Victor Chininin Buele
We are in the middle of a series of reflections about a certain counterfeit of Reformed preaching, of expository preaching, that causes great harm to the flock of Christ. So far, I have alluded to the Church of Christ as being sound asleep in the safest part of a ship that is in the sea in the middle of a storm of mythical proportions. Abuse is a storm that destroys sheep, precious sheep made in the image of God, and tosses them to the depths of the sea. Part of the argument is that for Jonah to be sound asleep like that, his conscience had to be hardened to such an extent that the eternal destiny of the people of Nineveh became something so repugnant to him that he would purposefully purchase a ticket to the end of the known world to avoid the call to preach to them because maybe, just maybe God could grant them mercy and repentance (and that is precisely just what God did).
In the previous article, the first mark of this counterfeit was explored: Preaching that breeds doubt in yourself and in everyone else but complete confidence in the mediator preaching.
The task today is to explore the second mark.
Counterfeit Preaching Teaches that Silence Is Grace and that Grace Is Silence
This one is pervasive. And it thrives in the uneasiness we feel at our desire to avoid sin and be respectable, God-honoring people who love our neighbor as ourselves. Let me dissect it.
This feels honorable. And we have plenty of words from the Bible to back up our action and inaction.
The book of Proverbs is a great source of wisdom, but if it’s twisted, it can be a great weapon for silencing. There are gems in God’s Word such as these: “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:13), ” Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler” (Prov. 20:19), or “Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret” (Prov. 25:9). I don’t use the word gems sarcastically. This is wisdom–God’s wisdom. No if’s, but’s, or objections.
We saw in the last installment how the teaching that the heart is deceitful can be taken past its limits in saying and believing that all that comes from the heart of the person must be suspect, completely neglecting the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. This second mark builds on top of that. That is, when the person is rightly questioning or asking what his instinct is, it goes and adds secrecy to it. And because the words used to silence come from the Bible, straight from the Bible, they have great power.
This hermeneutic will say, “What is slander? God’s Word defines slander as the revealing of secrets. The Christian, God’s Word says, will keep a thing covered.” “What do we do with the slanderer? We must not associate with them. They’ll just publish anything you tell them, that’s what God’s Word says.” “You must argue your case with your neighbor himself, and not reveal another’s secret. Don’t talk to others. God’s Word says that. They are speaking evil.”
And here is the thing.
The Word does say that.
And it doesn’t.
A key factor is the nature of the secret we are being asked to keep. The other key factor is whose authority is it to deal with the situation, if appropriate.
The Lord Jesus asked people to keep secrets. Just one example. “And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, ‘See that no one knows about it.’ But they went away and spread his fame through all that district” (Matthew 9:30–31 ESV). Did Jesus commit some impropriety that he was coercing people to be silent about? No. Was he protecting the appearance of godliness in front of a people? No.
It was not yet time for these miracles to be proclaimed from the rooftops.
And the people couldn’t be quiet anyway. Redeemed people don’t keep their sin quiet. Forgiven people tell you all about it because it magnifies their Savior. Freedom cries out from the rooftops. It gets rid of any obstacles that keep them from climbing up there to shout about the grace of Christ in redeeming them and freeing them from their slavery to sin.
This is very important. Jesus never took advantage of Proverbs to silence opposition or to silence those who were asking questions or to dismiss correction and the call to repentance (he never sinned).
And we now live on the other side of the Great Commission. So, we don’t have a reason to keep quiet about the fact that Jesus is the Christ. In fact, it is our full time responsibility to tell every creature that Christ is Lord and to disciple them by teaching them to obey all that Jesus taught.
There are matters of confidence and discretion, and we would agree with the writer of Proverbs, that one must be able to keep a confidence and honor the person who trusted us for advice or counseling. This is part of living in community. In this way, we are guardians of stories. There are things that we will hear that we will be wise to keep in confidence. Two friends tells you they have cancer, and they haven’t shared with anyone yet. They truly need prayer. Pray. People will be making decisions that are not public yet. Yet, these are not sins we are asked to keep but confidences.
The problem comes when we equate a confidence with covering up unrepentant sin. Usually, forgiven sin is not something that goes in a vault. It comes up–as an example, as a testimony, as a praise, as a warning, as a challenge, as an admonishment. And not all stories can be kept secret. When we are told we are guardians of stories or of reputations in order to keep things quiet that shouldn’t be secret, beware of manipulation at work. There are matters that concern law enforcement. There are matters that concern the local church. There are matters that concern spouses that have been sinned against. There are matters that concern elderships. There are matters that concern the general public. There are matters that concern parents.
John Stott wrote a wonderful book Confess Your Sins that wrestles in part with the nuances of public confession. I would commend that to you for your edification. In the case of matters that reach advanced levels of church discipline, he wrote, “It is the local church which has been sinned against; it is the local church to which public confession must be made; and it is the local church which must take responsibility to administer discipline and to use its God-given authority to bind and to loose.” The abuse stories we see coming to light publicly these days show ecclesiastical systems where the local church was not involved in these matters. As a matter of fact, a mark of honor, or of fear, was to not involve them, to handle things in committees, or elderships, or in secret. Once, a saint who heard of a matter of abuse simply asked another saint, “But, did you talk to the regional director of the denomination?” And she walked away in peace. Stott’s point is essential and scriptural: this saint was sinned against as a part of the local church, but she believed this lie that her silence is grace. Reconciliation can’t really occur unless we are honest about the extent of our sins and repent of them fully. There was teaching she believes that led to this response.
The height of manipulation in this preaching is that grace is equated with silence. One day, I was in a Bible study. The teacher announced his text and started reading it. Every single attendee opened to said text and heard the dissonance between the words our eyes were seeing and the words the teacher was reading. It didn’t match up.
Yet no one said anything.
We all assumed it was grace to assume we were all wrong and not the teacher! There was absolutely no reason to be quiet about this. Somebody could have asked, “What are you reading?” Somebody could have said, “You are reading the wrong text.” Somebody could have even made a joke out of it. But, this is in the air we breath. We assume that it is us. It is our fault. That it is somehow better to be the one wrong; after all, we can recite 1 Corinthians 13. That is how abuse thrives. We think we give grace to the abuser, but we cover the abuse.
We think we give the benefit of the doubt. But we forget there is no such thing as neutrality. To be pro-something is to be against something else. Relativism breaks. And we all know it. We try to see things in the best possible light. Until we no longer can do so with a clean conscience. And then, the speech gets labeled as gossip and slander. Not because it is false but because it is uttered. Are we surprised that so many end up sharing with the mainstream media or with social media when we, the saints, those sinned against, those with a responsibility to disciple, love, and care for the sheep, chose to be silent and, more than that, went on to believe false narratives that painted the one coming forward in the worst possible light as we accused them of painting the accused in the worst possible light? I am convinced that people go public when there is no more recourse.
Do not read this wrong: it may be grace to be silent. Deuteronomy 17/Mathew 18 call us to make a diligent inquiry, to not admit charges without reliable witnesses. But once things are clear, and the right jurisdiction is identified (whether it’s a person who’s been sinned against, or abused, or a spouse that has been lied to, or the other elders, or the body of the church, or law enforcement), we can’t use grace as an excuse for inaction.
Jesus had a lot to say. And here is the thing with secrets: they are the canary in the mine. They speak volumes about the heart.