After reading so many of your experiences, I’ve come to believe that the problem of wounding by the church requires solutions in two areas.
**First, people who’ve been wounded need to find healing through biblical communication.
**Second, the church needs to return to the biblical model of leadership so we can curtail the abuses of power that hurt so many.
If we have been hurt by the church, the first thing we must do is examine ourselves. If the hurt was small or unintentional, and especially if the offender is unaware of the offense, perhaps it is better if we simply and quietly forgive as Jesus forgave those who betrayed and taunted him. He didn’t confront them, He understood their weakness and their human nature.
Sometimes people get busy or distracted and they aren’t as attentive as they should be, or even as they’d like to be. Sometimes they say something that was never meant to be offensive, yet someone takes offense. I remember once hearing a pastor refer to “trailer trash” in a sermon—he used it as an expression; he didn’t direct it at anyone. Yet a friend of mine who lived in a trailer was highly offended by that phrase, and I don’t think she ever went back to church again. I don’t think she would have been out of line to approach the pastor and gently remind him that lots of people live in trailers, so perhaps he should be careful when he uses that phrase. Knowing the pastor, I’m sure he would have apologized profusely and sincerely. On the other hand, I also think it would also have been appropriate for her to realize that he was using it only as an expression and not as an insult to any person or group of people.
Paul wrote, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
“Bearing with one another” means that I patiently endure your quirks and you patiently put up with mine. It’s the sort of forbearance you see in a good marriage or close friendship. And it’s what we Christians are to do with one another.
John MacArthur writes, “In other words, believers are supposed to have a sort of mutual immunity to petty offenses. Love ‘is not easily angered’ (1 Cor. 13:5, NIV). If every fault required formal confrontation, the whole of our church life would be spent confronting and resolving conflicts over petty annoyances. So for the sake of peace, to preserve the unity of the Spirit, we are to show tolerance whenever possible.
This, then, is the governing rule: Unless an offense requires confrontation, unconditional, unilateral forgiveness should cover the transgression. The offended party, in suffering the offense, is following in the footsteps of Christ (1 Pet. 2:21–25). This is the very attitude Christ called for in Matthew 5:39–40: “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.”
That simple advice should cover a host of offenses—the woman who said something less than complimentary about your casserole, the deacon who thoughtlessly took your regular parking spot, the pastor who said he’d visit and got held up. Holding a grudge or an offense requires energy, and you will do yourself a favor if you release it and place it under the flood of forgiveness available to you through Christ. How would you feel if Jesus held you accountable for every time you did something stupid or selfish? What if you had to keep every promise, even when circumstances veered out of your control? Forgive as you want to be forgiven, freely and completely.
Those of us who belong to the body of Christ must intentionally practice loving our brothers and sisters. “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another,” Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome. “If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. . . Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8a, 9).
The New Testament is filled with admonitions about how believers in church should treat one another:
“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong” (Romans 14:1).
“So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10).
“Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).
“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
“Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you. Instead, let there be thankfulness to God” (Ephesians 5:3-5).
“Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior” (2 Timothy 2:15).
“Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit. Pray for us [spiritual leaders], for our conscience is clear and we want to live honorably in everything we do” (Hebrews 13:17-18).
“Don’t grumble about each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. For look—the Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:9).
Curtail the Criticism
One consistent thread in the poll responses was hurt that sprang from criticism. We must remember that a church body is made up of believers of varying levels of maturity—some are weaker brothers, some are mature saints, and some are saints who have matured in knowledge but not in love. Often these folks behave as weaker brothers when they ought to know better.
Dear brothers and sisters, if you have been following our Lord Jesus for some time, please pay close attention to this.
Recently I was at a writers’ conference with my dear friend Bill Myers. Bill asked a group of us what Christians are known for doing and not doing.
The list we came up with looked something like this:
Christians DO: Christians DON’T:
Give money dance
Turn the other cheek swear
Go to church party
Pray a lot drink to excess
Protest sinful things have fun
Then Bill looked at all of us and pointed to the lists. “What,” he asked, “about those lists makes Christianity attractive to people who don’t follow Jesus?”
As part of the group, I bit my lip as I realized his point. Who would want to become a Christian if it meant giving up fun, parties and dancing in order to give money away, become passive, spend days in church, spend hours on your knees, and boycott Disney World? Our “lists” don’t make a relationship with Christ seem all that appealing.
Then Bill asked, “What are the fruits of the Spirit? What do we receive when we become believers?”
Nearly all of us could recite the list in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“Now,” Bill said. “Who wouldn’t want love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and the other fruits of the Spirit? Who wouldn’t want those personally, and who wouldn’t want to be around people who exhibit those qualities?”
We Christians are often guilty of focusing more on our lists than advertising—and displaying— the marvelous gifts the Spirit gives to those who follow Jesus.
Over the years, many churches have adopted the saying, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This ought to be our code for how we handle situations in the church. Topics that are essential to the faith—biblical matters of salvation—should be upheld in unity. Topics that are nonessential to faith—how to order a service, what curriculum to choose, whether or not to have wine with dinner, what color carpet to install in the sanctuary—should be freely decided by individuals (personal decisions) or members of the church (corporate decisions). But all things should be handled with love and care for each member of the body.
What are we missing most in today’s churches? Love—for one another, for the pastor, and for the people. And how do we love people? We do things to show them that they are precious to us. We give. We encourage. We spend our time—our very lives—in their service. We comfort. We teach. We act as the hands of Jesus and minister to those who need help—the single parent, the orphan child, the lonely widow, the man who can’t find a job. We do not criticize where they are; we help them where they are.
My friend Randy Alcorn once told me a story about a young couple who joined a church and weren’t married. People started buzzing about their unmarried-but-living-together status, and some were saying that they need to be confronted about their sin. But they were new in the church, and new believers, so how should it be done?
Someone realized that the situation could be handled with love, not criticism. In going to the couple and asking a few gentle questions, they learned that the couple wanted to be married, but couldn’t afford a wedding. So the church members pulled together—someone bought a wedding dress, someone provided a cake, the minister stepped forward, and the church gave that couple a beautiful wedding. If only more people thought to help before they criticized!
Through reading the results of my poll, and through years of personal experience, I’ve realized that another crucial missing element is biblical communication. Over and over, the respondents to my poll reported that they were unable to speak to the person who’d hurt them, or they were able to speak, but didn’t feel that they’d been heard. It’s important that when people come to us, we sit, put other matters aside, and truly listen.
Roger Barrier tells the following illustrative story about the importance of truly hearing someone else’s hurt:
I learned about the importance of this when I was young, foolish, and newly married. I labored in my first full-time pastorate for three years without a day off. I had a church to build and people to reach. One Monday Julie suggested we take an overnight trip to Phoenix, about one hundred miles north of Tucson. I told her that if I worked hard I could get my sermon done early, and we could depart by noon on Friday. So the trip was planned and the hotel reservation made for our much-needed mini-vacation.
At 11:45 a.m. on Friday, my phone rang. Kyle, one of my deacons, had heard that Julie and I were driving to Phoenix. The repair shop had just called to tell him that his car, which had broken down in Phoenix the previous weekend, was ready to be picked up.”Could you give me a ride to Phoenix?” he asked. “The repair shop is near the interstate.”
I had no choice: How would it look for the pastor to refuse aid to a deacon in distress?
I picked up the phone and called Julie: “I’ll be home and ready to go at noon. Oh, by the way, Kyle called and needs a ride to Phoenix to pick up his car. You don’t mind, do you?” The silence was deafening. Click. She hung up on me.
I hurried home, loaded the suitcases into the trunk, and opened the front passenger door for Julie. She refused to get in. She opened the back door and slid into the seat, as I said, “Oh no, Julie, Kyle can ride in the back. He’ll understand.”
“No. He can sit in the front with you.”
Julie cried all the way to Phoenix. I know, because I kept looking in the rearview mirror. She never spoke to Kyle or to me. In fact, she hardly said a word the entire trip. Late Saturday afternoon, back in Tucson, I opened the trunk to unload our suitcases and said the only thing that seemed appropriate. “Look, if you want a divorce, it’s all right with me.”
She looked me hard in the eye and replied, “Divorce is not an option. We will work this out.”
Realizing I had hurt her, I apologized profusely. She told me she forgave me and not to worry about it. Deep inside I knew she still hurt, but I had no idea of the depth of her hurt.
Over the years I brought up the Phoenix trip several times: “I don’t feel like we really settled that issue. Will you forgive me for what I did that weekend? Please?”
She said on every occasion, “Yes, I forgive you.” But I knew the wound was not healed.
My perspective was that Julie had about a “quart-sized bottle’s worth” of pain. So I showed up occasionally and asked for about a quart-sized bottle’s worth of forgiveness. Unfortunately, she was carrying about a ten-gallon tub of hurt. It was hard for Julie to forgive a lot of hurt when I was asking for only a little bit of forgiveness.
One day I said to Julie, “Sweetheart, I really want to talk about the hurt and pain of our trip to Phoenix. I want you to take however long you need to tell me about your feelings of hurt, betrayal, rejection, sadness, fear, and aloneness. I want to hear how badly I hurt you.”
It was like I gave her a gun and said, “Shoot me.”
So she did.
“I felt deeply betrayed,” she began. “I feared for what our future would be like. I wondered if you really did love me at all. I was terrified I would spend the rest of my marriage in loneliness. I felt so neglected. I tried to imagine what I had done to deserve such rejection.”
The more she shared her pain, the more I understood how deeply I had hurt her. Then I began to cry as I felt for the first time the agony I had put her through. Finally, I asked one more time, “I am so sorry, will you forgive me?”
For the first time, I made a request for forgiveness based upon a true understanding of her pain. Through tears, Julie said, “Yes, I forgive you.” The hurt was healed. I have never again felt the need to ask her forgiveness for the Phoenix trip.
A ten-gallon tub of hurt requires a ten-gallon tub of understanding and forgiveness.
Reconciliation often requires more than that ten-gallon tub of understanding and forgiveness—sometimes it requires making amends.
When we were hurt, the pastor came to our house and listened to us explain how deeply we’d been wounded. He then said, “I’m sorry.” But he did nothing to set things right, and that perceived indifference hurt worse than the initial wound. We didn’t feel that we were heard.
An apology means nothing unless the person apologizing offers to make amends, to fix what has been broken. A person who truly repents turns from his sin; he doesn’t keep on sinning. The same principle holds true when we set out to restore broken relationships in the church—we have to apologize and then offer to repair the situation. Repair isn’t always possible, but the willingness to make amends can go a long way.
Public offenses should be publicly repaired. Private offenses should be repaired privately. As the saying goes, “the circle of confession should be as large as the circle of transgression.”
Sometimes we must take the initiative to wound the breach between us and another brother or sister in Christ. Pastor Doug Self explains what happened when he visited a church member who had disappeared from his congregation:
For many years I had counseled Sally through marital and parenting woes, financial difficulties, and other personal problems. We had become close, so when her attendance flagged, I stopped by for a visit. The conversation was unusually strained at first, but then she broke forth.
“I loaned the church my big coffee pot for the reception six months ago,” she began.
“Okay.” I vaguely remembered the incident.
“Well, someone dropped and broke it. No one has said a word since or tried to do anything about it, and all I’ve got for my generosity is a broken coffee pot.”
“Sally, I didn’t realize that.”
“That’s right,” she answered, looking as if she’d said something she’d wanted to say for a long time but was slightly embarrassed at finally having said it.
“I’m sorry. I wish I had known. That’s certainly not right for you to be stuck with a broken coffee pot.”
“And then, several weeks later, I had to move that big piano from upstairs to downstairs. I asked for help during a Sunday morning church service, and no one came. I certainly can’t move it by myself, so I had to go out and hire some men to move it. I thought the church was supposed to take care of its own,” she concluded with emphasis.
“Sally, I’m sorry at how the church has offended you. It sounds as if it has been a real disappointment.”
“Yes, I’ve felt hurt.” She paused, and her demeanor changed. “But I guess I didn’t have to sit around stewing in it. After all, I could have come to you with my concerns sooner.”
“But sometimes when we’re hurt it’s difficult to reach out to those who’ve hurt us. Sally, I’m sorry this has happened to you. You know how much we’ve been through together and how much Rebecca (my wife) and I love you. I’m sorry you’ve been hurt.” I extended my hand to her. “I don’t know what happened with the coffee pot,” I continued, “but I can assure you that we’ll either get it fixed or get you a new one.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal, really. It wasn’t new. It just seemed as if no one cared.”
I also apologized for the church’s lack of response to her plea for moving help. But by that time, it didn’t seem to matter; she’d said as much, in fact. Her hurt had been healed.
“Love,” the Bible says, “covers a multitude of sins,” and it does. Open communication can solve many problems.
But sometimes serious problems arise in the church, and the situation requires more than open communication, it requires biblical confrontation. How do we know when confrontation is necessary, and how do we go about it?
More on that tomorrow.
 John F. MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, electronic ed., 123-24 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).
 Roger Barrier and David L. Goetz, Listening to the Voice of God, The Pastor’s Soul Series, 132-39 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998).
 Doug Self, “Strategies for Ministering to Inactives”, in Mastering Pastoral Care, Mastering Ministry, 69-81 (Portland, OR; Carol Stream, IL: Multnomah Press, 1990).