held over their head or pressured out of them. That is a form of manipulation and bullying.
4. Reconciliation is the restoration of relationship. This can only properly occur where both parties are willing and prepared to be reconciled. This preparation is different for each party. The offender must come with confession of their sin and repentance. The victim must come willingly offering forgiveness. Both must have a basic agreement on what has been done wrong and by whom . Where any of these things is lacking, genuine reconciliation will not be possible. Even if all this is done well, it is possible that the relationship will never be the same. The reality may be that the damage caused is too great, or that safeguards will need to be in place for the victim moving forward. A genuinely repentant offender will be only too eager to do whatever is best for the person that they have wronged. Furthermore, if those involved are no longer at the same church then their relationship won’t be what it was before due to distance and change of relational contexts. What is crucial here is that both parties can consider themselves at being at peace with one another again. Jesus brought ultimate peace by his cross and the gift of his Spirit, so Christians must seek to maintain this unity that he has won for us (Ephesians 2:13-22, 4:3).
5. Reparation is the act of the offending party. Anyone who has truly repented will be deeply concerned for the harm they have done to their neighbour and will want to make amends if possible. How could it be otherwise? Zacchaeus the tax collector cheated people of their money therefore his repentance led him to reimburse his victims (Luke 19:8). A genuinely repentant person will always desire to restore their victims for the harm they have caused, although this will not always be possible or appropriate. If you ever find that you have wronged another person and caused them substantial material loss (income, health, etc) then you must be eager to spend out of your own resources to see them restored, if you are given that opportunity.
Pastors who have mistreated a member of their ministry staff should strongly consider making a public apology before the whole church (1 Timothy 5:20). This needs to be done with care and wisdom, but is very important. A large part of the harm caused to abused staff is that their church community doesn’t know what happened to them. This is immensely painful. A public confession and apology by the pastor could be an effective way to make partial reparations, especially for the damage done to the reputation of a wronged staff member. It will also give the congregation an example of accountability and repentance, which is important since pastors are supposed to be a model and example for their church to imitate (1 Peter 5:3). However, it is very important that the wronged party wholeheartedly agrees with what will be said to the church beforehand since even this can easily be abused by a pastor to save their own reputation, or to make things sound like a mutual failing of both parties. A public apology must make clear who the offender is, who the victim is, what was done wrong, and must involve a clear confession of sin by the offending party. If any of these things is missing then the message will be ambiguous and may cause even greater harm than before.
Where repentance is not forthcoming, the Bible teaches us to engage in church discipline procedures. In short, this moves from personally calling the offender to repentance, to doing so with others, before finally calling on the offender to repent as a church (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5) . This would involve establishing what really happened, which can be very difficult. Church discipline itself involves the use of power which can be abused. The Bible provides some safeguard for pastors against flippant or unfounded accusations by stipulating that accusations must be established by multiple witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19) . Even then matters are unlikely to be straightforward. We must keep a close watch that church discipline is conducted in a careful, biblical, and godly way, but without using caution as an excuse to do nothing. Becoming frozen into inactivity is a real danger and unfortunately is the most common end-point of Christian engagement with these issues. But if congregations humbly and actively seek out the basic facts of how concerning incidents have been handled, then they will often gain a clear enough understanding to begin to know how to respond.
In my next post we will consider some of the more specific ways that congregation members can engage with the problem of mistreatment of ministry staff.
Series: “Churches, watch over your ministry staff!”
Part 1: Identifying a Problem that Nobody wants to Talk About
Part 2: The Goodness of Church Leadership and some ‘Professional’ Challenges
Part 3: Christian Practices that are Too Rarely Practiced
Part 4: Ten Points for Churches on Dealing with the Mistreatment of Ministry Staff
If you have personally experienced the kinds of challenges discussed in this article then you are invited to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. There you can expect to be connected with others who have experienced abuse in ministry to receive mutual support, and to be heard and understood. Note: this is not a professional service, but simply Christians who have experienced abuse in ministry trying to help one another.