In another Barnabas Ministry article Confronting Those In Authority, I presented some steps for taking action when the conduct of those in authority is sinful, harmful and/or offensive. The article doesn't address situations where confrontation doesn't bring about change, so that's the topic here.

Reviewing the Basics

The basic text on confronting sin and offenses in the church is found in Matthew 18:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17) ."

Clearly, the steps in confronting matters is first addressing the matter privately, then with one or two others to act as witnesses, and then bringing the matter to the church. If a person won't heed the church, they are to be regarded as a pagan or tax collector.

The final authority rests with the church. Not the leaders. Not the elders. The church, acting in unanimity, speaks the strongest voice concerning morality.

There are other passages that also apply. When somebody says or does something hurtful or sinful publicly, it is reasonable to confront it on the spot-- we see this both with Jesus confronting Peter in Matthew 16:23 and Paul confronting Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. Also, Jesus and the apostles spoke freely about the well-known practices and teachings of others like the Pharisees and various false teachers who threatened the church (e.g. Matthew 23:1ff, 1 Corinthians 15:12). There is no evidence that this "Matthew 18 process" was followed in those cases. Because the problematic behavior or teachings are public, it is appropriate to address them publicly. This allows the church to be protected as promptly as possible.

There are two other difficult cases to address. The first is the case of the perpetrator-less issue-- cases where an entire church system or culture is sinful, unhealthy or warped. The second is the case where the confronting process does not lead to change. For example, what if the confrontation is rejected or the church is divided on the question at hand? What do you do?

Personal Experiences with Church Changes

I have had many experiences with churches and change. I realize these are somewhat anecdotal, but they illustrate the dynamics of change and are part of what I draw upon in the thoughts that follow.

All things are possible with God (Mt 19:26). Yet, there are all sorts of bad things in the world that are somehow part of God's plan for the world. I don't understand it. But we must take both of these things into account when confronting bad things in churches: Sure, God can change anything, but sometimes churches make the right choices and sometimes they don't.

Experience and scripture teach me the following things about changes and churches.

Unpleasant Truth #1: Churches Don't Like to Change

Churches don't like to change. This may sound cynical, but it is the truth. There are several reasons for this tendency for a church to remain the same.

To begin with, a church has a set of moral values, teachings and practices about God that define the church. If a group believes these things are right, then why would there ever be a need to change anything? Even if a particular situation is difficult, the spiritual traits of perseverance and faithfulness will reinforce the built-in tendency to stick with their defining elements and thus remain the same.

Those in authority in churches generally feel like they are doing the right things, doing the best they can, etc. And they generally know that they aren't perfect and not everybody will be happy with them regardless of what they do. So they tend to do what they think is right or best. In more troubling situations, those in authority work to maintain that authority and will act aggressively to protect it from any threats. These factors work towards the church remaining the same.

It is natural for people to defend their church and their leaders. They tend to be loyal to the organization and the leaders rather than the truth. A good example of this was seen in the Ted Haggard case, where parishioners defended Haggard without even finding out the truth first (see a discussion of this in the Barnabas Ministry article "Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse").

When churches change things, even minor things, those in authority usually hear far more complaints than praises. This is one of those "human nature" type of things, that people are more likely to complain about things they don't like than give kudos for things they do like. This dynamic provides yet another strong force for a church to remain the same.

Interestingly, scripture recognizes this strong desire to remain the same. In the parable of the wineskins, Jesus made a remark that is so short that it can easily be neglected. In fact, it is only contained in Luke's version of the saying.

He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.' " (Luke 5:36-39)

In context, Jesus is answering questions about his followers fasting. He answers the specific question with a broad statement that he wasn't trying to fix-up Judaism but rather he was starting something new. Thus, he wasn't trying to conform his followers to Jewish traditions, nor was he going to be patching up Judaism or pouring new life into it. That's the main point of these parables.

This remark about "the old is better" is intriguing. Jesus is telling us that with regard to spiritual things, people generally prefer the old and the familiar to the new and the unfamiliar-- notice how those in the parable made their choice about the old wine without even tasting the new wine! This dynamic certainly applied in his ministry and was a reason why some were reluctant to accept him and his message.

But this is also a timeless principle. When it comes to churches (and many other things as well), people tend to like what they have and they don't like change. There may be things they don't like about what they have-- but just try changing any of them!

So in confronting hurtful or abusive practices, or corrupt or unhealthy systems, there are two important dynamics to consider. First, there is the harmful thing itself, whatever it is. But then there is the fact that people are used to what they have and are uncomfortable with change. The reality is even if the first can be addressed successfully, the second dynamic will often prove an insurmountable obstacle.

Unpleasant Truth #2: Christians Can Be Nasty When Change Comes into View

Bringing up serious problems or matters of offense and advocating necessary change can be an exciting or threatening time in the history of a church. Many group dynamics come into play, and the responses can be very strong.

Overall changes in a church happen when the leaders and the people are fairly unanimous about it and the impending course of action is clear. And in confronting something unhealthy or hurtful, the message could be valued and changes could take place. This is the way things are supposed to work. When this happens, great.

But in confronting something, a hornet's nest of opposition could be stirred up. Not only will the words of counsel or confrontation be rejected-- it is quite likely the one doing the confronting will be attacked and purged from the system because the system itself cannot bear the change, or even the thought of the change. It threatens the identity of the church and the members too much.

Here are some of the things I've personally experienced or personally witnessed concerning people in these type of situations: