On Power Part Two: If Another Member Of The Church Sins Against Us

Edward Vaughan - 24 October 2021

This is a story that is all too familiar. A woman in a Christian organisation approaches the Chair of the Board for help because she believes she has been subjected to sexual harassment. Her male line manager has made jokes and comments that left her feeling very uncomfortable. At some work-related social events, his physical contact felt invasive to her. Some of his texts seem to have crossed the line between being friendly and being creepy. She decides she needs some help to deal with this situation.

The Chair, an older man, is actually highly sympathetic. He agrees that this behaviour is not acceptable and that her manager needs to change his behaviour. However, he would prefer not to intervene. He encourages her to talk to her line manager directly about how she feels. After all, Matthew 18 teaches us that when another member of the church sins against us, we should go to them alone. The Chair promises that he will be ready to step in if her intervention doesn’t work. But the first step, in his opinion, based on what the Scriptures teach, is that she should talk to him first.

For Christians, a scenario like this can be really confusing. Of course, this woman should be safe from unwanted physical and verbal harassment. Someone should do something! And yet, the Chair has quoted Jesus correctly. Maybe she just has to deal with it herself?

The problem is not that the teachings of Christ are irrelevant or should be simply ignored. It’s a great passage of Scripture, and would that we paid more attention to it more often. The problem is that it’s not the only teaching of the Bible on such matters. And it misunderstands the context of power in which this scenario is being played out.

Jesus does teach us that as brothers and sisters, we do have responsibility for rebuking sinful behaviour and encouraging godliness. I actually am my brother’s and sister’s keeper. You and I stand together on the level ground of the Cross, as children in the same family. The highest-paid Christian CEO and the lowest-paid cleaner are children of the Father.

The imagery of family is one of the most evocative and most important ways of understanding our relationships with fellow believers. But it’s not the only image that is used in the New Testament to describe the relationship believers have with each other. So yes, we are brothers and sisters. We are also fellow soldiers in the spiritual battle, and fellow labourers in the vineyard. But there are also images that emphasise the power and authority differentials that exist in the Christian community. Some are called ‘elders’ because the older ones amongst us have more knowledge, more wisdom, and more authority to act.

Christian community is complex because all of these images are true and relevant to our relationships, and we can move between them seamlessly, invisibly. On a church staff, the Senior Pastor can open the team meeting with a prayer to our Father, talk about our work together in the common cause of the Gospel, and then step into ‘Boss mode’, exercising authority. Quite possibly, we don’t even notice the changes. Nonetheless, we can be left confused when our brother or sister shifts out of family mode and starts speaking in a tone that suddenly sounds a lot more like ‘The Big Boss’.

The issue is one of power. So often in the ‘church world’, we are just oblivious to how power plays out in our relationships and how it necessarily changes the way that we interact with one another. It’s a particularly contentious issue in our world at the moment, as we confront the long history of women being subjected to abusive behaviour or being the victims of a patriarchal culture. Annabel Crabb’s ABC series Ms Represented was a jaw-dropping expose of injustice to women in the national political context. One wonders what it would be like to watch a similar investigation into how women have been treated in our churches.

So back to the Chair who uses Matthew 18 to shape his advice to the female worker. What’s the problem with this?

The problem is that his response has not factored in the issue of power. It’s true that Jesus taught us to use the Matthew 18 principle in our personal relationships. But it’s not the only relevant biblical teaching that we have.

Think about the scenario of David and Bathsheba. The King of Israel, one of the most powerful men in the world at that time, desires a woman and takes her. It’s clearly wrong and David must be rebuked. But do we imagine that Bathsheba will ‘go to him alone’ and confront her brother with his sin? It’s ridiculous even to suggest it. The power differential between the towering authority of the anointed King and the wife of a soldier in that King’s army is staggering!

Matthew 18 is the right principle to use in the context of personal relationships. Yet when the relationship is charged with a power imbalance like that between David and Bathsheba, the powerless need an advocate. Bathsheba needs the prophet Nathan to speak on her behalf and confront the powerful King in a way which is simply not possible for her.

One way of thinking about this is to frame it as an issue of ‘Organisational Justice’. Healthy organisations recognise that power exists at many different levels and operates in many different ways, and develop cultures where that power is used appropriately and well. Healthy organisations recognise that power changes relationships and that the leaders need to ensure that power is used justly, especially regarding the most vulnerable of their members.

Healthy organisations ensure that power is used with justice. And what that looks like is the subject of our blog next time!

Edward Vaughan