Posts Tagged ‘unilateral and bilateral forgiveness’

A pastor friend who lives in Japan – and was once a Jr. Higher in one of the youth groups I led – read my last blog post and asked, “Can you address the issue of pastors who were pushed out needing to deal with the roots of bitterness?  I find some say they forgive them [those who pushed them out].  But you see their face wince and eye twitch at the mention of these people.  They prayed the prayer to forgive them in obedience but the emotional wounds are very deep.”

I find this struggle for wounded pastors to forgive their assailants encapsulated in two New Testament passages:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:31-32

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”  Luke 17:3-4

Let me summarize the way we usually view these verses:

“A fellow believer has hurt you.  The hurt was unjustified and makes you angry.  You’re tempted to harm that person in return, but resist that temptation.  Follow the example of Jesus instead.  Just let it go and act like it never happened.”

Those five statements all appear to be true – but they don’t go far enough.

I believe there are two kinds of forgiveness: unilateral forgiveness and bilateral forgiveness.

When you forgive someone unilaterally, you choose to release the wrong they committed against you in private.  You say, “Father, I ask that You forgive Joe for insulting me in front of my friends.”  You never talk to Joe about his offense – you just tell God.  When you do this, you may choose to renew your relationship with Joe, or you may feel that your relationship with Joe has been temporarily or permanently harmed.  Joe may not know or care that he hurt you.

I believe that as a believer, I am compelled by God to forgive every person who wrongs me unilaterally.  It’s not an option – I must forgive.

But when you forgive someone bilaterally, you are aiming to restore your relationship with the person who hurt you.  While you can forgive them unilaterally, there are times when the relationship cannot be repaired unless you tell that person how much their actions wounded you.  If you don’t have that conversation, the relationship remains in a perpetual state of disrepair.

For example, sometimes a husband keeps hurting his wife, and she tries to tell him how much he’s hurt her, but the husband doesn’t acknowledge his error or change, so she just stops sharing her feelings, and they drift apart.  The same thing happens in friendships.

Now what about Ephesians 4:31-32 and Luke 17:3-4?  Are they dealing with unilateral or bilateral forgiveness?

Stay with me.  I will deal with wounded pastors and forgiveness!

At first glance, Ephesians 4:31-32 seems to be dealing with unilateral forgiveness except that the context is dealing with relationships inside the body of Christ.  You forgive your spiritual brother or sister for their offense and prove it by demonstrating kindness, compassion, and a lack of anger toward them.  The passage implies that you’ve sat down with the person who hurt you and worked things out with them.

But Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3-4 clinch this.  Jesus does not say, “If your brother sins, forgive him.”  That’s unilateral forgiveness, right?

Instead, Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.”   Why rebuke him?  Because when your brother hurt you, he may be unaware of that fact unless you tell him.

During my freshman year in college, I attended a social event for freshmen at a park.  I joined a co-ed tackle football game, intercepted a pass, and ran it back for a touchdown.  I expected applause from my team as I returned to the field, but was met with anger instead.  Why?  Because when a girl on the other team tried to tackle me, I knocked her silly but was totally unaware I had hurt her.

Sometimes a fellow believer will hurt us by their actions, but they honestly aren’t aware of it, so Jesus encourages us to say to our friend, “You hurt me by what you did.”

Jesus isn’t concerned about who’s right and who’s wrong.  He’s concerned about right relationships among His followers.

And then He says, “If they repent, you are obligated to forgive them.  That’s how My followers act.”  And Jesus takes it even further, stating that if they repent seven times in one day, I’m obligated to forgive all seven times.

Now the confession must be authentic.  When we were kids, I sometimes hit my brother John and then immediately asked him to forgive me.  Due to my obvious insincerity, he had every right not to forgive me until I was truly contrite.  He could forgive me unilaterally, but our relationship wasn’t going to be repaired until I could admit that I had wronged him.

There’s another name for bilateral forgiveness: reconciliation.  In fact, professor and author David Augsburger believes that when the New Testament speaks of forgiveness among believers, it’s talking about reconciliation, or bilateral forgiveness, not unilateral forgiveness.

And Augsburger believes that, according to Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3-4, if you rebuke your brother, but he doesn’t repent, there’s a sense in which you can’t fully forgive/reconcile with him.

Okay, let’s apply all of this to a fictional 57-year-old wounded pastor named Al.

Al has been the pastor of Trinity Church for 13 years.  The church has tripled its attendance and giving during that time.  Al and most of the people in the church are pleased with the way things are going.

One day, Al is called into an unplanned meeting of the church board, where he is told, “Either sign this resignation letter and receive two months of severance pay or you’re fired without pay.”  Brokenhearted, Al signs the letter.

In the months to come, Al struggles to forgive members of the church board.  Why?

First, the board did not follow any kind of biblical process to dismiss Al.  Al was ambushed, blindsided, bushwhacked, and sideswiped.  He was never confronted or rebuked, so he could never make things right with the board.

While the vilest criminal in the United States is entitled to a public trial, a godly pastor can be kicked to the curb without the board using any kind of process, biblical or otherwise.

This lack of a biblical process makes a pastor feel violated.  The pastor cannot get his head around why the Bible was ignored.  He thinks to himself, “Isn’t this a church?  Don’t we take Scripture seriously here?  What is going on?”

Second, the board never tells Al why he’s being dismissed.  This tortures Al’s soul because he has to resort to guessing to find the real reason why he’s being relieved of his duties.

Al wonders if his dismissal has to do with his competency: “Was it my preaching?  My leadership?  My pastoring?  My counseling?”

He wonders if it has to do with chemistry: “Do I no longer fit in this community?  In this church?  Have I hurt someone interpersonally that I don’t know about?”

He reviews incidents from the past and wonders, “What have I done or said that should result in my termination?”

Because the board never tells Al the truth about his dismissal, Al doesn’t know how to make things right with them.  Their actions have not only destroyed their working relationship, but their personal relationships as well … and this wounds Al to the core.

After Al’s departure, some accuse him of sexual immorality … embezzling funds … slothfulness … not preaching the Word of God … and on and on.  While Al knows these charges aren’t true, he wonders, “Why isn’t anybody calling me to find out if these charges are true?  Or are people believing the first thing that they hear?”

So Al tries to defend himself against some of the charges … and every time he does, he’s charged with three more offenses.  Al asks himself, “Why are they destroying me?”

Third, the board treats Al far worse than he deserves.  Al asks himself, “Is this the thanks I get for tripling the attendance and giving?  And after being here 13 years, why am I only receiving 2 months severance?  Shouldn’t I receive 6-12 months instead?”

Al doesn’t feel he’s been granted justice, mercy, or grace.  In fact, he can’t find anything redemptive or Christian about the way he’s been treated.  Instead, he believes that someone on the board is being vindictive.

But because Al has left the area, and church leaders are now in control of the congregation, Al comes to realize that almost nobody is interested in his side of the story.

Fourth, Al will lose his life as he knows it.  Al knows that he will now lose 7 things that are precious to him:

*He will lose his church family from the past 13 years.

*He will lose 90% of his church friends.

*He will lose his reputation as a man of honor and integrity.

*He will lose his pastoral career because of his age.  (When you’re over 55, it’s nearly impossible to find a pastorate or staff position.  There are hundreds of applicants for every available position.)

*He will lose his income and his lifestyle.

*He will lose his house because he can’t possibly keep up payments without an income … which will decimate his credit.

*He will lose his faith in the Church and Christian leaders … and for a while, maybe even in God Himself.

If you work for a high-tech company, and you’re fired, you still have your church family, and your church friends, and your reputation, and your career, and your faith.  You may lose some income, and even your house, but your losses are minimal compared to what a pastor loses when he’s forced to leave a church.

Finally, Al comes to realize that he can never reconcile with his previous church.  Why not?  Because nobody there shows any interest in any kind of reconciliation.

The church will put their energies into looking for an interim pastor.  Then the church will appoint a search team for a new pastor.  During this time, board members will do their best to obliterate Al’s memory from the church.  The interim pastor may help with this exercise.

Friends from Al’s old church will stop emailing him … unfriend him on Facebook … cease sending him Christmas cards … and avoid him when he’s back in town.  Al can sense their rejection … and it stings.

And all the while he wonders, “What did I do to be treated this way by the church I faithfully served for 13 years?”

In the end, wounded pastors struggle with forgiveness because they sense that professing Christians have chosen to treat them with anger, contempt, and injustice.  The pastor instinctively knows that he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment but knows that he will never be offered any kind of forum for biblical reconciliation.

The pastor has been branded … slandered … and banished from the church that he once loved and served with his entire being.

And every time the pastor goes to church and hears a praise song they sang at his former church … every time he hears a pastor preaching he laments, “That’s what I used to do” … every time he hears about friends taking a vacation he can’t afford … every time he hears the name of someone from his former church who cut him off … every time he engages in self-torture by asking, “Why was I dismissed?” … the pastor is wounded all over again.

And after a while, the pastor grows weary of forgiving people – who have never repented – so many times.

So all wounded pastors can do is forgive their opponents unilaterally from afar … and wait until everyone arrives in heaven before he experiences authentic and lasting reconciliation.

In the meantime, pastors continue to suffer spiritually and emotionally because they know that heaven is a long way off.


Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and information about upcoming seminars.

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