“That story sounds very familiar…That was me at the table, wasn’t it?”
After I wrote about my experience of spiritual abuse and shunning a couple of weeks ago in this space, I received the message above from one of the people who’d witnessed the pastor’s verbal attack on me and had done nothing at the time to stop it.
When I confirmed that he was there, he apologized and asked my forgiveness, explaining that he had never seen the pastor behave that was before, and was stunned by it. At the time the incident happened, my husband and I understood the instructions found in Matthew 18:15-19 about how to pursue justice as a script we needed to follow:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
My husband and I expected that the others in the church were reading from the same playbook. We tried our best to do what Jesus asked us to do, going to each of those present at that awful meeting, then, when that went nowhere, trying to meet with the entire leadership team. Though the phrase wasn’t in existence at the time, “cancel culture” has always existed in toxic churches as a way of controlling the narrative and keeping members in line. I’d been branded as a Problem by the pastor, and thus, our attempts to work this through were not heard or respected. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” was as close to an apology as I received at the time, which is to say, there was no apology. Instead, we were asked to leave the church.
I wasn’t surprised that the person who sent me the message a couple of weeks ago didn’t remember those long-ago attempts at reconciliation. I was persona non grata, with a voice no one was listening to at the time. But I learned that years later, the toxic culture of the church came for him. He and his wife were pushed out of their ministry roles at the congregation, and eventually found themselves looking for a new church home.
When he asked me for forgiveness a couple of weeks ago, I knew he meant it. I’d forgiven him long ago, again and again, often poorly, but doggedly. Our nice exchange was a skip-step in my own long, clumsy journey toward maturity.
I’ve come to realize that Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 18 were never meant to be a script, at least not in the way I’d once thought of them. I’d expected them to be a promise that if everyone followed the script, then we’d all live happily ever after.
They aren’t a script. And that promise of happily-ever-after was based on my own wishful thinking, not Jesus’s words.
To those of us wounded by the actions of another, the measured process described in Matthew 18 keeps us from becoming judge, jury, and executioner of someone who has wronged us. Jesus is schooling us in the process of mercy, keeping us from exacting revenge on someone who has wronged us. Instead of rendering us powerless, Jesus reminds us in the context of this process that we have more authority than we know (v. 18), and that authority is best discerned and exercised in community (v. 19). In other words, justice is a team sport.
If you’ve been mistreated and wounded by a church, you need a few trusted others in your life who will be on your team. It is not their job to be God’s public relations agency, trying to shame you back into returning to a toxic church situation. Nor is it their job to take on the weight of your hurts, except as Good Samaritans who will carry you to a place of safety. It is their job to gather round you in the name of Jesus, and welcome him in, even if you can’t. Maybe especially then. Because it is in that place of mercy that justice begins.