I serve as an elder at the church my wife, and I attend. In this post, I report how the elders responded to the first-of-a-kind situation at our church.
In June of 2020, each elder received an anonymous letter from a plurality of people voicing a myriad of unfounded offenses and dire predictions unless there was change. Amazingly, one criticism was against someone who was not an elder, and, of course, these people did not send this non-elder a copy. In my opinion, each person who participated in writing or assented to sending that letter is a coward of the first order, and hence, the characterization “cowardly coalition. “
The question the elders faced was how should we respond? We decided not to respond and didn’t say a word for fourteen months.
Eventually, certain events formed the catalyst to respond by which our Senior Pastor preached a sermon that addressed the letter point-by-point and included handing out a copy of the letter (remember, it was anonymous) to those in attendance. That sermon generated a variety of responses. Except for those who wrote the letter (or apparently closely tied to writing the letter), every response was positive and supportive of the elders and the one non-elder.
Let’s look at how the elders handled the anonymous letter from a biblical perspective.
THE BIBLICAL WAY TO VOICE CRITICISMS
I strongly agree and support the position that folks in a church should bring their concerns to leadership, including the elders. The sooner they bring their concerns, the better. The way to bring concerns is the Jesus way and not man’s way or even worse, the coward’s way through an anonymous letter.
Matthew 18:15–17 (NASB95) records what Jesus taught about the basic framework for church discipline [emphasis added]:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Jesus did not say, “go assemble together and collaborate in writing an anonymous letter to your church leadership.” Instead, He set out five “if” [i] steps. A person does not need a Th.D. in theology to comprehend these simple, but effective, steps.
No. 1: Approach the Sinning Believer in Private
First, Jesus taught that “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” Jesus commanded that the offended party must set up a private meeting. In the context of a complaint against the elders (plural), the first step is a private meeting with the elders who are sinning, i.e., allegedly offending elders, to discuss the issue(s). Such a meeting should develop the facts, and facts can go a long way to settling church disputes.
The anonymous letter, which described various offenses and was sent only to the elders, satisfied this step.
No. 2: If the Sinning Believer Acknowledges Their Sin, They are Won
Second, Jesus observed that “if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” The goal of the private meeting is to resolve the matter to where the sinning brother would repent of his sin.
In the case of the anonymous letter, the elders evaluated the alleged offenses and determined there was no biblical sin. In the context of Matthew 18:15-17, Step No. 2 was not satisfied because the elders did not “listen” to the anonymous letter.
No. 3: If the Sinning Believer Does not Acknowledge Their Sin, Take 2-3 Witnesses
Third, Jesus said, “if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. “ Here, the elders did not “listen,” and because the letter was anonymous and written in the plural, it satisfied the third step of approaching the elders with witnesses.
Note that in regard to elder discipline, Paul set out a little higher standard in 1 Timothy 5:19–20 (NASB95):
19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.
As set out above, the elders evaluated the alleged offenses and determined that there was no merit whatsoever to any of the allegations.
No. 4: If Sinning Believer Does not Listen, Tell It to the Church
Fourth, Jesus taught, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” The elders determined there was no merit to the allegations, which equates to satisfying the “refuses to listen” condition precedent to implement step No. 4.
Because the letter was anonymous, the only way to “tell it to the church” was to address the letter from the pulpit in a public setting. And that is what the elders did; they told it to the church. The elders did what the cowardly coalition did not have the courage to do.
No. 5: If Sinning Believer Does Not Listen Before the Church, Then Expel Them
Fifth, Jesus presented the final step as, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is the assumption that the sinning believer was sinning. Here, the elders evaluated the alleged offenses and determined that there was no sin, so step No. 5 became moot. By the way, except for those who wrote the letter (or apparently closely tied to writing the letter), every response was positive and supportive of the elders and the one non-elder. No one in church called for the resignation of any one of he elders.
It was unbiblical for those in the cowardly coalition to send an anonymous letter to the elders. It violated the admonition of Hebrews 13:17 (NASB95):
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
The elders evaluated the alleged offenses and determined that there was no merit to any of the allegations.
The only biblical way for the elders to handle the anonymous letter so it would be brought before the church was to address the letter from the pulpit. And that is what the elders did, they told it to the church.
If someone is reading this post and is unsure of their salvation, please read below.
GOD’S PLAN OF SALVATION
In the beginning, God, who is holy, created the entire universe. As a part of His creative actions, He made humans in His image to know Him. For a while, everything was right between God and our ancestors, Adam and Eve. But Adam sinned, and his sin was passed down to all of humankind whereby we became separated from God. Nothing we could do on our own could bridge that separation so that without God’s intervention, hell would be our eternal destination.
Fortunately for us, in His great love and mercy God provided humankind with the only means of salvation, which is through Jesus Christ who is God’s only unique Son. While retaining His deity, God the Son became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law Himself and taking on Himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever repent and trust in Him for their salvation. Jesus rose from the dead, showing that God the Father accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us has been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and trust alone in what Christ did to save us.
If we repent of our sins and completely trust in Christ alone that He died for our sins and rose to life from the dead, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.
Scripture References: Genesis 1:1, 27, 31; Habakkuk 1:13; Genesis 2:7, 18, 21-25; Genesis 3:1-7, 23-24; Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:19-20, 23; 5:17-19; Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 6:23; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 John 4:10; John 3:16-18; Mark 1:15; Romans 1:4; 4:25; John 3:5-8; 1 Peter 1:3.
Lord, Jesus Christ, the only unique Son of God, thank You for Your free gift of eternal life. I know I’m a sinner who cannot save myself no matter what I do, and I deserve to spend eternity in hell. But, I know that because You loved me so much, You voluntarily died on the cross for me taking my sins upon Yourself, and You physically bodily rose from the grave showing that Your sacrificial death was sufficient payment to give me eternal life in Heaven. I now repent of my sins and trust alone in what You did for my eternal salvation. Please take control of my life as I now receive You as my Lord and Savior. Thank You so much for saving me. I am now Yours forever! (Scripture references: John 1:1-4, 11-14; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:21-26; Isaiah 53:4-6; Mark 1:15; Acts 16:31; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-10, 13; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; John 10:27-29).
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[i] Note that the NASB95 translates the Greek conjunction ean as “if,” and it functions as an adverbial conditional, which means (see Heiser, M. S., & Setterholm, V. M. (2013; 2013). Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press):
A subordinating conjunction that introduces a condition that must occur or be met before another action or event can occur. Conditional clauses may or may not reflect reality, but only the writer’s presentation or perception of reality. As part of a conditional clause this conjunction introduces the protasis (the if element of an if … then statement).