Public comment on public sin matters. Silence does not commend the gospel

A few years ago now, I was getting battered in the ministry. I don’t want to rehash all the gory details here. Suffice to say it was an extremely unpleasant time for me and my family.

But the hardest part of that time was not the unpleasant stuff being said about us, the lies being passed around, the whispering campaign or the unsubtle efforts to make life so difficult I would quit. Those things were all nasty, but not really the worst. Nasty and ungodly people will, inevitably, say and do nasty and ungodly things. I was not the first, I was merely the latest.

No, the thing that stung the most was the the friends who didn’t really say anything. The people we hoped might speak but, for various reasons, didn’t. I don’t bear any ill-will to any of those friends at all – things can be complicated and it’s not always easy to speak due to complex situations (I love them as much now as I ever did) – but there were days we just longed for somebody, anybody, to stand up and say clearly and without equivocation that what was happening was unjust and wrong. In fact, the balloon of nonsense began to deflate the moment somebody did just that. It spelt the beginning of the end of that unfortunate episode.

Now, I don’t share that to elicit any sympathy. If I wanted that, I’d rehash the whole sorry saga. It is something in the past and I am grateful to have two godly men, whom I love, to lead the church alongside me. The reason I write it is to make the point, of which I am only too aware, that silence is not always golden. Sometimes, saying nothing is ultimately not the godly response to wrongdoing and injustice. In fact, our silence can cause even more pain than that brought by the sin we ought to be exposing.

In our case, the problem at hand flourished in the dark corners and under cover of silence. Whilst people could whisper to each other, speaking what was neither true nor helpful, issues could not be handled or addressed. Gossip thrived in the vacuum of silence and relished its private meetings to try and address matters. It was only with the disinfectant of light and as things were brought out into the open that matters could begin to be resolved.

Even then, there was a tendency to want to appear moderate. Let’s try not to take sides. Let’s make sure we ascribe blame on both sides because that has the appearance of balance. Let’s ensure that we don’t say what we think because our silence has the appearance of godliness and wisdom. But when there is a simple matter of right and wrong before you, it is ungodly and unjust to pretend it is something other. To suggest the issue is complicated, or there must be blame on both sides, when – in reality – somebody is simply behaving in an ungodly manner, is not wise nor godly. The right thing to do is simply call sin out for what it is, plainly and clearly. Balance and moderation is for when there is considerable doubt about the matter, not for when it is apparent that somebody is trying to stage a coup and sow the seed of division.

You may be wondering what this has to do with anything? In the wake of another leadership scandal, there are always calls to say nothing. Keep quiet. Don’t comment because calling the sin ‘sin’ might stoke the embers. Better to keep your own counsel because the gospel might be brought into disrepute. But just as in my own case, this sort of response has the appearance of godliness and wisdom but, in reality, is a total crock.

When people have been hurt by an injustice of some sort within the church – especially when somebody has abused their power and used an appearance of godliness to cover it up – we help precisely nobody by insisting on silence. Silence is precisely how these things were allowed to happen in the first place! Worse, we communicate to those who have been damaged that we either don’t care or don’t have the spine to admit that what has happened was wrong, unjust and should not have happened. We place our fears about the possible impact – dressing it up as concern for godliness and protection of the gospel – above those who have been damaged and, in the process, we hurt them further as we make clear that we would rather remain silent than affirm that they have faced a sinful injustice.

Telling people not to speak up about what is clearly and evidently sinful brings the gospel into disrepute. In fact, it shows that we are concerned enough about the glory of Christ and not dishonouring his name that we are prepared to highlight sin where it exists and call it what it is. It shows that we care more about those who have suffered than we do about protecting ‘our ministry’. Keeping silent – when these things inevitably come out anyway – will hardly show the greatness of the gospel.

In the final analysis, keeping silent tends to mean hurting further those who are crying out for somebody to acknowledge that it’s not just them, they aren’t going mad, but that this is objectively wrong. Silence may have the appearance of a godly response, but in the end it does nothing but provide cover from criticism for those who are only facing such rebuke because they have already dishonoured the name of Christ. It may have the appearance of wisdom, but it is actually cowardice. It is born of fear that it might damage our links and lack of trust that the Lord isn’t big enough to deal with sin, he needs us to insulate everyone from really knowing about it.

The question is, are we prepared to support those who have been seriously wronged by sin or not? Our silence, though we might like to think we are being balanced, is a de facto judgement of its own. Most victims of injustice and sin – those who have suffered abuse and bullying – want to know that people see the situation for what it is. They want to feel like they have been seen. They want to know that what was done to them out of view is now being brought to light and judged rightly. Silence robs them of that and protects the perpetrators of injustice from censure all in the name of doing what is best for the kingdom.

If Jesus really thought that was the right approach, it seems unlikely that he would insist we publicly tell the church about some sins and then remove people publicly from membership. It seems unlikely that Paul would write about heinous sin in his letters, and the subsequent appropriate consequences for it, that he then commanded local churches to read aloud and disseminate to other churches around the world. Even in a simple ‘do unto others…’ sense, or a ‘love thy neighbour’ way, what would you want to happen should you be the victim of such things? Would you feel loved and supported by a wall of silence or would you feel that the exposure of the sin, and the evident (and right) condemnation it received from fellow believers, better serves the cause of justice and commends the gospel?

I think we all know the answer.

And if such is the case, can we stop pretending that somehow saying nothing best serves the gospel? It doesn’t. Can we stop pretending that we somehow do the kingdom more favours by refusing to comment on public sin and injustice than we do by calling it what it is? Can we perhaps stop pretending that the gospel is commended to people when they perceive we are too embarrassed to admit that sin has occurred? Calling sin what it is, recognising victims have been victimised, affirming that abuse is just that and being clear that sin – where it takes place – is not quietly affirmed by others in the church does far more for the cause of Christ than our wall of silence ever does.