When it comes to ministry scandals, personal vendettas, perceived offenses and the exercise of corrective discipline, the internet has enabled certain corners of American Christianity to exploit a world wide web of confusion in which we are routinely failing to follow proper biblical protocol—often in the name of standing up for Christ and His righteousness.
To avoid the chippiness that comes with getting personal, I will spare us all the specific examples, but if I were to list the victims of cyberspace scandal exploitation, generally in the form of abuse and bullying, I could easily cite a seminary president, two college presidents, a pastor, a denominational leader and a teenager. Can we agree that enough is enough? Can we not stop Social Media Abuse—in the name of accountability—before anyone else is victimized?
Yes, we stand for truth. The Bible clearly speaks of a process for providing loving correction and discipline. However, what we see on the internet is often simply gossip and slander, thinly disguised as some mutation of godly accountability. There is a vast difference between a witch hunt and an accountability partner. If you do not know personally and love deeply the person you are seeking to restore, chances are high that you are not the person to address this matter with them. Let others handle it, and go tend to your own business.
Yes, there is certainly room for the writing of hard hitting investigative journalism. But it is one thing to raise questions, address issues and offer opinions about a matter. It is another thing to become a self-appointed activist crusader for justice who volunteers as a special investigator operating under no authority from any entity, organization or government. To prosecute a brother or sister in Christ, when one does not have any specific civic or biblical authority, under the pretense of restoring a fallen brother, is simply not an act of biblical restoration. In fact, it is a perversion of the biblical model of correction found in Matthew 18 and elsewhere.
1. Biblical discipline comes from the right source.
For both biblical and practical reasons, the context of Matthew 18 is the local church. When we go to a brother or sister who has offended us, we go personally (alone), then privately (one or two others) and then publicly (to the whole church). Thus, this correction is to take place within the faith community of the alleged offender. There is no specific instruction for all universal church members to hold all brothers and sisters in all local churches accountable to all other brothers and sisters all over the world. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if we interpreted Matthew 18 as a practice to be applied by all members of the universal church everywhere? In fact, have we not seen a small glimpse of this lately? Each local church would apply different standards of restoration and no offending brother or sister could ever be fully restored because there would always be some church somewhere unwilling to extend their forgiveness.
With regard to parachurch organizations and Christian institutions, the proper source for such biblical discipline is within the Boards that have been established for providing such correction and discipline. To demand certain acts of contrition and restitution, when one is not at all a part of the corrective discipline process, not only takes up an offense for another, but inserts oneself into matters that are not one’s business. Raising issues is fair game. Asking questions is fine. Writing articles is a perfectly legitimate expression. But demanding a certain outcome for that discipline process, and continuing to harass a victim after they have gone through the process of counseling, confession, forgiveness and restoration by their respective Board of Directors or church family, is simply outside the boundaries of New Testament corrective discipline.
2. Biblical discipline displays the right attitude.
Not only should biblical discipline come from the right source, meaning those who are actually charged with holding the person accountable, but it should also demonstrate an attitude of loving restoration. The Bible says we are to restore others in a “spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1) It should not bring joy to those administering such discipline. They should be grieved, tender and broken over the failure of their brother or sister. Frankly, those hiding behind anonymous websites are ironically avoiding personal accountability in their own lives. Those starting Twitter Wars take the raging fire of the tongue (James 3:6) and so weaponize the virus of gossip that it becomes the crystal meth of slander, wiping others out and taking no prisoners. In many such demands for apologies, there is little sorrow, less agonizing and no self-reflection. In other words, much of the time, the call for a change in behavior not only comes from the wrong person, but it stems from the wrong attitude.
3. Biblical discipline is quick to forgive.
“As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13) This may be the part that bothers me the most. We are all fallen. We all make mistakes. When we admit them, the gracious thing for people of good will to do is to accept that confession and move on. When those closest to a situation—such as the local church or the ministry’s board of directors—have thoroughly examined a matter, counseled the offender, accepted evidence of their confession before God and those they have hurt, and extended their forgiveness and restoration, then it is incumbent upon others, in obedience to verses like the one cited above, to extend this same forgiveness and move on in the very same fashion.
When a person is unwilling to forgive the penitent sinner whom God and others have already forgiven, what does that say about their understanding of grace? Once the matter has been handled and put to rest by those responsible for doing so, the Bible says those sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west. Once God remembers our brother’s sins no more, let us remember to forget them as well. Otherwise, our web of confusion will lead to a web of destruction.