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Authority and Grievances


The term murmuring, which we use so much, does not apply to leaders talking about followers. It specifically relates to followers secretly criticising leaders. But I have taught that none of us (leaders included) should talk about anyone else if they are not present to hear the criticism. I have done this because I want to be fair to followers by applying the same discipline to myself that I ask for from them.

Nevertheless, I may have failed to make clear that applying the restrictions about murmuring to leaders discussing problems with followers is not strictly required by Scripture. By failing to point out this fact, I have caused some of you to overlook this important difference between the requirements that God makes of leaders and those that he makes of followers, a difference that followers will just have to learn to live with.

I applied murmuring to leaders as well as to followers because I am aware, as a leader, of a tendency to get into gripe sessions about followers just as followers can easily get into gripe sessions about leaders. It is too easy for me as a leader to justify the gripe sessions in the early stages, only to discover in the end that it is not having a good effect on my spirit. I have even had to take this approach with regard to outright enemies and backsliders. To a point we can learn from their mistakes, but it is easy for us to miss our own faults while focusing on theirs by discussing what they did wrong.

So that is the reason why I have tried to take a hard line about leaders discussing followers.

I'm still in favour of keeping this restriction on leaders in general; but I think that followers should at least be made aware of the fact that this is not how it is expressed in the Bible.

Jesus did not make such a distinction when he was giving us instructions for how to take a grievance. (Matthew 18:15-18) But notice that he was addressing his leaders when he did it, and he seemed to presume that they would be correct in their grievance from the start... which is why he said that people who failed to accept the grievance from them would automatically be kicked out in the end. You couldn't make such an assumption if the grievance could come from anyone (e.g. a follower taking a grievance against a leader). So we have altered the grievance system as Jesus presented it, to make it more of a "trial" which does not necessarily presume guilt.

I'm still in favour of this approach; but I think people should recognise that it is actually a softer option than what Jesus seemed to be teaching. Once again, if we are guilty of anything, it is that we have been (and that we continue to be) too soft.

One of the reasons why it may be assumed that leaders do not need the threat of a grievance to keep themselves in line is because the leader should, more than anyone else, see the benefits of not running their followers down. It is like undermining your own ministry. The followers are your fruit, and even if they have problems that they brought with them from elsewhere, it is your job to help them to overcome those problems and not to condemn them. If we destroy the reputation of our followers, it does nothing for us, since our reputation is gauged by the reputation of our followers, i.e. by our "fruit".

It is wise for leaders to try to enforce a hard line on themselves (i.e. to keep discussion of the problems that others have, to a minimum).

When I ask for an assessment of how things are going, I would like descriptions of problems to be made in such a way that you would be happy for the people involved to see what you have written about them. It may mean that you restrain yourselves from revealing just how frustrated you really feel about a problem, or how little hope you have for the person, but that's probably fair enough. Even amongst leaders, there is no need for us to let it all hang out. We should encourage one another to be positive and hopeful with problem cases for as long as any one of us is prepared to persevere with them.

Of course, if you feel that you are getting close to giving up on someone or feeling really upset about something they have done, then it probably wouldn't hurt to tell the person as well as myself.

There is also a point that Robin brought up, about leaders discussing possible actions to take with regard to a problem. We may consider taking a hard line and then decide against it. In such cases, it may not be helpful to frighten people with talk of a hard line if that turns out to be something we decide (after counsel) against.

There was some debate over whether the purpose of the grievance system is to protect a person's pride, and whether or not it is wise to protect someone's pride. Perhaps we should ask the same thing about why grievances should not be taken against leaders without two or three witnesses. Is it to protect the leader's pride, or is it to protect the leader's credibility?

Obviously if we consistently put someone down in front of others, it will reflect on that person's credibility.... which is why their pride is hurt. In other words, even though someone may need to work on their pride, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful about hurting their reputation. This is especially true when newer disciples are trying to follow the "follower" whom we have just criticised.

When followers are working as part of a distributing team or involved in a buddy relationship, then they too are leaders, and we should be careful not to hurt their credibility with the newer disciples. When I criticise a leader or a follower in a general letter, I weaken his or her "authority" with the rest of you; so I need to be very careful about that. I'm sorry that I have done that so much.

I have not stopped criticising leaders in general letters altogether; but I hope that overall, people understand that I have great respect for our leaders' wisdom and their right to lead. The same goes for others who are in lesser positions of authority.

(NOTE: This part of this study was written a few days later in response to comments.)

Someone asked for more explanation about how I figured that Jesus was specifically addressing his disciples when he gave instructions for taking grievances. If you will look closely at it (Matthew 18:15-18), he does not seem to consider the possibility that the person taking the grievance could be wrong. He assumes that they are right and that the person against whom the grievance is being taken is wrong or "at fault". This passage ends with the bit about "whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" which is a very strong "authority" passage. So he is telling his leaders that they have authority to act on his behalf in disciplining those under them. I cannot see that he is giving that authority to the followers in his army, i.e. to take action against his leaders, nor that he would back them up if they did so.

We have tended to rephrase this passage from a more "democratic" perspective, where anyone can take a grievance against anyone, with authority residing in the body as a whole to decide whether the grievance is fair or not. So, with our approach, a leader taking a grievance could conceivably have the grievance bounce back against him or her, because either the witnesses (second stage) or the whole body (third stage) concluded that the person taking the grievance was wrong.

We have done this partly because we have seen how authority has been abused in the history of the church, and we assume that this is a safeguard against such abuse. But that too could be a fallacy, for democracy can be abused as easily as authority. Certainly the mere fact that churches have mechanisms built into their constitutions that allow members to sack their ministers has not kept them from falling away from the teachings of Jesus. It has only succeeded in tying the hands of sincere ministers.

So in the Matthew 18 passage, Jesus is talking to the leaders of his church -- leaders whom he assumes will be correct in their judgments, and he is authorising them to pass judgment on their followers in stages, through the grievance system. The instructions would not work, of course, if applied to leaders and to a church who are not truly following Jesus. So it is up to us as leaders of this community to make sure that we are following him (by staying in intimate contact with our Founder and true leader) and then we can act with the same authority that he gives to his apostles.

The fact that others have fallen away should not make us feel that we have to take the blame for their apostasy. Of course if we fall away too, and that is always a possibility, then we will simply abuse everything that we have learned anyway, and there is no constitution that will guarantee that this won't happen. All the King's horses and all the King's men won't be able to put us back together again anyway.

But true humility will cause us to examine ourselves now and always to determine whether we have or have not fallen away. If we have not, then what would be considered an abuse of power in a corrupt church will constitute divine authority in the true church. Both sides will claim to be the true church, expressing the will of God... but there will be one very important difference: One will be, and the other won't. It's as simple as that. It is your job to make sure that you are part of the true church by following God's Spirit humbly every day.

Notice that almost all grievances in our fellowship have been taken by leaders (despite the right for anyone to take a grievance against anyone if they see a problem), and almost everyone who takes a grievance is supported by the body (i.e. "wins") in that grievance.

In other words, despite our understanding that anyone can take a grievance, mostly leaders have been the ones taking them; and despite our understanding that the person against whom the grievance is taken has a right to a fair trial, the "prosecution" almost always wins.

But that too is consistent with my observation that Jesus was instructing his true leaders to take grievances on the basis of their spiritual authority, for the good of everyone concerned; and that he has promised to back them up in their grievances. In other words, we are not really "democratically" ruled by the majority in determining what is right and what is wrong in these grievance meetings, even though it seems that the majority has almost always supported the decisions of the leadership.

In practice, there is probably little need for us to change from our present way of dealing with grievances. However, in theory, I have observed that it is only incidental that the majority has supported a decision; for if the decision is made on Christian principles, then God will cast the deciding vote, which would overrule everyone if necessary. Because it just happens that we are following Christ at a time in the world's history when virtually everyone else is not, we feel a bit embarrassed to claim our authority even though Christ has been very clear about giving it to us.

I think the fact that the recent rebellion that divided our community was so close to being a majority, shook me up a little on my old understanding of grievances. It could very easily have been a majority against my right to take a grievance against someone rather than a majority in favour of that right. It is convenient that we can point to the majority that was on our side (eleven of us against ten of them) as evidence that the others were the ones rebelling; but it is far more appropriate that we point to the spirit of understanding that was trying to resolve the problem on our side, and the spirit of rebellion that was trying to latch onto anything I or anyone else did as an excuse for selfishness on their side.

So even if they had been successful in enlisting every one of you in their "cause", it would not have made them right.

All of that is saying what we have already said in our leadership study, and that is that we have no right to discard the leadership that God has placed over us unless God himself has given up on the leadership and he has given you a powerful anointing to replace that leadership in obedience to Him. The rebel leaders may claim such a thing at the moment, but all the evidence suggests that they are only leading their people in the direction of more and more open rebellion against God. They have aligned themselves with ex-members who are conspicuously opposed to the whole idea of a personal God who can anoint anyone to speak on his behalf.

Someone asked how I understood The Apostle Paul's instructions about accusations not being taken against elders except when a person has two or three witnesses. (1 Timothy 5:19) The truth is that I too have never been able to understand how that fits in with the grievance system, since it would appear that it would take some political back-stabbing to recruit your witnesses prior to the grievance. But Christine's explanation seems to clear all that up. I'll summarise it.

We have found that there needs to be room for people to express some sort of disagreement with leaders when followers genuinely do not understand what is going on (although we have stressed that it should be done humbly). And we have observed that leaders could be wrong, and that there have been many in the past who were wrong despite their claim to being God's anointed leadership.

So Paul is saying (in the passage referred to) that the grievance system could be extended to involve grievances against elders or leaders. However, he is saying that a brake must be applied here that would not normally be applied in a grievance taken by an elder.

Even if the witnesses who are called in at a second stage grievance do not agree with the person taking the grievance, if the person taking the grievance is an elder, then the grievance can be taken forward to the general body. But if a person taking a grievance against an elder (or leader) does not get full support from the witnesses who are brought in at the second stage, then the matter must be dropped. It is bad for group morale for a leader to be constantly challenged publicly.

(See also Divine Authority, and The Split.)

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