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Thinking it through… the wisdom of withholding judgement

June 2019 | by Stephen Rees

Oh no. I dread phonecalls like this. It’s from a friend. Ian’s ringing to tell me that he and his wife have left the church they’ve been attending for the past twenty-odd years. It’s a sad story. They were pillars in that church, working faithfully, doing the jobs no one else wanted to do, supporting the leadership loyally:  until two years ago when the church called a new pastor. He came in and changed everything. Introduced all sorts of new ways of doing things. Pushed his favourites into the key positions in the church. Suggested to older folk like them that it was time to think about stepping aside and making room for younger people. He wouldn’t listen to advice. He trampled on their feelings. He pushed things through members’ meetings.

He hasn’t been round to see Ian and Lynette in months even though he knows they’re upset. He has been telling other people in the church that they are trouble-makers and that they need to change their attitude. And at the last members’ meeting he was downright rude to them – cut across Ian when he was trying to speak, and made it plain that he thought the church would be better off without them.

They can’t take any more of it. So they’re leaving. They’re not sure yet where they’re going to go, but they’ve got no option. They’ve tried to honour the Lord.  They’ve done their best to keep the church faithful to biblical standards. But they know that it’s time to go.

I listen and my heart goes out to the poor man. I can hear the distress and bewilderment in Ian’s voice. He’s obviously hurting. I’m fond of Ian. He’s a good man, a kind man, a man who cares about the same things I care about. And from all I’m hearing, he and Lynette have been very badly treated. I’ve met their ex-pastor. I didn’t warm to him immediately. I can easily imagine him behaving in just the way Ian’s describing.

I grope for words. ‘I’m so sorry to hear all this. I do feel for you. Leaving a church you’ve been part of is always painful…’

‘Yes, we’re feeling pretty devastated…’ and out pour more details about the gimmicks that the pastor introduced which left them dreading each Sunday; about the letter they had written to the elders and the dismissive reply they received; about the way other people had got involved; about the way that things had been misrepresented in the minutes of the meetings…

Ian is my friend. I’m fond of Lynette too. And when I hear the story my instinctive feeling is one of anger on their behalf.

Now, it’s at this point that I need to be careful. Ian’s paused again. He obviously expects me to say something. And I have to phrase my answer very carefully.

‘Well Ian, as I say, I’m so sorry things have come to this. Of course, I’ve not heard the other side of the story so I can’t pass judgment on the rights and wrongs of it all. But whatever has led to this, I know you’re hurting, and I’m sure that the people back in the church must be hurting too. I will try and remember to pray for everyone involved…’

That’s not what Ian wants me to say. He wants me to accept his story unreservedly. And that’s what I want to do too. I want to back the friend I like against the pastor I don’t really know. I feel flattered that Ian has confided in me. I want to be seen as kind, sympathetic, supportive. I want to tell Ian that he’s completely in the right. But I mustn’t, because I haven’t heard the other side of the story.

Perhaps it would have been better if I hadn’t heard Ian’s side in the first place. Perhaps I should have cut him off as soon as he started telling me the story. Perhaps I should have said at that point, ‘Look, Ian, I don’t need to hear this. I can pray for you and Lynette without knowing the ins and outs’. But it’s not always possible to do that. There are times when someone is going to tell you their story whether or not you want to hear it. Short of walking away or putting the phone down, there’s no way of avoiding it.

But now, having heard it, I have to take on board the warning of Scripture: ‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes forward and questions him’ (Proverbs 18:17).

Yes, Ian’s case sounds absolutely clear-cut. So much detail, so many examples, so much that fitted with what I had seen in other situations – and yes, so evidently sincere. Ian clearly believed that he was giving me an absolutely straight, absolutely truthful account of events. But wise Mr Solomon still warns me that things might look very different if someone else were present to ask Ian some probing questions.

Maybe I’d discover that Ian has left out some key facts. Maybe I’d discover that he wasn’t actually present at some of the events he’s described and that he’s only heard about them second-hand. Maybe I’d discover that when the pastor shut Ian up in the members’ meeting, it was because it was against the church constitution to raise points not on the agenda.

I may still be convinced that Ian was telling the truth as he perceived it, but I may discover that at some points, he’s let his own feelings control his interpretation of events. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things…’ (Jeremiah 17:9). A man may believe he’s telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but his own heart may be deceiving him.

Wisdom and justice forbid me to take sides in a dispute where I’ve not heard both sides. If I back Ian, I condemn the pastor of the church and all the folk who have stood with him. As Nicodemus put it, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ (John 7:51). Answer: no. Even human law requires that no one is condemned without their side of the story being heard.

Almost certainly I never will get the chance to hear the church’s or the pastor’s side of the story. After all, the church has no obligation to spend hours satisfying every one of Ian’s friends who asks for an explanation of events. Is the church supposed to convene a court, summon witnesses, open up the minute books, supply copies of letters and emails to everyone who wants to know what’s happened? No, if the church committed itself to doing that, it would have little time for anything else!

And of course, even if there were some sort of hearing at which both sides had the opportunity to speak, there’d still be no guarantee that afterwards I’d know the truth. For Ian, the crunch issue was a meeting between him and the pastor (no-one else present) at which he says the pastor lost his temper and shouted at him. What if the pastor denies it – says that he never lost his temper, and that it was Ian who was shouting. How am I supposed to decide who’s got it right?

Ian says that the pastor never came round to see them to discuss matters. What if the pastor tells me that he tried several times to arrange a visit, but Ian and Lynette never got back to him with a suitable date? How am I supposed to check up on that?

I’m unlikely ever to know with any certainty (here in this world) who is really to blame for the situation. So, best for me not to get involved, even by giving Ian the reassurance he wants. I don’t need to tell him that he’s in the right. I don’t need to tell him that he’s in the wrong. It’s enough to tell him that I’m his friend, that I care about him, that I’ll pray that God will do what’s best for him and Lynette.

And I’ll tell him that I care too, about the church they’ve left. If I meet the pastor of that church, I’ll treat him as a brother with whom I’m glad to have fellowship. If I’m invited to preach at the church, I’ll treat the invitation just as I would if it were any other church.

It would be different if Ian and Lynette were applying for membership with the church here. It would then be our responsibility to make some official enquiries about the circumstances in which they left their previous church. We would have to judge whether they were the innocent parties in the breakdown of fellowship, or whether they needed to go back and sort out wrongs they had done.

hymn singing (Source: Flickr / tcdavis)
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But that’s not the case here. Ian and Lynette aren’t asking to become church members here. There’s no prospect of them even attending this church. We’re not being asked to give them any public endorsement. I’m simply being asked to listen sympathetically to them, as friends.

Again, it would be different if they were officially under the discipline of the church they left. Paul tells us (2 Thessalonians 3:14) that there are times when a church must ‘take note’ of an unrepentant believer and ‘have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed’.

If the church had imposed such a sentence on Ian and Lynette, it would not be for me to undermine it by offering them my friendship and support. I would have to approach the church and ask to hear its side of the story. And unless it was clear that the church had acted unjustly, I would have to respect its discipline and urge my friends to go back and ask the church’s forgiveness for any wrong they may have done.

Again, happily, that’s not the case with Ian and Lynette. The church they’ve left has not charged them with any wrongdoing, has not imposed any discipline upon them, has left its members free to treat them as friends. Clearly, Ian feels the pastor and the church have acted badly; I would guess that the church feels he and Lynette have acted badly. But I don’t have to choose between them. I don’t need to affirm that either party is in the right. I can maintain fellowship with both. And that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to try to pass judgment on this falling out between believers.

Does that seem unsatisfactory? Well, that’s the reality of life in a fallen world. I’m not in a position to judge every conflict with which I’m confronted. I don’t have the wisdom or the insight to do so. It would be the height of arrogance and presumption to try.

I’ve often been comforted by the story of Ziba and Mephibosheth. Do you recall it? Mephibosheth was King Saul’s grandson, crippled from childhood. After Saul’s death, when David ascended the throne, he sought Mephibosheth out, restored his family’s estates to him, and gave him a place at court. Ziba was Mephibosheth’s steward who had the duty to administer the estates on his master’s behalf.

SOURCE marco aurelio/Pixabay
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During Absalom’s rebellion, when David fled from Jerusalem, Ziba brought him emergency supplies: ‘a couple of donkeys saddled, bearing two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred bunches of raisins, a hundred of summer fruits, a skin of wine’ (2 Samuel 16: 1). David asked him where Mephibosheth was. Ziba answered, ‘Behold he remains in Jerusalem, for he said, “Today the house of Israel will give me back the kingdom of my father.”’ (v. 3). To which David replied, ‘Behold, all that belonged to Mephibosheth is now yours’.

David assumed that Ziba was telling the truth and that Mephibosheth had turned against him. He pronounced swift judgment, stripped Mephibosheth of his estates and gave them to Ziba. But later he was to regret that judgment.

After the rebellion had been crushed, David returned to Jerusalem and ‘Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king. He had neither taken care of his feet nor trimmed his beard nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came back in safety’ (19:24).

David questioned Mephibosheth: ‘Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?’ He answered, ‘My Lord, O king, my servant (Ziba) deceived me, for your servant said to him, I will saddle a donkey for myself that I may ride on it and go with the king. For your servant is lame. He has slandered your servant to my lord the king…’

Image by WenPhotos/Pixabay
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Two completely different stories. Ziba says that Mephibosheth deliberately stayed in Jerusalem and quotes him as saying that he hoped to gain the kingdom for himself. Mephibosheth says that Ziba went off with the donkeys leaving him unable to join David. One man’s word against another. And David realises that he’s got no way of knowing for sure which man is telling the truth. ‘The king said to him, “Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided you and Ziba shall divide the land”.’

It was unfair. If Ziba was telling the truth, then it was unfair that half of what had been granted to him was taken away again. If Mephibosheth was telling the truth, it was unfair that he should lose anything. But what option did the king have? There was no way of proving which man was in the right. So he had to settle for something less than perfect justice.

How often we are in that situation! Two people give us their different versions of the same event. Maybe one of them is deliberately lying. Maybe they both are. Or maybe they’re both telling the truth as they see it. One way or another, we’re not in a position to find out the truth. So we have to remain neutral.

As I said, I find the story comforting. It’s comforting first, to see that David made the same mistake that I’ve so often made. He listened to the first man, passed judgment immediately on the situation, and then had to retract it when he’d heard the other side of the story.

How often I’ve done the same thing and how embarrassing it’s been when I’ve had to admit that I got it wrong. But at least I have the (cold) comfort of saying, ‘I’m not the first person to make that mistake! David and I – fools together!’

But then it’s also comforting to realise that even when he had heard both sides of the story, David had to admit that he couldn’t be sure of the truth. He had to accept that it wasn’t in his power to be perfectly fair. Why does that comfort me?  Because that’s where I’m at so often.

Most parents face that situation regularly. Two of the children are squabbling over a toy. You want to know how it started. You listen to one, you listen to the other. And you can’t be sure which of them is telling the truth. ‘OK, neither of you shall have it’. ‘Well then, you can both go to bed early’.

It’s not fair. One of them is being treated unjustly. One of them is getting off lightly. Mum feels guilty. She feels she ought somehow to be able to impose perfect justice. But she can’t. We live in a fallen world.

It’s easy to dispense justice when the facts are all out in the open and undisputed. If Mum had been there to witness the start of the quarrel, or if the children were both telling exactly the same story, Mum could deal swiftly and decisively with the situation. But many of the situations we meet just aren’t that obvious.

How often do we have to face these complicated situations? Answer: very often. For me, it’s often Christian friends who want to tell me about problems in churches and Christian organisations. A pastor is sacked. He wants me to hear the story of how unjustly he was treated. The church secretary wants me to see that the pastor’s behaviour left the church no option.  A missionary returns from the mission field. He wants me to know how badly the mission treated him. The mission secretary wants me to know that the fault was all on the missionary’s side.  A church divides. People on both sides want me to hear how badly the other party has behaved.

In most cases I’m being asked for nothing more than sympathy and some signal that I’m on the side of the person talking to me but sometimes there’s more at stake. Will we continue to support that missionary if he goes out with a different missionary society? Will we continue to invite that pastor to preach for us?

Difficult, difficult, difficult. My fellow pastor Geoff and I have had to discuss some very hard cases in the last couple of years. And in some cases, we’ve never felt that we had a real handle on the situation. We’ve had to make decisions knowing that we’re not really in a position to judge who’s in the right.

But it’s not just Christians and churches is it? Some of you regularly face the same issues in your families and with your relatives. Great-aunt Marcia’s fallen out with cousin Emily. Nobody really knows now how the quarrel began or who was chiefly at fault. Do you listen when Marcia’s sounding off about Emily? Are you free to call the baby Emily knowing that Marcia will take it as a personal affront? Do you invite them both to your golden anniversary do and risk alienating them both?

Relatives, neighbours, colleagues at work: they may all try to persuade us to take sides in their quarrels. Again, if you knew that person A was solely at fault, you might feel bound to tell him so frankly. But usually you don’t. So ninety-nine per cent of the time, the only wise thing to do is to steer clear.

‘A man in the crowd said to him (Jesus), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you”.’ (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus wasn’t prepared to get involved in their quarrel; his only concern was to warn them both, and everyone present to ‘be on your guard against all covetousness’ (v. 15).

Yes, there may be the one instance in a hundred where we have the opportunity not to take sides but to act as peacemaker. But at best it’s risky: ‘Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears’ (Proverbs 26:17). Get involved and it may be you who finishes up getting bitten.

So do we give up on justice? Even in the churches? I’ve pictured Christians hurting one another, churches divided, families at war. Am I saying that we should just shrug our shoulders and accept that this is life? Should we stop caring about the fact that innocent people are getting hurt and that the people who hurt them are getting away with it? Ian and Lynette may have been treated unfairly but they’ll just have to live with it. Or they may be slandering the church they’ve left and its pastor but he’ll just have to accept that. Is that really the bottom line?

No. I’ve said that we can’t judge every situation and that we mustn’t try to. But there is a judge to whom we can entrust every case. This was Paul’s assurance in the face of all the unfair treatment he received – often from fellow Christians who levelled false accusations against him and judged him unfairly:

‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God’ (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).

Paul was content to leave judgment in the hands of God – the judge who knows every detail of every situation and who acts in perfect justice, wisdom and kindness.

Sometimes, even here in this world, God the judge makes his verdict clear. In situations where we cannot judge who’s in the right, who’s in the wrong, God may providentially bring to light the hidden truth. But Paul knew that the truth about some situations will never be resolved this side of Judgment Day.

So he looked beyond this world to the coming of the Lord Jesus who will finally uncover the real story behind every conflict, the secrets of every heart. He will ‘bring to light the things now hidden in darkness’.

In so many situations we must not ‘pronounce judgment before the time’. In a world of confusion and unresolved questions, we wait in faith for the Lord Jesus.

PS  All the names in this article have been changed.  So if you know a real-life Ian and Lynette or if you’ve got a great-aunt Marcia, be assured: it’s not them I’m talking about!

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk