Have a plan for how you handle accusations

Churches are messy and vulnerable places where serious spiritual business is being done.  We should not be surprised then that there will from time to time be accusations that come our way.  Those may be accusations against other members of the church, past or present, partners in fellowship with the church, other leaders and if you are a pastor/planter then you are pretty much guaranteed to be accused at some point yourself of something.

It is important therefore that we have prepared in advance for how we will respond to accusations.   And, the first thing we need to consider is our own general demeanour and attitude.  A lot of the preparation work for this is in the previous 6 things we’ve talked about. However, I would also say at this point that the best approach is to recognise humbly that we are ourselves fallen and frail.  We will make mistakes and we will sin. On the basis, I make it my aim to say up front that I know I’ll get things wrong but I also seek to be quick to acknowledge when I get things wrong and to say sorry.  I believe that “I’m sorry” and “I forgive” should be among the most dominant words in a healthy church culture.  You see, this is only possible when we remember that we are justified by faith, so we don’t have to put on a front of being perfect.

The second thing I think is important is that churches should have zero tolerance for gossip and slander. The Bible is clear that such behaviours are sinful and incompatible with fellowship within the body.  If someone has a concern or allegation to raise, they should do so. They shouldn’t whisper behind the backs of others. It is also important that when people hear such unverified conjecture that they don’t then repeat it to others.  This is itself a form of bullying and abuse because it brings hurt and harm to the subjects of gossip.  Alongside this, I believe that the phrase “some people are saying…” and variants on that theme should be banned from our lips.

This does mean that we need a process for how to handle allegations. The Bible is clear on this. When someone has an accusation to bring, there should be at least two witnesses.[1]  Note, that this requirement is in fact for any accusation but it is re-emphasised by Paul when talking about accusations about an elder.[2]

Now, in some cases, it will not be as simple as to have a second witness. If the accusation for example is about abusive behaviour then the only witness may well be the victim.  I think though that there are other forms of “evidence” that can act as second witnesses in a situation. For example, there may be details about the circumstances that corroborate things.  At other times we need to be aware of how character history both in terms of accused and accuser provide corroborating evidence.

Whilst there may be occasions where a legalistic perspective may see only one witness when there is more than one, there may also appear to be multiple witnesses when in fact there is only one – the accuser. This is where rather than having people come forward independently, there is a sense that the witnesses are being co-ordinated.

The accusation should be properly investigated. If it is a criminal matter it should be referred to the police. It should not simply be dismissed and nor should the person accused be merely allowed to deny the allegations. We should treat them seriously.  If the accusations are proved true then the person should be warned -and that should be public.  There may also be a need for further action such as church discipline and certain matters will require people to stand down from leadership.

If the accusation is proved false, then that’s a serious matter. If it was also proven to be malicious then that should become a matter of church discipline in regards to the false accuser.  See what Deuteronomy 19:16-21 says about the malicious accuser:

16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil[c] from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In New Testament terms, this means that where someone was seeking to use malicious gossip to cause the trashing of another’s reputation, remove someone from leadership or bring about church discipline that church discipline matches the intent. A minimal act of repentance and restitution will involve the person concerned going and correcting claims they’ve falsely made to anyone else.

It is important not to rush these things. Whilst our desire might be to get things resolved as quickly as possible and to avoid confrontation, it is more important that we get to a resolution which is in line with the truth and is loving to all he need love and care.  These periods of time are never easy for leaders. Often as well your commitment to seeking the truth and maintaining confidentiality will means that you aren’t able to say as much as some would like.  Sadly, there will be those who feel no need to be tied by such requirements and so will happily speculate.

Our aim when responding to accusations should be first of all to ensure that those who have been sinned against are protected and looked after. Secondly, we seek the honour of the Gospel. Thirdly our concern is for the restoration and reconciliation of those who have been in sin.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Is there anyone that you need to say sorry to?
  2. Does your church in any way  struggle with a gossip culture? What actions can you take to rectify this?
  3. Do you know exactly how you would respond to an accusation against a church member?
  4. Do you know exactly how you would respond to an accusation against a church leader?

[1] Deuteronomy 19:15.

[2] 1 Timothy 5:19.

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