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Hidden Hate – Open Rebuke

Yesterday I had planned to write a response to the Ted Haggard situation, but other issues got in the way, and then the story developed. I was going to talk some about the meaning of forgiveness combined with accountability and openness. I would have said that we didn’t know yet precisely what had happened, but that he had done the right thing by stepping aside and letting an independent oversight board take a look.

All of those things are true still. We don’t know precisely what happened, but we do see a bit more fire and less smoke. I would still say that forgiveness involves putting aside our resentments so that we do not poison ourselves with anger, but at the same time that forgiveness doesn’t remove consequences of someone’s bad choices. Accountability is still a key, and simply the fact that there are structures in place that look like accountability doesn’t mean that a person is really being held accountable.

In the meantime, Ben Witherington weighed in on the topic. He makes a number of excellent points that deserve consideration, but I can’t help but think that he is excessively optimistic about the quality of accountability that denominational structures provide. I do believe accountability is one of the benefits of denominational structures, but that accountability often fails just as it does in independent churches. Nonetheless there is value in having a broader accountability than just one’s own church, and people that one has hand selected to be part of an oversight board.

But as I was doing my devotional reading this morning, I came across a scriptural principle, one that is first presented early in scripture and crops up from time to time, but that I think is commonly ignored. Look at the following texts (all my own translation):

16Do not spread slander in your community, or stand still when innocent blood is shed. 17Don’t hate your brother or sister in your heart, rather you must rebuke a member of your community so that you do not become guilty of sin on his account. 18You shall not avenge yourself on a member of your community, or watch a person with evil intent, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am YHWH. — Deuteronomy 19:16-18, emphasis mine

5Better is open rebuke
than hidden love. — Proverbs 27:5

Speaking the truth in love, we should grow up in all ways into Christ, who is the head. — Ephesians 4:15

Now I could quote quite a number of additional texts, but I think these tell the story. There’s a need for accountability between members of the same community. We need to hold one another to standards of behavior, and to do so we need to speak openly about what is right and wrong within our own community.

The church is attempting to provide a moral voice to the world when our moral voice is faltering internally. I do not advocate cutting out the moral voice to the world until we become perfect. It won’t happen. But I do think we need to be very careful in looking at how moral standards and influence on cultural standards actually works.

I’m also not arguing what the particular moral standards ought to be. But one thing is clear at this point. What Ted Haggard preached and what he did in secret were not the same thing. It is tempting to point the finger at him (and there are those whose job it is to do so), but for the rest of us, we need to realize that highly placed leaders are quite vulnerable, and often the more faith we place in them, the more potential there is for trouble in their lives.

I think the church has failed to meet the standards set by the three verses I quoted in two different ways. First, some of us have abandoned the idea of standards and of speaking rebuke to one another, especially in church. In the interest of making church a “safe place” we have made everything acceptable. Church in this case becomes safe for sinners as they are, but doesn’t offer healing. Second, some of us become judgmental, and “watch our neighbor with evil intent.” There are even organizations that watchdog other people’s doctrinal stands in a very tense way, condemning anyone who deviates in the slightest way.

Oddly enough, sometimes we can err in both of those ways at once, becoming very tense and condemnatory of certain things, often small and unimportant ones, while at the same time excusing gross problems on the part of folks who agree with us doctrinally and politically. (Politicians are very much subject to this–members of my party “slip up” or “make bad choices” while members of the other party “engage in inexcusable behavior.”)

Briefly, what I see as the Biblical and historical standard here is as follows:

  1. Spreading slander is unacceptable.
    Groundless attacks on the ministry of other people are bad by just about any standard. We ought to be very careful about deciding that someone else is guilty, and about spreading that report. Even now in the Ted Haggard case, we do not know precisely what he did, and even more importantly, we don’t know how well and appropriately the oversight system of his church will function. If it functions well, we should rejoice. We never had any good reason to expect that every person will resist temptation. That’s why oversight is good.
  2. Watching people with evil intent is bad.
    I’m referring here to the attitude of the person who is looking for a slip up from people he or she doesn’t like. For example, I’m not evangelical, and I don’t agree with many positions espoused by evangelicals. If I rejoice, even in my heart, that someone who takes positions I oppose has fallen, I fall afoul of this particular stricture. If I speak, I cannot then say that I’m speaking the truth in love even if I’m speaking the truth. One of the reasons the word “rebuke” has a bad reputation in Christian circles is that in too many cases it is abused in this way.
  3. Saying you love someone and letting them slide into sin is hidden friendship.
    In order to make this work, you have to avoid the first two options. If you feel your job is to nitpick someone else’s life, then perhaps you are neither speaking the truth, nor doing so in love. You’re just trying to be controlling. A good check is to apply your friend’s standards to his or her behavior. Do this in two ways: 1) Don’t criticize anyone for not living up to your standards, ask them about their own standards, and 2) Check what you say and how you say it by how you would feel if that was said to you (love your neighbor as yourself.)
  4. Become more open to criticism.
    I don’t care how carefully, truthfully, and tactfully you dish it out, if you can’t take it, your rebuke will not be well received. Be open to rebuke from someone else, especially if you’re in leadership. Often being open to rebuke is confused with accepting everyone else’s judgment. That’s not it. You listen, you check your own behavior, and then you can accept and reject. You are still responsibible for your own behavior.
  5. Seek out accountability
    Don’t make people look to you. I talk about sharing a good deal in Bible study, because formulating an understanding of a Bible passage and then sharing that helps you check it. That’s a form of accountability. Talking to others, and then listening to their view of what you say is a day-by-day form of accountability.
  6. Speaking the truth, even in love, cannot be our sole activity.
    Again, I don’t care how well you do it, if your life consists of rebuking people, it will not be well received. We need to live the life of love, earning the right to hold friends accountable. Or I could say it this way: You have to have friends before you can hold them accountable.

When someone falls in a spectacular way, it’s like that someone, somewhere in that person’s community also failed in their responsibility. A person can conceal a great deal, but it’s harder when there is proper support from the community. Our best moral voice in the world, our best chance of influencing the culture for good, will come if we, as Christians, truly learn to speak the truth in love at all times.

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