Is there always sin on every side?

A few weeks back, in our weekly podcast, we had a discussion about how to respond to false criticism. That is, when people are saying things about you that are essentially untrue, what is the best way to address it? You can hear the discussion here, the pertinent bit starts at around 19:30.

In that podcast, it was put to me that we should always – regardless of what the criticism or accusation we have received is – look for the 10 or 20 per cent that is true and humbly respond to it. You can listen to the segment to hear some of why I vociferously disagreed with that position.

It is my view that if you are criticised and, as part of that criticism, you have done something wrong, then yes, you should apologise for that and seek to change. It is certainly the case that if the criticism or accusation is almost entirely accurate, swift acknowledgement of the truth and a clear desire to change are vital. Some of the time, criticism will not land square on, but the essential point will be true. We could preoccupy ourselves pointing out the minor matters of fact that are incorrect, but if the substance of the criticism is true, again we should simply acknowledge it and (where necessary) repent. That is entirely right and proper.

But in cases where the criticism is simply untrue, it is not the case that you should be looking for the 10 or 20 per cent to apologise for. If there is no basis in fact for the criticism, it may have the appearance of humility to apologise for it, but it strikes me as an entirely dishonest response. We are allowing what is false not only to go unquestioned but, worse, to be affirmed.

Abuse, and cultures of abuse, certainly exist in the church. As much as leaders can abuse their members, it is equally the case that sometimes congregations abuse, and create abuses systems that inevitably lead to the abuse of, their leaders. In my experience, when pastors are abused by their congregations, at some point this tactic of seeking apologies for false accusations in a bid to either get the mud to stick or to follow up, if an acknowledgement is not forthcoming, to paint the leader as lacking humility and thus disqualified. When we buy into a culture that demands apologies for what is ultimately untrue, we are effectively propping up this kind of abuse. When we grant them as church leaders, we are lending credibility to what is ultimately damaging.

At others times, somebody will sagely insist that there must be sin on all sides because there always is. Whilst sometimes that may be true, the idea that is always (or even usually) the case is misguided in the extreme. In this recent article for The Gospel Coalition, Ray Ortlund addressed this logic. He states:

That sounds plausible in this world of universal sin. But it is wrong—and dangerously so. Covered by this slogan, real wrongs can lie undisturbed, unconfronted, unrelieved, which helps no one and further injures everyone involved. And verses like Psalm 10:8 end up making no sense, because no one is innocent.

He goes on to say:

A glib slogan like, “Well, there’s enough guilt here to go around!”—as if that settled anything—might sound humble. But it inadvertently protects predatory church people… if everyone owns it, no one really owns it. And then bad people walk away from their successful injustice with a smirk on their faces, strengthened to repeat their opposition to the gospel and to Christ himself.

It seems rare for people, when these baseless accusations arise, to do what they ought: look at what the scriptures actually say about this. In the clamour to insist people affirm the 10 or 20 per cent of what is demonstrably false, and apologise for it, they ignore the clear statement of scripture that insists we don’t entertain accusations against an elder except on the strength of two or three witnesses. Whilst we can’t get into all the specifics of how that might apply in various complicated circumstances, my point here is much simpler. All too often we expect an untested, unverified accusation to be met with affirmation, humility and repentance. That strikes me as the inverse of what scripture would call us to do.

When leaders are in the crosshairs of someone in the church, I can’t help but think that an awful lot of pain and difficulty could be avoided if we followed the scripture more closely. Instead of dragging out months of meetings on the ground of one unsubstantiated (sometimes entirely unclear) criticism, we would do better to – as the Bible tells us – to only consider the accusation when it comes with supporting evidence. All too often, those who would cause division and dissent can neither substantiate their criticism nor, sometimes, even articulate what their actual criticism is. Yet many churches routinely expect their leaders to take a “humble” stance (for which read, conciliatory and submissive) to accusations that are both unjust and untrue.

The hardest thing as a leader in these situations is not when the accusations come. Whilst they sometimes catch you off guard, those inclined to cook up what is untrue, and to milk a system for their own ends, often give some warning sign that they are disgruntled before these things arise. The accusation, in that sense, is not the shock. What tends to send you to the mat are two other things. First, the friends who simply refuse to stand up and say these things are wrong. Second, the sea of people you always believed were clear-sighted and reasonable allowing a fundamentally unjust and unreasonable set of accusations that lack evidence, and a process that seems flawed in conception and delivery, to run its course without ever so much as asking the question whether it is credible or fair.

Let me say again, if there is substantiated evidence of wrongdoing, a leader ought to confess and repent. No leader is infallible or beyond sin and there will be times this needs addressing. The Bible gives us some grounds for doing just that. But affirming baseless accusations may have the appearance of humble godliness but is, in reality, to partake in lies and encourage injustice. Churches do well to look more closely at what scripture says and adjust their processes accordingly.