As a Pastor have your ever received a call like this. A member of your congregation lets you know that she and her husband have had a terrible argument. Both of them are members of your church who faithfully attend all of the services. Because he had gotten violent with her, she called the police and he was arrested. Criminal charges against him are now pending. She also sought out a protective order, and a Judge of the local court signed such an order requiring the husband to stay away from the home, her job, and their two children for the next six months. Because you are her Pastor, she wants to know what she should do. In this article, I will give some general counsel on what you should do.
YOUR POSITION AS THE PASTOR
No matter how long you have been a minister, calls like this always surprise you. No one is ever ready to hear that the people in your congregation who were so friendly and loving towards each other are now at odds with each other. These situations will make you very hurt and sad. But, you have to quickly get beyond the pain you feel, and be ready to operate in the full peacemaking authority that God has given you as their Pastor or spiritual leader. In this role, you have to reach out to the people in conflict with the love of God and the Word of God to help them address important issues and see them both to a better place. Because these issues have the potential to bring in strife which divides the congregation, you also need to be ready to take decisive and immediate steps to make sure that the atmosphere of peace in the congregation is maintained.
PRAYER IS ESSENTIAL
Carrying out your calling in these situations is difficult. In order to do this effectively, you need to depend on God’s wisdom and revelation, which is superior to your human wisdom or intellect. The prophet Isaiah reveals this: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Book of Isaiah chapter 55, verses 8-9). You get the wisdom you need by seeking God in prayer: “ If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Book of James chapter 1, verse 5).
MAKE SURE THAT YOU REMAIN NEUTRAL
What this means is that you stand on the Lord’s side, instead of taking sides in the conflict. This is critical if you are going to be effective in your peacemaking role. This is an issue because people who fight each other have a tendency to try to get you and the other members of the congregation to take their side and stand with them against the person they are at odds with. Some unintentionally do this. Others, like King Saul when he had contention with David, do this intentionally.
Whenever Saul spoke to the people about David, he made it clear to everyone around him that David was his enemy. He also attacked everyone who he thought continued to befriend David, as is shown by this statement he made to David’s wife Michal: “ Why have you deceived me like this, and sent my enemy away, so that he has escaped” (1st Book of Samuel chapter 19, verse 17). By his actions, he was forcing people to make a choice- either you stand with David or you stand with me.
Saul also demanded that the people be loyal to him by making it clear to all the people of Israel that anyone who did not stand with him on this issue with David was betraying him, and was also his enemy: “Saul said to his servants who stood about him, Hear now, you Benjamites ! Will the son of Jesee (David) give every one of you fields and vineyards, and make you all captains of thousands and captains of hundreds ? All of you have conspired against me, and no one who reveals to me that my son has made a covenant with the son of Jesee: and there is not one of you who is sorry for me or reveals to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me” (1st Book of Samuel chapter 22, verses 7-8).
When the people in your congregation behave like Saul did, it divides the Body and it puts innocent by-standers under great pressure to choose sides. Because of this, you need to let the people in conflict (and congregation members) know that “taking sides is not acceptable”, and you will not tolerate manipulation and attempts to control you or the members of the congregation. .
CUT OFF THE MEDDLING
When members of the congregation who are not involved in the disagreement try to step in and give the people at odds their counsel, they are meddling, and you need to quickly confront them and put a stop to this because their meddling can cause the contention to spread throughout the congregation. When the people in conflict learn that other members are interfering with their affairs, this often alienates them, and they lash out at and fight with the people who meddle. The hostile attitude and anger that people in conflict feel when others meddle with them is illustrated in this Hebrew man’s words to Moses, who stepped into the middle of his conflict with another Hebrew man: “But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him (Moses) away, saying, Who made you a ruler and judge over us ? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday” (Book of Acts chapter 7, verses 27-28). This man’s angry words, retaliation and attempts to hurt Moses for interfering shows what happens in these cases.
You should also advise your members that their providing spiritual counsel is rebellion because it is usurping your role as the spiritual leader, and this needs to stop.
QUICKLY END GOSSIP
You need to confront and stop those spreading gossip and rumors about the people in conflict because this kind of behavior destroy relationships and spreads more strife. Book of Proverbs chapter 16, verse 28 indicates this: “A perverse man sows strife: and a whisperer separates the best of friends”. So does the Book of Proverbs chapter 17, verse 9: “He who covers a transgression seeks love: but he who repeats a matter separates friends”.
PLAY A MINOR ROLE IN RESOLVING LEGAL ISSUES
As the spiritual leader of the congregation, your primary responsibility is to take care of the spiritual needs of the entire congregation. Because of this, you should encourage your members to seek legal counsel instead of having them come to you for legal advice that you are not qualified to give. I also believe that every minister should use his or her influence with these members to get them to consider settling their differences outside of court, by participating in mediation or cooperative or collaborative negotiations that they can engage in through the counsel of their choice.
These words that the apostle Paul spoke to the church instruct congregation members to try to settle their differences by seeking help from the congregation instead of going to secular courts or seeking guidance from outsiders or unbelievers: “ Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to the law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints ?” (1st Corinthians chapter 6, verse 1).
From time to time, you may need to step in and provide some temporary, “stop gap mediation” on legal and financial issues where members are facing crisis or emergency situations and they have not yet had a chance to hire legal counsel. One situation where you may need to do this is when the parties need to come to a quick agreement to keep their little children from freezing in the middle of the winter because their heat in their home is about to be turned off due to an impending gas and electric cut off notice. You may have to step in to keep children and babies from having to suffer because of the sins or struggles of the parents. But, because your focus should remain on addressing spiritual issues, you should step in and take these “stop-gap” measures only when absolutely necessary.
ENCOURAGE DISCUSSION ON SPIRITUAL ISSUES
Proverbs chapter 18, verse 19 reveals that getting people in conflict to engage in meaningful discussions with each other is very difficult because people who are deeply hurt commonly get offended: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle”.
Because of this, you will need to encourage members to have discussions with each other because it is what God’s Word instructs them to do to settle their differences: “Moreover if thy brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew chapter 18, verse 15). As we will point out later, issues like church attendance need to be discussed and ironed out by the parties.
While this Gospel of Matthew scripture indicates that the people in conflict should privately meet to discuss and settle their differences, the parties cannot do so while the protective order is in place. If the parties want to engage in discussion, it can be done through mediation conducted by you or some other trusted independent party. But, because the Court order does not allow the accused and the accuser to be in each other’s presence, the parties will need to seek and get the Court’s approval of this arrangement before the mediation takes place. The Court can place in the court order, that the accused is to have no contact with the accused, “except they will be allowed to attend mediation sessions together with their Pastor”.
Before you conduct any of these discussions, I also recommend that you get your members to sign a “confidentiality agreement” where they agree that “everything said during these meetings is confidential and “ they will not try to subpoena the ministers into court to try to get them to testify about what was said at these reconciliation sessions”. I have seen members try to bring their Pastors into court to testify about what was said in confidence at these meetings when the members cannot settle their differences and they remain hostile towards each other. Therefore, the minister needs to take this step to protect himself and his ministry team from being caught in the middle of these court battles.
FACILITATE DISCUSSIONS ON CHURCH ATTENDANCE
Since most protective orders require the accused to “stay away” from his accuser, church attendance becomes an issue when these orders are granted because the accuser will not be able to be at the same worship service and Bible study his accuser is attending. For the accused to do so may be a violation of the court order.
Because the spiritual welfare of the accused and the accuser is best served when they both are able to be fed spiritual by being at Bible study and worship services, you will need to facilitate discussions between them to arrange for when and how they both can attend services without the court order being violated.
You need to take pro-active steps to properly resolve this issue because the congregation will be drawn into the middle of the fray if you do not. If the attendance issue is not properly addressed, and the accused and accuser end up in services together, it is likely that you, your ministry staff and other congregation members will be subpoenaed into Court to testify if the accuser files charges claiming that the accused has violated the Court order. This door needs to be quickly closed by you, to make sure that you and your staff do not waste a lot of valuable time making court appearances.
In congregations that have multiple services the same day, it may be easy to work out a solution. One member can go to the 8 o’clock service, while the other attends the 11 o’clock service. In congregations which have only one worship service and one weekly Bible study, the minister may have to get the members to attend services on a pre-established rotation (such as the accuser comes to services on the second and fourth Saturdays or Sundays, while the accused comes on the first and third Saturdays or Sundays).
Instead of using a rotation system, some ministers take the position that the alleged abuser should be prohibited from attending services because he or she is the one whom the court order is issued against. In situations where one or both members miss any services, you (or someone on your ministry staff) may need to hold private sessions with these members to go over the materials they missed to make sure that their spiritual needs are properly taken care of. A second thing that the ministry can do is give the member who misses services a taped copy of the message if the church regularly records its services.
FACILITATE DISCUSSIONS ON ISSUES OF FAULT MAKING AMENDS AND RECONCILIATION
In cases where there is serious sin, such as abuse or mistreatment between members, the scriptures encourage members to settle their differences through private discussion: “Moreover if thy brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew chapter 18, verse 15). When the passage says “you have gained your brother” , it indicates that the goal in having these discussions is to reconcile, or have their relationship restored.
Matthew chapter 5, verse 23 and 24 also encourages discussion to bring reconciliation: “ Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”.
Since reconciliation sessions often include extensive discussions related to blame, sin, and spiritual issues such as intense anger, bitterness, resentment, hatred and forgiveness, you (as the spiritual leader) and your staff are the ones who are primarily qualified to facilitate these discussions. If you choose an outside mediator to be involved in the facilitation, make sure that he or she is equipped to properly address these underlying spiritual issues. If they are not, their involvement will make things worse instead of better.
I need to point out that members who face criminal charges are commonly told by their lawyers not to be involved in discussions where their guilt or innocence is being discussed because any statement they make could potentially be used against them in a court of law. Because of this, you may have to wait until the criminal case has been resolved by the court system before you can have these reconciliation discussions with members who have pending criminal charges against them.
When Matthew 18, verse 15 says “tell him his fault”, it makes it clear that the issue of fault is to be an important part of these discussions. During these meetings, the accuser is to fully explain the wrong he claims the accused has done. Once the accuser does this, the alleged abuser is given the opportunity to answer the allegations and explain himself. He or she can admit the claim, or deny it and justify his conduct. One thing that the minister facilitating these discussions needs to do is to help draw out of these members important details to allow them to fully discuss and resolve all the differences that exist between them.
In my experience, these sessions are often very long. They are also very intense. During the meetings, there may be heated exchanges between the accused and accuser due to pent-up anger, resentment and hostility these members have towards each other. The minister who mediates these sessions needs to be able to provide a calming influence in the midst of anger and tension, in order to help these members stay focused on what is at hand so that the dialogue can be meaningful.
In some cases, you may find out that the accusations being made against the person are false. If this is the case, you will need to work with the parties to forgive each other, and reconcile. The person who made the false accusations will need to fully make amends and rectify any damage his lies have caused to the reputation of the person he says abused him.
If the accused person admits his fault, the minister can then facilitate discussions on how he will make amends for the wrong he has done. Steps to make amends often include Biblical counseling for anger and the other spiritual problems that are at the root of their wrong behavior. As you pray and seek God, sometimes God will give you revelation on these underlying problems, to allow people to become free of them.
Once the abuser is willing to make things right, you may also be able to facilitate discussions to “reconcile or “restore the relationship”. I use the words “may” because I believe you must carefully assess whether the circumstances to bring the parties together to attempt reconciliation are right. Here are some questions I believe you should be able to answer to determine whether reconciliation should be attempted.
First, does the abused person agree to participate in the process ? In most cases, this is not an issue, because the scriptures reveal that the people who are abused and mistreated often get offended, and are unwilling to have any thing to do with their abuser: “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” ( Proverbs chapter 18, verse 19).
In cases where the people say they are willing, you need to make sure they are voluntarily taking these steps and they are not being forced to do this against their will . One thing that abusers sometimes do is to try to make the person they abused feel guilty, by saying things like, “If you really forgave me, you’d take me back, and let me come home immediately”. You need to inquire about what is motivating people to enter into reconciliation discussions and how they feel about their abuser to make sure they are not doing this out of guilt or fear because people who go through the process against their will often come away even more wounded and scarred than they were before this.
Second, even if the abused person is willing to participate, has he or she overcome the ills effects of abuse (such as intense fear and anger) ? And is he or she emotionally ready to go through the process ? Sometimes the abused person is not ready to go through the process until he or she has completed long term counseling.
The story of the rape of Tamar, sister of Absalom and daughter of King David, illustrates the pain and heartache people have to overcome (and be healed of) to be ready to see if reconciliation may be workable (The entire story is at 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 1-21). As you read this story, you will see similarities in it to the mistreatment and abuse that happens today.
Amnon said he was smitten in love with Tamar, a virgin girl, and he had problems approaching her to tell her how he felt about her. When his friend Jonadab found out about his plight, he came up with a plan for Amnon to get close to Tamar. He was to pretend to be sick, and ask King David to allow Tamar to come and minister to him.
This plan worked. When Tamar came to serve him, he asked her to sleep with him: “Come lie with me, my sister” ( 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 11). When he made this statement, Tamar knew that he had lied to get into her company and that he had dishonorable intentions. She let him know this was wrong, and that the honorable and proper thing for him to do would be to ask the king for her hand in marriage.
Instead of listening to her, he raped her: “However, he would not heed her voice: and being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her” ( 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 14). This showed his true feelings about Tamar, that he was motivated by lust and not true love for her. After Amnon had gotten what he wanted (by forced sexual intercourse) from Tamar, he was through with Tamar, and decided to put her out: “Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, Arise, be gone” ( 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 15). Tamar, like most women who are being violated, did not appreciate being disrespected, and she made it clear to Amnon that she wanted him to do the honorable thing and marry her to cover her from the shame he had brought on her by violating her: “So she said, No indeed ! The evil of sending me away is worse than the other you did to me” ( 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 16a). Amnon, who was thinking only of himself, did not listen to Tamar, and had her forcibly removed from his house: “Then he called his servant who attended him, and said, Here, Put this woman out, away from me, and bolt the door behind her” ( 2 Samuel chapter 13, verses 17). When Tamar left, put ashes on her head (as a sign of sorrow and mourning), tore her robe of many colors (which represented purity and virginity), and went away crying bitterly.
After hearing her story, I want to briefly share some of what I believe she may have had to deal with so that you will see how difficult it is for people abused to be ready to consider reconciliation. Being violated and molested by force causes people great pain. It brings in hopelessness, depression and despair. Some people become suicidal after they are raped or violated. Tamar had lost her virginity, part of the precious gift she was saving for the man God would bring into her life as her husband. Being abused often puts people in fear. When you are deceived as Tamar was, it shatters your trust in people, making it harder for you to love people and build relationships. When people are disrespected and rejected as she was, it can cause them to lose their self-worth. Some people who go through this become so bitter and angry that hatred and resentment cripples them and their relationships. With all of this going on in the life of someone who has been abused, it may take a long time for them to receive God’s love and be healed enough to be ready for the process of reconciliation.
Third, is the abuser fully invested in the process of reconciliation, with his or her life showing signs that he has changed, or that he is ready to receive God’s Word and be transformed by it ? Before you give your approval for the parties to move forward in you helping them seek reconciliation, this is something that you need to discern to try to make sure that the abused person is not going back into an abusive situation .
One way to discern this is taking the time to pray, and allowing God to reveal the true condition of the person’s heart. Jeremiah chapter 17, verse 9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it ?” We cannot fully know or understand what is going on in a person’s heart. But God can. If he is pretending to be repentant and remorseful and his words are not genuine, seek God and allow Him to “bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsel of the hearts” (1st Epistle of Corinthians chapter 4, verse 5). A second way to evaluate whether a person has changed is the fruit that their life is bearing. At the Gospel of Matthew 7, verse 20, Jesus said, “by their fruit, you shall know them”. If this person is repentant and wants to make amends, it will be more than them saying “I love you” and “you can trust me to no longer hit or abuse you”. You will see it in their character, how they are no longer ruled by selfishness, self-centeredness or obtaining their own selfish desires. You also will be able to see the difference in their actions by the way they show love and compassion over time.
Very often, these reconciliation discussions are a part of a long, often difficult process that the parties go through where they surrender to God, and they are changed by God, and love and trust they had are restored.
DISCIPLINE THE UNREPENTANT
In cases where it is clear that the accused has committed the abuse, and he or she refuses to admit the abuse or make amends, you may have to inform the rest of the congregation of his wrong behavior: “But, if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verse 17a). Sometimes, ruining a person’s reputation by telling the congregation the bad things this person has done is what it takes to make the wrongdoer willing to admit his wrong and make amends for it. Such a public disclosure also lets the person know that the congregational leaders will not sit by and allow him to abuse or mistreat people without having to suffer certain consequences.
When doing this does not cause the wrongdoer to be repentant, you will have to issue stronger discipline to get the abuser to address his issues: “But if he refuses to hear the church, let him to you like a heathen or a tax collector” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verse 17b). This means that you direct the congregation to isolate themselves from him. It can also means that you remove him from the fellowship to embarrass or shame him, until he is willing to address his wrongdoing and make amends. One scripture that discusses this kind of directive is 2nd Book of Thessalonians chapter 3, verses 14-15: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother”. Romans chapter 16, verses 17 is another passage which declares this: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine you have learned and avoid them” (See also 1st Book of Corinthians chapter 5, verses 9-13).
As you carry out your role as one in spiritual authority over the congregation in obedience to the scriptures, God will give you the grace and wisdom to effective deal with these situations.