March 26, 2014

Don’t be the church’s complaint dept.

by Steve Meister

You can complete a form. Maybe there’s a phone number to call. Or in some cases, you might even be able to make an appointment with a real live individual. In business and government services, it’s a mark of sound practice to provide people with a means of filing complaints. But what are Christians to do with their complaints over another Christian – or even an entire church? What we find, as with most things, is the Church is called to practices quite different from that of a business or government agency.

Complaints in the Church?

I know, it’s a crazy thought – a Christian complaining about those to whom the Spirit has bonded them in peace (Eph 4:3)?! It’s almost as preposterous as former slaves complaining about their liberation and longing for the good ol’ days of oppression (seeNum 11:1-6). The selfishness of the human heart will eventually express itself in grumbling and complaining, irrespective of how many people God has already killed for that sin (1 Cor 10:10-11). None of us can avoid having complaints and the New Testament assumes that other Christians will even provoke them!

Just consider the assumption behind such commands as Eph 4:2, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” The Bible assumes that Christians will have to work on being humble and gentle with other Christians. And that other Christians will require patience, even bearing or tolerating them in love. Clearly, the New Testament’s picture of the local church is not that of R.E.M., a bunch of “shiny, happy people holding hands.” No, it’s an assembly of called sinners who’ll have to lovingly tolerate a bunch of irritating qualities in one another, with patience and gentleness relating together in humility.

In short, the Bible assumes that Christians will face reasons to complain about each other. Let’s be honest, our experience has confirmed that in spades, hasn’t it? No single one of us can avoid having a complaint – or twenty-eight. As long as we have a mind and heart that prefers what we prefer, and we live with others who do the same, the friction when we meet will spark complaints.

So where again can we find the Complaint Department?

Christians with Complaints

Christians file their grievances, frustrations, and address a sincere offense suffered with the offending individual. This is what our Lord has taught us:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matt 18:15)

When we have a grievance toward another Christian – whether it’s real and substantiated or just a nagging perception that we can’t shake – if we are disciples of this above-quoted Master, we’ll “go and tell him his fault.” It’s clear, unequivocal, and without exception. Christians file complaints with the one(s) they have a complaint about.

But can we expect that Christians will always do this? Well, yes and no.

Redirecting Misfiled Complaints

Christians will not always obey Matthew 18:15. They will grumble and complain to the wrong parties – that’s been the cost of doing business for quite some time. But should we expect Christians to obey Matthew 18:15 anyway? Yes, and we should label their misfiled complaints as what they are, gossip.

It is unlikely that people will ever stop trying to complain to us about others, but we can refuse to receive it. If it’s not about me, then you’ve got the wrong department! How do we handle these misfiled complaints? Very helpfully, Dan Phillips has suggested a five-fold question process in How to Shut Down Gossip:

  1. Ask: “Why are you telling me this?” (This may hopefully stop the whole thing, but at least try to help the person who’s not conscious they’re gossiping).
  2. Ask: “What’s the difference between what you’re telling me and gossip?” (Same effect and potential benefits as #1).
  3. Ask, “How is your telling me that thought, that complaint, that information going to help you and me love God and our brothers better, and knit us closer together as a church in Christ’s love?” (This is, of course, the goal [Eph 4:1-16]).
  4. Ask: “Now that you’ve told me about that, what are you going to do about it?” (This is now implicitly raising their accountability to Matt 18:15, among other commands).
  5. Say: “Now that you’ve told me about that, you’ve morally obligated me to make sure you talk to ____ about it. How long do you think you need, so I can know when this becomes a sin that I will need to confront in you?” (They may refuse to follow Matt 18:15, but you cannot. If they do not proceed to speak to the appropriate individual, you must then tell them their fault).

Read Dan’s entire post. This five-step process will help dose the fire of quarrels, provided that we refuse the sinfully delicious food of gossip (Prov 26:20-23). And this is God’s prescription for handling the (unavoidable) complaints in our churches. As Dan further encouraged: “… you may head off a church split, division, harmed souls, sidelined Gospel ministry, and waylaid discipleship.” For “Gossip kills churches.” Sad, but true.

A Personal Confession

In the interest of full disclosure, I learned this lesson the hard way. Years ago in another ministry, I became the complaint department for two other co-laborers. While my conscience would spasm at times, admittedly I enjoyed too much how my friendship with these brothers seemed to grow as they grumbled. It felt like we were “being real” in our fellowship or that we were possibly even bearing one another’s burdens. But we were not. Their “burden” was another brother, these were misfiled complaints, inexcusable gossip. And I had wrongly savored their words (Prov 26:22).

By the time I came to my biblical (obedient!) senses, and realized that our Lord had not stuttered when He spoke Matthew 18:15, it was too late. After confessing my recovered conviction to my friends, they were stunned – as though I was now refusing their friendship. Too much bitterness, sin, and misfiled complaining had been aired between us that a friendship on any other (obedient, Christian) level seemed insincere. Eventually, a bitter split between them and the other brother occurred that, to my knowledge, has never fully been healed. Potential progress in the Gospel ministry was halted. And to this day, the guilt of knowing that I was an accomplice stays with me.

I wonder, what growth, change, or fruit might have come if I had obeyed Jesus and asked those five questions, instead?

Refuse to Be the Complaint Department

If complaints are filed with the proper individual(s), great damage can be avoided and many relationships salvaged – even deepened! But not just that, we preserve the Church and God’s glory in Christ before a watching and perishing world (John 17:21Eph 3:21)!

In every church of which I’ve ever been a member, I’ve never observed an issue or complaint that couldn’t be resolved – only people who wouldn’t resolve them. Too often, their refusal to deal with their complaints as obedient Christians was aided and abetted by other Christians who served as a de factocomplaint department. However unwittingly, these willing ears only served to exacerbate, extend, and deepen the problems. Ultimately, these Christians were outwitted by the designs of the evil one, rather than walking after the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:328; cf. 2 Cor 2:11).

When people have complaints or concerns about their brothers or sisters, they do not need a shoulder to cry on. Much less do they need someone to whom they can freely vent. They need to be lovingly, calmly, but no less convincingly stopped – perhaps even interrupted – and directed to file their complaint with the proper person. Resolve before the Lord not to be your local church’s complaint department. It may be a good practice in a store, but it’s deadly to the cause of Christ in His Church.

Steve Meister

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Steve is the associate pastor of River City Grace Church, in Sacramento, CA.
  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Johnny

    My heart goes out to the weight and burden that pastors must take on themselves with complaints. As a tech guy, it’s something I rarely encounter at work and even if I did, 5 rolls around and it’s all behind me. For the pastor, the burden must be so much heavier with this kind of thing. This to me is a large part of why I pray for our pastor daily.

    • http://www.petergoeman.com/ Peter Goeman

      Keep praying. Your pastor is very thankful for that!

  • http://www.melissacollins.biz/ Melissa Collins

    Convicting. Thank you.

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  • Dan Phillips

    Thanks for putting that post to such good use, Steve. God multiply the seed!

  • 4Commencefiring4

    My wife and I–as well as others–once had an issue with a brother whose habits were disturbing. We wrote him a letter which praised him for his ministry and other qualities we admired, but also brought up the problem we were all put off by that he was singularly responsible for. It stated clearly that some of us had decided to withdraw our own participation in a regular ministry with him because of his practices.

    His reaction when we asked him if he’d read it? Said yes he had, then just smiled, said he considered us his friends, and then changed the subject as though it didn’t register with him in the least. No denying of anything, no promise to change, no taking of responsibility, no apology for the effect his habit had on anyone, nothing. It was as though we had made it all up out of whole cloth.

    We just went away mystified. This was someone who wouldn’t miss a “men’s conference” or an “Iron Sharpens Iron”-type weekend for the world. But apparently whatever notes he took there he wasn’t taking to heart in the least. He’s a nice guy and in every other way and spiritually mature. But this complaint never got through at all, and the ministry we all took part in evaporated as fewer and fewer people felt comfortable when he was taking part with us.

    It wasn’t worth making a bigger case of, so we dropped it. But his personality just didn’t react to the questions raised; he didn’t engage it at all. I’m still not sure what more could have been done.

  • Barbara

    We are told in our “fellowship” that “sin sniffing” will not be tolerated, but, really, it’s church discipline that is absent from our church. Because there is no membership and our Pastor had openly asked that those who have even legitimate complaints go to that brethren, voice what we need to say and, if there is no response simple pray that the LORD will someday change that person’s mind. Matt 18 doesn’t exist. Gossip ends up being a( sinful and terrible) coping device for the sheep. It’s a huge battle to avoid and even correct. Non membership churches, revolving door ministries breed behaviors that retard everyone’s growth IMHO. You may wonder why We’re still there… it’s still the best local church, teaching through the bible, preaching God’s word we have here in the mountains, Maybe Pastor Steve will some day send someone from his church who could come up over Donner Pass and bring the good news and good ecclesiology. ;0)

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