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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

August 18, 2017

Both sides

I have often written about the bad experiences I have had in church leadership and the ways a problematic pastor, troubled parishioner, disgruntled staff member, or clique can bring an entire congregation down. You can read those essays and meditations elsewhere on this website.

Several of the truths I discovered in these situations will never lose their grip on me. They have permanently altered how I think about ecclesiology and about human nature.

One of these is the common lie that is heard when things are going south: “Mistakes were made on all sides.” I first heard this said by a denominational team sent to our church to evaluate a messy situation. After several months of talking both to a very determined group of instigators as well as people trying to hold the church together, the evaluators delivered their conclusion: “Mistakes were made on all sides.”

Even though there were clearly aggressive antagonists, the situation was declared a draw. Both sides were to blame, the team said. What they really meant was, “If we say everyone is to blame, then no one is to blame, and we can all go home.”

Eventually this church split. Almost 20 years later, the aftereffects of the damage continue.

About a decade later, I was again a church leader, this time as a layperson in an independent church with a diverse congregation that was doing good things in the community. This church suffered a number of blows over the course of several years. Each situation followed a remarkably similar course: a person or persons clearly did something wrong, then church leaders tried to deal with the situation as best and as fairly as they could. Those in the wrong used gossip, lies and grievances to deliberately influence people in the church who they considered their friends, until a “both sides” narrative emerged.

In this narrative, efforts made by leaders to deal with the wrongdoing were rebranded as unfairness and persecution by the perpetrators. In each case, just enough people in the congregation believed the new narrative to cause trouble, sow dissent and doubt, and deal another blow to the body. After the fifth incident of this kind in as many years, we died as a congregation.

The “both sides” false narrative happens in a lot in churches. It has done me personal, lasting damage. But it’s been going on for a long time on the national scene as well. And it’s been magnified by the current occupant of the Oval Office. He used it as a strategy during his campaign and he uses it now. And just as happens in churches, it’s giving power and cover to people who have agendas, people who have done wrong, and to disturbed and fringe individuals. How much more can the country endure? If my church experiences are any indication, there will be severe consequences.

Hard lessons

From my experiences in church conflicts I learned some important lessons about how easily people are manipulated. Most of them had to do with the character of my fellow parishioners and their willingness to follow Christ and seek the truth. I think they apply in our country’s current situation as well.

Some people have no intention of playing fair. Not even in church. For years I thought everyone wants to do the right thing and will act in good faith if they just have all the facts and can have reasonable discussions about differences. I believed people would be open to compromise. I was wrong. Some people are actually out to win at all costs no matter the destruction, and they take advantage of those who try to be fair and come to disagreements in good faith.

Beware of people whose see themselves as perpetual victims. Some people are genuinely damaged to the point that they cannot think clearly. They have perceptual, emotional or mental impairments that make them both vulnerable and dangerous—two things that often go hand in hand. They may not be able to separate the agenda they pursue out of their hurt from more rational behavior. They often believe they are entitled to behave however they wish without consequence, because in their minds they are always victims.

People who think of themselves in this way can cause a lot of damage. When given a measure of power or control, as sometimes happens in a church where there is a constant need for volunteers, their dysfunction can cause tremendous harm. I have said many times: The way to serve such people in a church is to love them, care for them, but never, ever give them positions of responsibility.

Many people prefer gossip, drama and entertainment to actually considering facts and the character of the those involved in a controversy. These folks do not want to do the difficult, courageous work required to come down on the right side of things when they make up their minds. They prefer to listen only to those courting them, or to those with whom they feel they align, and to ignore information coming from other sources. It is easier and safer for them to say they do not know who to believe, or to believe the worst rumors circulating. Or to say, “mistakes were made on all sides.”

"Mistakes were made on all sides” actually translates to “One side is clearly, truly, in the wrong.” When you hear anything along the lines of “both sides were at fault,” it is one of the indications that the situation is being manipulated, that there is a cover-up, and that someone who knows all this is trying to distract and divert you from discovering the truth, because it suits their purposes.

It is up to each of us to recognize and see past the subterfuge.


Why we are susceptible to the ‘both sides’ dodge

People are willing to indiscriminately blame both sides for a number of reasons, none of them good.

‘Low information.’ Some folks go this route because they don’t know—and don’t want to know—the facts. It takes no effort to just agree that “everyone is at fault” and leave it at that. This requires no research, evaluation, thinking. It is the easy way out. In our current national crisis, these people are often called the “low information voters.”

Fear. Fear’s a powerful thing, Bruce Springsteen once wrote. Many people know in their hearts that “both sides” are not equally to blame. But they are afraid of the reactions of their friends, neighbors and family members, as well as being seen as turning against the people who are in the wrong. Saying “both sides are to blame” sounds neutral, allows people to sit on the fence, and doesn’t get one in trouble. However, cowardice allows situations to fester and perpetuate—and afterwards, whether or not one had courage will be remembered.

Worldview. There are those who have made their bed and are determined to lie in it. And there are those who have had their bed made for them and feel pressure to lie in it for the rest of their lives. Perhaps they were taught as children that a certain worldview is what their family believes, or, as is often the case for church people, what God wants. Or long ago they decided to trust a person or group of people for their information, or to believe a certain point of view aligned with their own. It is a difficult, soul-searching task to break free of such influences, and many people simply are not up to it. It is very hard for them to come to the realization that something they’ve believed and trusted all their lives has been a lie or is on the wrong side of history.

Opportunists. Often the people who are formulating and perpetuating the myth blame both sides because it is to their advantage to do so. Watch out for these people—look behind what they are saying to see how it serves their agenda. Blaming both sides is a red flag for false equivalency and evil. Remember, when “both sides” language is trotted out, there probably is only one side at fault.

Seeing past disinformation

Here are some things you can do to help you see through deceptive tactics and disinformation.

Ask yourself questions about the person or group who is the source of the information:
•  Are their intentions usually honorable? Have they proven over time that they can be trusted?
• What has their character been like over the long haul? Do they honor Christ and are they living according to his commands? Or do they seem to be in service to some other cause?

Also ask yourself:
• Where did this information come from? Is it from a trustworthy source of longstanding, which uses rigorous fact-finding and reporting methods? Or is it from some website or social media source that has just popped up out of nowhere?
• If the information has been forwarded to you by a friend or relative, ask yourself whether in general they are a trustworthy source of information.
• Does it seem the information was recently manufactured, specifically to confuse or denigrate a person or group who otherwise have few or no marks against them?

Honoring Christ

Jesus calls us to seek and act on the truth, and to not be taken in by those practicing deception (see Matthew 10).  The writer of 2 Timothy advises us not to be fascinated with or fooled by controversies and deception (see 2 Tim. 6). And James also warns us about how easy it is to be deceived (James 1).

As Christians, we need to be devoted to the truth, no matter where it leads us. This is particularly the case when following the truth causes us to question our long-held beliefs, or to stand up regarding an injustice when doing so has a cost.

In these fraught times, may we as Christians remember what Jesus taught and how he expects us to live. Amen.


Do not be deceived, my beloved.
—James 1:16