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Oh my, it has been 4 years since I dusted off this old website.  I hope people who need to find it still do.  Search engine rankings took a little of a hit given the old theme.  So we have a brand new mobile responsive design.

Casuistry – Matthew 23:16-22

Have you heard of the word casuistry? I hadn’t until I was doing a little study on Mathew 23:16-22. It is the best English word to describe one of the things Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of.

Here is the passage

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.’ Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it.

(Mat 23:16-22 NET.)

There are two generally understood meanings of the word casuistry. Both involve making moral choices based on specific principles or rules. In a good sense it is just a framework for making ethical decisions that have complicated or competing priorities. For example physicians are expected to follow the maxims of “do no harm” and “patients ought to have autonomy in matters of treatment.” Imagine a situation where a patient is refusing lifesaving treatment but is mentally compromised by their condition. The doctor must decide to compromise on one maxim or the other. Say the doctor does decide to treat the patient by ordering a sedative and conducting surgery. The patient recovers and is angry accuses the doctor not following the maxim of patient autonomy. The doctor used casuistry to make his decision and is confident he/she was justified in making that decision given the situation.

In the situation Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees were attempting to do the same thing but dishonestly and speciously. They would make oaths on the temple but wouldn’t live up to them and when questioned they would say that oath on the temple means nothing. When people might accuse them of not living up to that morals or promises they would provide complicated reasoning to avoid accountability.

Why am I bringing this up here? It isn’t uncommon for controlling church leaders to come up with really high sound spiritual reasons to avoid simple biblical principles. While we don’t generally have complicated theologies about oaths we do have a confusing and often conflicting world of pet charismatic teachings like prophetic acts, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, spiritual mapping, and spiritual coverings. While some have more basis on scripture than others they have become fertile grounds for complicated and sometimes deceptive reasoning to justify sinful behaviour.

What lies at the root of this is a desire to complicate issues to such a degree that it makes it difficult to make sense of any situation. It is a very intentional tactic used by insecure and/or malicious church leaders to avoid accountability. Through heavy handed coercive efforts they attempt to bring about submission and compliance. With that established they protect their position by creating a surreal environment where simple logic and reason are muddled by a web of competing and conflicting values. This creates an ideal environment for obscuring reality and evading accountability.

Casuistry isn’t the only trick. There are other subtle manipulations that I’d like to write about in the future.


Processing conflict in the church: Matthew 18 and beyond

One of the more difficult things to handle in the life of the church is conflict. It is inevitable that conflict occurs, because people are people. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on what to do when there is conflict.

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

(Mat 18:15-17)

The principles are pretty straight forward. At the heart of Jesus instruction is the desire to regain a relationship. By going to the offending person privately you have a much higher chance of successfully convincing them they have harmed you. Very often we tell an authority and the authority confronts the person in question. This doesn’t communicate the same commitment to relationship that going privately does. People are less likely to become afraid if it is just a peer that confronts them. When trying to get through to a dysfunctional person you want to do everything you can to affirm how much your relationship with them matters to you so they don’t feel condemned, shamed and become defensive. If you desire someone to change you want them to understand their actions are wrong. You don’t want them to feel like they are a horrible person. The goal isn’t to make people feel bad or punish them, it is to help people become safe, functional members of your community.

Don’t be legalistic about this rule. If there is conflict between two people and they are already cynical and distrustful of each other having them meet privately probably will just make things worse. The question you have to ask is “Who is the best person to talk to the dysfunctional person and what is the best way to talk to them?” Consider your plan of action carefully and look for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.

Perhaps there is some other crisis that is more important and the issue at hand can wait. If someone’s dad died you don’t confront them on how they don’t do a good enough job cleaning the church bathroom. There is an obvious judgment call that needs to be made. If the person is continually damaging others you accelerate the process. If the problem isn’t a major one then just wait until it is a good time to talk to them.

Sometimes talking to someone one on one doesn’t work. The next step is to escalate by confronting the person with one or two others. The offending person might be in denial, they might think the problem is just you. By bringing more people in to the situation you can establish that the problem isn’t just the figment of someone’s imagination.

Remember to give people time. There are a lot of honest people that don’t react well to an initial confrontation but after some time and the emotions settle they come around. Give people the time to process what they heard. I’ve taken months to talk to someone just because I know they were going through a really rough time and they aren’t coping in a healthy way.

If having two or three people confront the person doesn’t work the next step is to apply more leverage. At this point you are starting to pick between bad and worse options. Exposing someone’s failings to a group of people is going to do some damage to everyone involved. It is a difficult thing for most people to do. My guess is that well over half of the world would rather let things slide than risk hurting someone’s feelings by telling them a difficult truth. Sometimes this bad option is better than the worse option of doing nothing.

It is a drastic step but it is good for a couple of reasons. Some people will respond if several of their best friends tell them they are in the wrong. When taking the issue to the whole church you have to have a strong case against someone that would past the scrutiny of several people. Notice there is no room in this for heavy handed backroom tactics by leaders. How many controlling church leaders conveniently punt out their critic’s one or two at a time and tell the rest of the congregation their very biased version of the story?

If the whole community can’t convince someone to stop hurting others then they should be removed from the group until they are safe again. It is really important that this is communicated. Regardless of what you say people will come away feeling worthless and condemned but it is worse if you treat them like they are worthless. Don’t ever write people off. Always leave the door open to reconciliation and restoration.

Now there are times in which this process doesn’t fit the situation and it is appropriate to skip or modify steps. In most cases the primary goal is to restore relationship but if that appears unlikely then your goal is to keep people safe.

If the offending person is abusive don’t expect an alleged victim to talk to them in private so they can be abused again.

If there is an established pattern of abuse by someone in a position of power and previous attempts to confront the person have failed there isn’t any point to sending another person to confront them personally. Abusive leaders have very effectively hid behind a truncated legalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words here. As soon as someone confronts them they go on the offensive and discredit the person that confronted them. Many honest people have been labeled divisive or rebellious just for asking the wrong questions.

Now if you don’t follow step one the many leaders will complain that you didn’t follow the procedure. In some cases this is a legitimate but separate issue. Just because someone is bringing up issues in a poor way it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t relevant or true. If someone has a problem with me I’d hope they could tell me personally, or at least tell someone else we both trust and talk about it before it becomes the topic of gossip. However just because someone doesn’t confront someone the best way doesn’t mean their complaint is illegitimate. It is rarely easy but a good leader will make an attempt to see past the misguided actions or inflammatory words of a critic and consider the kernel of truth that might be found in the complaint. It is a credit to a leader when they have people around them that can see through the kerfuffle and say “you know so and so has a point here.” Counter accusations are not a defense for sinful behavior.

There are times when following Jesus’ directions here isn’t enough. If there are allegations of abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual there needs to be a proper investigation by an appropriate authority. Often in cases of abuse or exploitation what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more going on that is concealed. We need people looking in to the situation with the ability to get to the bottom of things. This usually involves social safety agencies, child protection services, and law enforcement. It can turn out to be a big mess but the alternative is worse. Far too often churches have been satisfied with shallow investigations while abuse continues. Victims often grow up to be abusers and the cycle continues.

If you know with great assurance that someone is a danger to others your first priority must be the protection of innocent people. If you have firm evidence some one sexually assaulted someone in your church you make sure they don’t go anywhere near the alleged victim or other potential victims until a thorough investigation is finished.

Why do I feel the freedom to more loosely interpret Jesus’s instructions? Because Jesus didn’t always follow the procedure he outlined in Matthew 18.

Read through Matthew 23. Did Jesus personally approach the Pharisees in private before lambasting them publicly? Paul corrected Peter in front of a whole crowd of people (Gal 2:14). Paul pointed out the false teaching and faults of the self-proclaimed super-apostles in a letter. He had no opportunity to confront them directly. It doesn’t appear that John confronted Diotrophes in person either (3John 1:9-10). There are lots of examples where it wasn’t feasible to confront someone personally.

In general I see Jesus’s priorities following along two lines. If it is feasible do what you can to restore relationship causing the least amount damage. Failing that do what you need to do to ensure people are safe.

Are the scriptures actually considered authoritative in your church?

One of the realities I’ve come accept is that not everyone who acts as if scripture is their authority really believes in scripture as an authority. That might seem obvious to some but it seems rather hard for people to identify in an abusive church situation.

In churches where dubious teachings are promoted like Coverings or the Prosperity gospel the scriptures are often quoted but not accurately represented or properly applied. Many people in these churches who have suffered from obvious unbiblical behavior try to challenge the leaders with scripture but are completely rejected.

There is one good explanation for this.

Many of these abusive church leaders don’t care about scripture in any material way. Some undoubtedly have deceived themselves in to believing some kind of false theology because it benefits them in some way. Others are nothing more than scam artists.

When confronted with the obvious errors of their teaching they will try all sorts of tactics to avoid dealing with the reality the critic they are facing.

They might deflect by denying what they truly believe. Others will try to say that they simply have a different and more valid interpretation of scripture. They might appeal to some toothless accountability mechanism. More often than not valid biblical critiques are met with harsh resistance, defamation and counter accusations. Surprisingly a lot of Christians will endure this because they were taught not to “touch the Lord’s anointed” and live in fear of being a “rebel.”

If the scriptures truly are an authority in someone’s life you will observe the following:

  • A real effort is made to interpret the scriptures accurately
  • Hearts, minds and actions are changed by interacting with scripture
  • People will endure pain, discomfort or loss in order to follow the teachings of scripture
  • Humility of heart and recognition that interpreting scripture accurately can hindered by one’s cultural context, personal agendas and bias
  • Recognition that there can be several valid interpretations

If the scriptures are not a true authority you will observe the following:

  • Scriptures are patched together in order to make a point without regard to context
  • The scriptures are used only to provide weight to the leader’s agenda
  • There is no willingness to change or sacrifice based on the instruction of scripture
  • Scriptures are interpreted with reckless confidence without recognition of bias
  • Recognition of other valid interpretations is rare
  • Biblical concepts are infused with meaning that doesn’t reflect their biblical usage often to serve the agenda of the leader. In scripture the phrase “touch not the Lord’s anointed” is far more about not physically harming the king of Israel than disagreeing with a spiritual leader.

Ministry Mind Trick #2 : Flattery

In the realm of human relationships there are forms of communication that are less honest than others.  There are subtle ways to curry favour and influence people without raising alarm or suspicion.  One such method is flattery.  It often comes in the form of personal compliments but can also be public praise, the granting of special privileges, more intimate levels of connection with a privileged circle of people, or prestigious appointments.  All these things are tactics deployed in order to communicate to someone how special they are, how important they are how good they are.

Someone I once knew, lets call him Steve, was thinking of leaving a church where covering theology is taught.  Steve was an ardent critic of the theology and stood strongly against it.  The pastor called him in to his office and started praising him for his leadership abilities and offered him the leadership of a prominent ministry in the church.  Steve is gifted but at the time had some serious problems in his life that would have made most church leaders pause before putting him in any leadership position.  Unfortunately Steve took his words at face value.  One year later the man was stomped on by the church.

The trouble with accepting indulging ourselves in flattery we receive comes in the end when reality hits us right in the face.  Steve found out later exactly what the leadership thought of him and it wasn’t pretty.  Why the pastor didn’t just let him leave the church in the beginning is something of mystery.  Was he really trying to win him back to the fold?  Was the pastor so co-dependent that he couldn’t stand the thought of another person leaving his church?  I don’t really know.

The status that flattery provides is a very shaky platform because most flattery is inherently dishonest.  There is no telling when your true value and  status will be revealed.  Will you be cast away as the flatterer finds a new person to invest in?  Will you be cast down when your inflated position is now hindering the agenda of the flatterer?

Although the topic of flattery isn’t huge in the New Testament it is mentioned a couple of times.

Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles contrary to the teaching that you learned. Avoid them! For these are the kind who do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By their smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of the naive.
(Rom 16:17-18 NET.)

For we never appeared with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is our witness –nor to seek glory from people, either from you or from others,
(1Th 2:5-6 NET.)

Notice how Paul mentions flattery along with greed and the desire for glory in 1Thessalonians.  The use of flattery is always with an aim to receive something in return.  The transaction works like this.  I flattery you and you in turn publicly and personally praise me or give me something I want.  Flattery is like a the free gift that comes with a hidden contract.  It is almost like a cell phone.  I’ll give you a free phone and some accessories you just need to pay me back over our 3 year contract.  If you try to get out too soon I’ll nail you with contract termination fees.

In church situations the transaction looks like this:  I give you a little bit of glory and you give me some glory.  I’ll praise you and lift you up and you do the same for me.  In many churches where some kind of false teaching is prevalent you’ll see the pastoring lavish praise on the elite in the church and the elite returning the favour.

The weak and transparent leader

Is it ok for Christian leaders to be open, honest and transparent about their failings?  Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians illuminates his perspective in his conflict with the influence of the super-apostles.

Paul appealed to Christians that willingly submitted themselves to authoritarian false apostles that proclaimed themselves as Lord, peddled the word of God for profit, and engaged in underhanded methods as part of their “ministry.”

Paul paints the super apostles as spiritual abusers in his appeal to the Corinthians. 

For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing.
(2Co 11:20-21 NET.)

How Paul responds to influence of the super-apostles is nothing less than remarkable.  He doesn’t proclaim to the Corinthians he is more super than the super-apostles.  He doesn’t appeal to a higher human authority, credentials or recommendations.  He doesn’t commend himself as superior…he reveals his weakness.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of death, and he will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer, so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many.
(2Co 1:8-11 NET.)

Some guys roll in to a church Paul planted with letters of recommendation in hand, start pointing out Paul’s weaknesses and commend themselves as superior.  Less than 10 sentences in to Paul’s response he admits he was burdened beyond his strength in a certain situation.  He went through something he admits he couldn’t handle.

But there was a method to his madness.

In Chapter 3 Paul describes a new covenant ministry in which people are transformed as they behold and reflect the glory of the Lord.  Because it is the Lord that transforms people Paul rejects all sorts of trickery and underhanded methods.  There is no need to use the methods of human influence to try to change people’s behavior. People are not changed through the application of force or manipulation.  It is the Lord that transforms.  Our part in this process is to simply reflect the glory of the Lord unveiled.  The Lord’s glory is best reflected in weakness.

Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged. But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’sake. For God, who said "Let light shine out of darkness," is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
(2Co 4:1-7 NET.)

One of the key differences between Paul and the super-apostles was that he believed that as a leader the best thing he could do was a mirror image of the glory of God as revealed in the miraculous progression and transformation of his own life.  He aimed to reflect the Lord’s glory, not to proclaim himself.  He did not say that people must follow him because he represents Christ to them.  His goal was to be open, honest, and transparent even in weakness and he trusted that people would see the work of the Lord in his life and then be attracted to the same transforming glory or presence.

People are not transformed by human strength, power, or authority.  They are transformed by God.  Our role in this is to simply reflect the glory of the Lord without distortion, amplification, projection, or manipulation.