Reputation is a precious thing. To have one’s reputation tarnished is serious business. It is why we have defamation, libel and slander laws. The damages inflicted on somebody through lies, misinformation and rumour are rightly recognised as worthy of recompense, at least in some form. Typically, money – as is usually received in civil cases – does not bring restitution; the damage has often been done and cannot be properly undone. But a court ruling publicly declaring such things to be untrue counts for far more in such situations.
For ministers of the gospel, the damages inflicted on them are equally serious. Very often, it can cost them not only their reputation, but their ministry, livelihoods and – perhaps most difficult of all – any easy attempt to walk into a church in which their name is known. And most Christians simply aren’t going to take a brother or sister to a secular court over such civil matters to try and restore their reputations when they are tarnished by those with malevolent intent or, if not intentionally malevolent, those with particularly skewed perspectives.
Let’s be honest, the small Christian world in the UK is, sadly, as full of rumour and gossip as anywhere else. Names are mentioned, comments often made, and with little to no evidence, we all clock these things and naturally think – even if we don’t know all that has gone on – there seems to be a whiff of something. No smoke without fire is our prevailing outlook, failing to recognise that there are ways to create what looks a lot like smoke without any fire (hello, dry ice!) The question is, what is to be done about it?
Let me offer three thoughts to consider:
Have your eyes open about your reputation
The fact is, in ministry, your reputation will sometimes take an unwarranted hit. If you cannot cope with the thought that people will tarnish your reputation unfairly, the bottom line is, ministry is not going to be a happy place for you. That isn’t to say they should, or that is okay, it is to say it is a problem as old as the Bible itself. The prophets had it, Jesus had it, the Apostles had it and every minister of the gospel will face it at some point too. In the internet age, we have it in bucketloads. If you want to protect your reputation, and never face scurrilous accusations, do not go into gospel ministry. It is impossible to avoid because ‘no servant is greater than his master’ and if they did it to Jesus, they’ll do it to you too.
The fact is, people will form opinions of you and your ministry. Some of those opinions will be legit, some of them will be deeply unfair. Some people will like you, some people will not. Many people will form opinions on you from a distance (some accurate, some not) and others will form the same sort of opinions from closer to hand. Whenever anyone says anything about you, all those people will weigh it against the opinion they have formed of you. That is, sadly, just the way it works. You have to go into ministry recognising your reputation is impossible to protect perfectly.
Entrust yourself to the church
The God-ordained means of judging matters between believers is his church. Your church are the people who know you well, who see your ministry up close, who are there to hold you to account for how you shepherd them. Whenever rumours or accusations surface, it is before the church that they ought to be heard.
If someone has a genuine accusation, let them put it before the church in the full belief that the majority will recognise those same things. Let the church hold the perpetrator to account. The one who believes themselves to be innocent should equally have no problem standing before the church and having the accusation heard. If there is no credit to it, the church will agree.
Assuming there is a credible approach to polity, those who will not bring their accusations before the church should not be entertained. They are willing to fling out accusations without standing before the biblically appointed means of hearing and weighing those claims. Where a church have heard, weighed and dismissed the claim, those of us from afar should not continue with a ‘no smoke without fire’ view, but should trust that those who have seen and heard these things up close – those the Lord has appointed as arbitrators over these things – have pronounced their judgement and it should be heard accordingly. We should trust the church in judging these matters and not entertain an ‘I reckon’ from afar. For any minister of the gospel, if they are convinced they have not done wrong before the Lord, their first concern must be how his own church views him. If it is the church that calls, and removes from office, then it is vital that we seek to entrust ourselves to the view of our churches so far as our reputation is concerned.
Entrust yourself to God
Beyond your own church, there is little you can do. There will always be those who insist there is no smoke without fire. You can do nothing about how others view your reputation. You can only point to the fact that your conscience is clear before the Lord and whether or not your church agree. What other beyond your own congregation do with that (and, let’s be honest, most people won’t even ask that much) is not within your power. Which means you must simply entrust your reputation beyond your church to the Lord.
That sounds a bit passive and defeatist. But it isn’t meant to be. As we have noted, the prophets, the Lord and the Apostles all had their reputations damaged, sometimes from believers sometimes from unbelievers. But all entrusted themselves to the Lord. In the end, the reputation they cared about the most was their reputation before Jesus. How he viewed them was what mattered, not how others viewed them. They didn’t think their reputation among people didn’t matter at all, but what ultimately mattered was their reputation before Christ. That is the reputation that ought to matter to us too.