When my wife and I were relatively young in the faith we listened to a number of preachers on the radio. Books could be written about pros and cons, risks and benefits but I’ll cut to the chase. There was one guy in particular who caught our attention. It didn’t matter where his presentation started out; in the end he was bound to land on the hypocrites with both feet. The unloving, narrow-minded, self-righteous, grace-impaired blemishes on our love-feasts. The ones who give Christ a bad name. You know who I mean. The ones whose witness drives people away from Christ. The rotten apples. Those Christians.
Of course the offenses of these unnamed miscreants were contrasted with grace and humility and true holiness, as expounded upon by no less an authority than Mr. Radio Preacher himself. He even threw in the obligatory “I’m bad, too” line now and then, just so we’d know how humble he was.
Being young and full of all the kinds of stuff that young people are full of it came naturally to say, “Yeah! Preach it, brother!” But scripture tells us the natural man is condemned and God expects us to grow up in the faith.
Our radio brother was a pastor so it didn’t take long for us to start wondering if he was talking about those Christians in his own flock. If so, it seemed pretty shabby to offer up brothers and sisters known to him personally for condemnation by his anonymous audience. I have yet to hear of a shepherd shouting, “Look at my lousy sheep!” from the rooftop. The Shepherd sure doesn’t do that. And oh yeah; God tells us how to deal with offenders in our midst:
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… Matthew 18: 15-16.
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. Titus 3: 10.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Galatians 6:1.
No doubt Mr. Radio Preacher understood these key elements of essential Christian behavior, (not to mention his job description) so his invective must have been broader in character. You know, nothing personal, nothing to do with actual brothers and sisters he actually knew and esteemed more highly than himself in accordance with scripture. Just those Christians in general.
So, what are God’s instructions regarding our treatment of general brothers and sisters? How are we to respond to general, unspecified offenses or rumors of offenses being committed by nameless members of… of that bunch over there?
It’s an absurd question. Whatever our radio preacher’s beliefs were about his own intentions, to those of us out in radio land he acted as nothing more than an accuser of the brethren. How else can we describe him? The things he said about those Christians were accusations. He accused people of subverting Christ’s mission. He didn’t name the offenders. He offered no proof of specific charges. He gave no opportunity for the targets of his “righteous indignation” to respond, defend themselves or receive correction, repent and seek forgiveness. All he did was say to a sea of strangers, “You know what? There are these rotten people doing rotten things in Christ’s name and if you’re righteous like me you’ll be outraged.” Then he sat back and reaped the rewards of his anonymous holier-than-thou-ism at the expense of his Master’s servants and the church’s reputation.
No specific, quantifiable problem was addressed. No responsibility was assigned to a specific brother or sister. No accountability was even possible. In fact, the only actual person brought to the attention of the listening audience was the righteous Mr. Radio Preacher himself.
An accuser of the brethren. Let that sink in.
Does this mean there are no hypocrites among us? Does it mean we look the other way when brothers and sisters sin, circle the wagons and deny any wrongdoing for the sake of the tribal brand?
Such childish questions don’t deserve answers. Here’s a better question: do you really think God didn’t foresee these things and give us detailed instructions about how to address them?
Why do you think He instituted the local church? More specifically, why do you think we’re instructed not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together?
God has ordained a clearly defined, organized institution in which His people are to serve each other, love each other, submit to each other and, when necessary, correct each other. We cannot thrive outside a local church. We need the constant interaction with people, many of whom may be radically different from us but who are bound to us by the Holy Spirit. We cannot stay on the straight and narrow road without frequent course corrections effected by the brothers and sisters who see us day to day; we’re seriously kidding ourselves if we think we can go it alone or if it’s “Jesus and me.” We need to be chained to people (metaphorically speaking) who frustrate us, challenge us and have patience with us. We need people who are wrong. We need to submit to people who are no “closer to God” than we are. We need all the opportunities to grow humility that we can get.
Loving each other at close range is our witness to the world. That’s how Christ loves us. After centuries of prophets, laws and kings He came to us personally, served us personally and died for us personally. He doesn’t love us as abstractions. He doesn’t love us from a distance, over the radio or through the distorting insulation of the internet. He loves us face to face and if we are to be His followers we must love each other the same way.
Faceless mass ministry or microscopic fragments of personality exchanged over social media can’t get us there. And knee-jerk agreement with the propaganda of our enemy does nothing to show the world our grace, humility and commitment to the ways of our Master; on the contrary. It confirms his accusations. “See? Even they know I’m right!” Christ never agreed with the Pharisees. He never said, ”You know, you guys have a point.” He always knew what they were after and He never gave it to them. Neither should we.
The universal church is our extended family and the local church is our immediate family. The further I get from my immediate family the less authority I have to meddle in people’s affairs, even if we’re related. Know why? It’s because I don’t know those people. I can’t love them as I love my wife, kids and close friends because I’m not there to serve them, offend them and seek forgiveness or be offended by them and offer forgiveness.
If I can’t serve them how dare I presume to inveigh against them? To accuse them? Who made me their judge?
So what are we to do about those Christians?
First, don’t spread broad accusations about anonymous, unspecified people. And yes, your complaints about people you don’t know, coupled with your assumptions about their motives are accusations.
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established… Deut. 19:15
God takes accusations seriously. So should we.
Remember; we have an enemy and he loves division. Why do his work for him? Our unity is what makes us unique in the world; it’s what puts the lie to his accusations. Don’t undermine that unity by taking potshots at the Body. It doesn’t convict the hypocrite and it doesn’t impress the world.
There’s enough going on in your real life to keep you busy. If someone in your local fellowship is doing the things generally attributed to those Christians you have an obligation to speak to him or her. But you’d better be sure you’re on solid ground. One of the elders at my church has a standard line about this. When somebody starts telling tales about another church member he’ll say, “Oh? What did they say when you spoke to them about it?” That usually puts out the fire.
It’s easy to rail against them and kid yourself that you’re “speaking the truth in love.” It’s hard to say, “Brother/Sister so and so, we need to talk.” I’ve done both so I know the difference.
Second, leave the sheep to their own shepherds. Their pastors and their fellow church members have the responsibility and opportunity to correct them. You don’t. Don’t presume to take on the responsibility of their pastors and elders. If those Christians won’t submit to the authority God Himself has placed them under they certainly won’t be convicted by a meme or a blog post. Public comments made for any reason other than their restoration don’t come from a good place.
If you’re serious about being a light in a dark place you must live out a commitment to your brothers and sisters in a local church. Talk is cheap. The world is not impressed by what we say but they do take notice of what we do and how we live.