The Christian community would be healthier if it practiced Proverbs 18:17.
I once worked with a colleague who often quoted Proverbs 18:17: “There are two sides to every story. The first one to speak sounds true until you hear the other side and they set the record straight.” Now I know why he quoted it so often. He recognized Proverbs 18:17 is a simple solution to a systemic problem in businesses and churches.
The problem is triangulation. It’s a form of manipulation, going behind someone’s back to tell someone else your side of the story regarding that person whose back you’re going behind. In the list of toxic behaviors, psychologists say it’s one of our most systemic.
I was on the receiving end of this toxicity as a pastor. We fired an associate pastor for just cause but didn’t divulge details to the church. The fired pastor did—at least his side of the story. That led to a large number of people leaving. They felt the associate was treated unfairly. But no one never asked whether there was another side to the story.
I’m not telling you a sob story. I’ve done my fair share of triangulation. I’m not proud of that. And if I triangulate, I repent. I repudiate my actions. I confess to those I have wronged.
I’d like to say I see Christians confess when they triangulate. I would be lying. Triangulation is a systemic problem in the faith community. Few take the Apostle Paul seriously: Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. I’d say don’t entertain an accusation against anyone unless the witnesses include the one who was present when the so-called offense happened but isn’t present when accused.
That’s the simple solution to a systemic problem. Before you entertain any accusation against someone, make sure the accused is in the room. If they’re not, pick up the phone and call them. Get accuser and accused together. Hear the other side of the story.
Seems pretty simple to me. Why then do we rarely do it? I have a few ideas.
I think we use Christianese to mask what the Bible calls gossip or slander. I’ve experienced a few times when someone has gone behind my back to “share” a “concern” (Christianese for gossip and slander) they had about me with others. Their side of the story eroded the listener’s confidence in me. The listener never called me in to meet my accuser and to hear my side of the story. It feels like being presumed guilty until proven innocent. I find that distasteful.
I also think we lack conviction about the toxicity of triangulation. Healthy churches take it seriously. I consulted for one many years ago. I was facilitating a workshop when a new associate pastor accused this church of being cold, uncaring. Afterward, I took her aside privately and asked if we could meet in the morning. We did. I asked questions and took notes. When she was finished, I walked back through my notes, ensuring I got her side of the story correct. I then told her I was meeting with the senior pastor later that day. “I just want to ensure he hears your side of the story before I hear his side to the story. Then the three of us will get together and we’ll discover where the truth lies.”
Never happened. She submitted her resignation within the hour.
And it rarely happens in the faith community. I’ve sat with friends who expressed anger or hurt toward me based on what someone else said. I’ve yet to have anyone ask to hear the other side of the story. The truth usually lies somewhere between the two stories, but it’s difficult to reconcile the two takes when we don’t hear the other side of the story.
The gospel is about the reconciliation of all things. All things. I’ll not mention their names but two well-known leaders of large evangelical ministries went to their graves without ever reconciling their spats. They didn’t care to hear the other side of the story. We can do better. We must do better.
It’s simple. Practice Proverbs 18:17. Get accused and accuser in the same room at the same time. This won’t solve every problem, but it’ll solve a systemic problem in the church.