Amidst all the commotion over bloggers who have aired their complaints against so-called abusive leaders, there is the belief that those who have done so have failed to follow the prescription set down in Matthew 18 for confronting their offenders. This perceived failure to follow the black and white teachings of Jesus on the matter [or red and white as the case may be] have led many to dismiss out of hand any stories told. Nevermind whether those stories are true, it's that they are told in the first place that is the problem.
Well, there is a flaw in this line of thinking. The flaw is the assumption that Matthew 18 is the one and only way to deal with sin, even when - or especially when - church leaders are involved. A good look at Matthew 18 will reveal an important assumption that Jesus makes when he gives this method. Actually there are a number of assumptions - and I will look at these here - but the overarching assumption is one of accountability. The sinning offender will be accountable to you, to witnesses and to the church.
First, "If your brother sins, go and show him..." This first step assumes that the offender is approachable. Then, "...Show him his fault in private" This makes the assumption that the offender is willing to listen. Following, "If he listens to you [i.e. agrees with you and decides to repent], you have won your brother" makes the assumption the offender might just do so. This first step of confronting one who sins is a step of optimism. There is the hope that this will restore the sinner.
Next, the second step, "If he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed." Again, there is the assumption that the offender is even now open to listening further to your argument - open enough to listen to witnesses that further your claim. The third step is key here. "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." This is a huge assumption. This assumes the church will be agreeing with you. Not with the sinner, but with you. Not only this, but "and if he refuses to listen even to the church..." makes the assumption that not only will the church take your side, but the church as a whole will be confronting the offender. Each step in the process, Jesus is making optimistic assumptions about the results.
This brings me back to the bloggers who tell the stories of authoritarianism and spiritual abuse. Their stories are completely different than the optimistic picture Jesus paints about confronting those who sin. In these cases - and the big stories come to mind; Mars Hill, CJ Mahaney and SGM, Beaverton Grace Bible Church; but there are many, many more small stories - in these cases the church leaders are outside of accountability. They are unapproachable. They won't listen, and they don't listen. In many of the cases of authoritarianism and spiritual abuse, the church leaders hold to systematic sins. Sins that are taught to their churches as a way of life. These churches have many people who lack discernment and swallow the teachings of these leaders. They've already drank the KoolAid. These churches can't recognize that the offended people realize that the offense really is sin. These churches won't confront their leaders because they don't see the sin. Or if they do, they are so afraid of what their leaders will do to them that they keep silent. This makes it difficult or even impossible to get two or three witnesses to confront somebody who is unavailable in the first place. In addition, these leaders have peers who have bought into the same system and have taught their churches the same things. Their peers will not hold them accountable either.
Then to make matters even worse, they use their power to attack the offended people in any way they can, to discredit them, to slander them, to call the church to shun them.
How is Matthew 18 even possible in situations such as these? I've already gone long here, so discussing other means to address sin - especially the sin of leaders - will have to be left for another post.