Whistleblowers in the Church

Pastor Les Dennis
Fall River Baptist Church, Nova Scotia
May 16, 2021

A recent article in the magazine Christianity Today is about whistle-blowing in Christian ministries. It shows the pitfalls for ministries when the difference between gossip and whistle-blowing is confused, and when the Matthew Principle (see below) is misused. We all believe that it is wrong to gossip, but what about whistle-blowing to expose immorality? Is that gossip? The biblical principles for dealing with an elder, pastor, bishop, or overseer of the church are good principles to apply to all Christian leaders.

Two Biblical Concepts
These two items—the Matthew Principle and the definition of gossip—are often twisted by abusive leaders.

The Matthew Principle
The Matthew principle states that an accusation against a believer should be privately taken to that believer in order to try to resolve the dispute. If it cannot be resolved, the next step is to involve one or two spiritually mature believers to help resolve the problem. Only after these two steps fail should it be taken to the church.

The Definition of Gossip
Here are a few passages that relate to gossip: Proverbs 11:13, Proverbs 16:28, Proverbs 18:8, Proverbs 20:19, Proverbs 26:20, Proverbs 26:22, I Timothy 5:12-13, and Ephesians 4:3. In Scripture, talebearer, slanderer, and whisperer are a few of the words used for gossipers. A talebearer is one who spreads stories about others that put them in a bad light. The term whisperer is sometimes associated with talebearers in Scripture. Slander is another biblical term that is identified with gossip in Ephesians 4:31. Slander is spreading false, harmful information about someone. We will not pursue all of the verses that could be used, but we can sum up the biblical teaching regarding gossip by saying it is spreading negative information with wrong motives.

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Negative Statements?
Is gossip merely expressing a negative statement about someone who is not physically present for the conversation? There are times when following the principle of love for God and others requires talking about someone who is not present. There is a proper way to discuss other people when they are not present. If the conversation is motivated by love for all involved, it is not gossip whether or not it is negative. This means that if the motives are right, the discussion is not sinful.

Need for Victims to Talk about the Abuser
As the article in Christianity Today points out, a victim of sexual abuse must be able to (without the abuser being present) talk about it with a close confidant, with those from whom she seeks counsel, and with church officials. This should not be considered gossip or sinful conversation.

What Is the Truth about the Matthew Principle?
Immoral leaders sometimes misapply the Matthew Principle by insisting that accusations of sexual misconduct should be brought to them privately by the accuser. This is such a fearful thing for the victim that it will sometimes silence them immediately. It makes the victim vulnerable to manipulation and more abuse. The power difference between a spiritual leader and his victim makes it impossible to correctly apply the Matthew Principle here. A victim of sexual abuse should never be told to meet privately with the accused leader. This is not the intent of the Matthew Principle. The principle that applies to an immoral leader here is given in I Timothy 5:19-20—it is the principle of transparency and accountability, no matter how it it affects the church.

Transparency and Accountability
The command of God to love God and others is a guiding principle in cases of sexual abuse, as in everything else. When such a case is brought to the attention of of church officials, the biblical response is not to deal with it quietly with just the church officials. It is to go public, because abusive spiritual leaders must be stopped. Churches must not allow their leaders to use twisted teachings about gossip or the Matthew Principle to keep victims in line. When sexual abuse victims speak up, they must not be forced back into silence and continue to be victimized by a Christian leader. In the fight against sin in the church, to rid the church of gossip and slander is a good thing, but to rid the church of those who would expose
immoral leaders is a bad thing. The clear guidance of I Timothy 5:19-20 is that an accusation against an elder/pastor should not be accepted unless there are two or three witnesses. When there are two or three witnesses that elder should be publicly rebuked as a warning to teach other leaders not to sin. If there is only one accuser, the accusation should be investigated but not yet accepted unless the investigation reveals another witness or other credible evidence; the accuser herself should not be rebuked or discouraged. This does not let the guilty spiritual leader off the hook, because when a leader turns to the sin of immorality, he will usually do it again. Once an accusation surfaces, the church officials should begin praying for the Lord to reveal the full truth. When the guilt of an elder is established, he is to be rebuked before everyone. It is not a time to rebuke the victim. It is not time for a private settlement to save the ministry. It is a time to reveal the truth about the
leader and rebuke him publicly. He must be stopped. To have a private settlement and allow the Christian leader to move on to another ministry is to violate Scripture and do a great evil to both the victims and the church.

Red Flags
There are some red flags that should help Christian ministries identify potential leadership abuse. If a leader tries to prevent all negative statements about his ministry, that is a red flag. If a leader tries to avoid transparency in situations that could suggest sexual temptations, that is a very red flag. If a leader has access to large amounts of money for which he is not required to give an account, that is a red flag.

Trust but Verify
Churches and Christian ministries must be able to trust their leaders, but trust does not mean being naive and gullible. Many years ago Mr. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union was talking with President Reagan. He said: “Don’t you trust me?” Reagan answered that he believed he should trust but verify. That is a good operating principle for Christian ministries regarding their leaders.

Final Note
If victims choose not to go pubic, or do so only after many years, we should never blame them. It is not an easy thing to go public, especially against a powerful Christian leader. The victim understands the power of the abuser and the risk of going public. We should be supportive of victims whether they choose to go public or not.

Christianity Today, May and June 2021 Whispers or Whistle-blowing? Kate Shellnut.

@ 2021 by Rev. Les Dennis. D.D. — Permission is given to copy this article,
if it is copied in its entirety and distributed without charge