The Systemic Matthew 18 Problem in Lutheran Congregations

Most pastors are familiar with this.  Out of the blue the pastor will get a phone call or surprise visit from his congregation president or one of the elders.  “Some people are not happy with…You hurt a few people when you…Someone said that…”  It is one of the most unpleasant things in ministry.  The pastor does not get to face his accusers.  It cultivates apprehension and distrust between a pastor and his leadership, and it creates an overall toxic atmosphere in the congregation.  Pastors generally do not show improvement when criticized this way, and none of the congregation grows spiritually.  And it goes on and on and on.  This is a problem in Lutheran congregations which only seems to perpetuate itself: congregation leaders act as complaint boxes towards their pastors, and trust deteriorates.

That this happens often is actually quite understandable.  I read one of the duties of elders from my congregation’s constitution.  It reads, “(They shall) consider complaints and grievances of the members of the congregation and determine if Matthew 18:15-16 have been fully applied, and shall report to the congregation those which cannot be otherwise adjusted in accordance with Matthew 18:17-18.”  So there it is.  Elders are supposed to consider complaints and grievances, right?  It is no wonder that scores of elders over time have thought that considering complaints is their job.  It’s written right into our governing documents.

But we must read these words carefully.  They shall consider complaints and grievances and “determine if Matthew 18:15-16 have been fully applied.” We dare not shrug these words off right here.  What exactly do these Scriptures say?  We read from our Lord Jesus’ words, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:15-16 ESV).  So we see here.  If someone has a complaint against a pastor, he should not go running off to complain to an elder.  He should approach his pastor first, face to face.  If the pastor cannot be won over by God’s Word and clear reason, the one with a complaint should return with one or two others along.  Maybe even in this step, bringing along an elder may be a good thing to do.  God-willing, reconciliation may take place.

Why should we act this way?  For one, it is the courageous thing to do.  Those with complaints against a pastor should not hide behind a cloak of anonymity, behind another man’s shield.  This weak behavior is what foments a toxic atmosphere in the congregation.  When anyone can make accusations or complaints without having to own his or her words, the congregation can become a breeding ground for gossip and even malicious lies.

Following Matthew 18 also protects the pastor’s reputation.  Jesus did not preach his words from Matthew 18 out of the blue, but they are in accord with the 8th Commandment which is given to protect a man’s reputation.  You first approach a man privately, so if possible no one else finds out about his sin.  You do not want your own sins broadcasted all over the community, so we try to keep our neighbor’s sins hidden also.  By attempting to keep complaints private, you preserve his reputation as best as possible.

It is finally courteous to your congregation leaders, the elders especially.  They have been elected to support your pastor in matters pertaining to the spiritual welfare of the congregation.  To be entrusted with spiritual care, this is a high calling which Jesus wants men to have for their own joy and blessing.  If their job is to deal with a never-ending barrage of complaints and grievances, this joy and blessing cannot be realized.  Spiritual care has its own share of challenges and sorrows which come without Matthew 18 being trampled underfoot.  As God’s people, we owe it to our spiritual leaders to do our best when there are clear Scriptures to guide us.  They will be so much happier – pastors and elders alike.

Some may say that they are uncomfortable to approach their pastor, or an elder may think he’s only attempting to be a liaison, trying to help.  Do not buy the lie.  God gave you your pastor that you may have a true spiritual father who loves you and cares for your soul.  Approach him with confidence, and know that he cares.  Know that God himself appointed him to your congregation, and you have nothing to fear in him.  If your problem with him cannot be resolved privately, Matthew 18 gives you provision to make sure this happens eventually.  When we avoid the Scriptural process by succumbing to appeals about someone’s comfort level, everyone remains miserable and the devil wins the day.

So elders and presidents especially, be bold and decisive here.  If someone tugs your ear with a complaint about the pastor, do not entertain it.  Gently ask, “Have you taken this up with the pastor himself?”  If they say no, tell them that’s the first thing to do.  Tell them that if the problem can’t be resolved, come back and you’ll be of help.  Be gentle, and give the aura of confidence.  Tell them that everything will be okay.  As long as Jesus is risen from the dead, we have to believe this is true.

As I mention in the title of this article, I believe this is a systemic problem in Lutheran congregations.  For my almost 12 years in the ministry, I have found that it is a constant theme which shows no signs of going away.  I believe that if congregation leaders can learn to apply Matthew 18 in their congregations, they would be stronger than probably 90% of our congregations out there.  We can make a good faith effort here.  It only requires close attention to the 8th Commandment, which we were all taught as youth.  It involves close attention to our Lord Jesus’ words from Matthew 18, which are clear and wise.  It will also involve love for and commitment to our congregations, which are God’s gracious establishment wherever we live.  Most of all, it will require faith that God’s forgiveness is enough to conquer all sources of conflict in the congregation.  True Christians must have this attitude.  We can do this.  Our congregations don’t have to be toxic.  They can be salt and light, which is what Jesus intended us to be.

8 thoughts on “The Systemic Matthew 18 Problem in Lutheran Congregations

  1. Some? (How Many?) A few? (How Many?) SomeONE? (Who?) Did they ask you to tell me? Do they know that you are telling me? What are their names? Sit here with me as I telephone them.

    When a congregational member/leader is questioned this way it may suddenly be known that no one but the member/leader (and maybe their spouse) is behind the comments.

    A pastor should refuse to accept anonymous complains or criticisms. It’s unhealthy for the pastor and the congregation.

  2. Interesting points are being made here, but what about when the pastor is the one that has made accusations about members of the congregation? I have been told, by my current pastor, that he’s turned in a list of people who have caused problems in the church to the district president. However, no one seems to know who’s on the list and if there’s been any attempt at meetings with the person’s elder and pastor.
    Also, when the pastor has a complaint about anyone, the meeting is normally with that person and the assistant pastors; not one on one. I have served as an elder and chair of the congregation during this time. The pastor and I have had numerous conversations and he’s been encouraged, by me, to visit with those that he has a problem with. Unfortunately, those meetings don’t seem to happen.
    It works both ways. I continue to pray for my pastor.

  3. What if it is the elders themselves breaking the 8th commandment and Matthew 18? A series of anonymous letters were sent to them in January complaining about me. Despite attempts at teaching over the past six months, they have doubled down on how wonderful these anonymous complaints are, insisting that they know countless pastors who use and encourage them. Three of the elders publicly defended the letters multiple times. When I asked our circuit visitor to come and talk to them about Matthew 18(thinking perhaps that I wasn’t doing a good job of teaching them) they continue to defend them, arguing with him and now bad mouthing him. They came up again at our recent elders meeting and all I heard was how wonderful they are.

  4. David Hoehler,

    Your elders are incorrect in how they’re handling the situation. They are cowards who hide behind these letters to defend their issues with a pastor. I don’t know how you can defend an anonymous letter unless you agree with the content of the letters.
    They certainly need a refresher on Matthew 18 and how complaints are handled. Perhaps, the approach should be a meeting with the elders in question and asking them if they have an issue with you and if they agree with the letters.

  5. @David Hoehler

    This is exactly the problem. It is not just a matter of anonymous complaints per se, but of elders who themselves have a vendetta against the pastor, and are using the “complaints” of others as a means to advance their personal vendetta, and attack the office of the ministry. Often the complaints are not anonymous, but are used for the same purpose.

    It is not only Matthew 18 that is the problem, but a false understanding of the office of the ministry and the role of the elder in the Christian congregation. Too often they view themselves as the overseer of the pastoral office. I was explicitly told that the job of the elder was “to keep the pastor in line.” Our constitution, however, said nothing of the sort. The elders are there to assist the pastor in the performance of his duties.

    Granted, if the pastor is indeed in need of admonition, and refuses to hear the admonition of one or more of his members, or reacts badly, that is, contrary to his duty as a healer of souls, then the elders are in the best position to address such problems, but they can only do so legitimately by following Matthew 18.

  6. For anonymous complaints…

    Otherwise, don’t “what if” the comments to death. You have a problem with Pastor such and such or Elder so and so go talk to them about it, which is kind of the point of this article (your comments on this blog are not in keeping with Christian conduct).

    Pastors are to act as examples of godliness to the flock they have been sent to serve. Many passages in Scripture about that (as well as how Christians are to approach their pastor). The conduct of elders is the same, many passages about Christian conduct.

  7. Lutheran congregations often operate as business models rather than Scriptural and their constitutions reflect that.

  8. Thank you for writing this article! As a Lutheran administrator, I see this with parents and Pastors and Boards. We must teach people how to follow Matt. 18 and why it is important. I have pastors who will hear the complaints of parents but don’t encourage them to talk to the teacher or administrator. The anonymous thing doesn’t work either. I can’t speak to a situation without knowing the entire context. If you don’t have the courage to speak directly to person in which the situation is about then don’t engage in the conversation and break the 8th commandment. We must go to God’s Word for these issues not man/corporations way of dealing with such things. Otherwise we are putting Satan in the drivers seat and he will divide the church and school.

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