When bad things happen to God's people, what's a Christian publication to do? While there can be pressure from readers to report only upbeat, positive news, the publisher of The Charlotte World explains why his paper covers both the good and the bad.
by Warren Smith
From time to time, The Charlotte World will write a story that some perceive as "negative," and we immediately get a lot of feedback from well-meaning believers who tell us that we should show more grace, or not be judgmental, or not be divisive.
This feedback has motivated us to develop a couple of principles that govern whether and how we report on what, in an earlier age, was called "scandal" or "notorious sin" in the church.
First, if we hear about a "scandal", we first try to talk directly to the people involved and to determine the facts and to determine if there is a legitimate (Matthew 18 or other biblically proscribed) process of discipline, accountability, and restoration in place. If so, we will not write about the situation without the cooperation of both parties.
Let me give you an example. We once learned about a schism in a large North Carolina church, and we talked with people from both sides. It was obvious to us that they were responsibly working out their differences internally. We did not write about that schism. Later, after the issue was resolved and a significant number of people left the church, we did write about the story, with the cooperation of the pastor. It was a fascinating story about how Christians with differences should work out their differences, and the feedback we heard from both sides of this controversy was that they believed they were treated fairly, and that God and His Word were honored both by the situation and by our telling of the story.
However, there is another kind of situation, not so positive. If one or both parties choose not to follow a legitimate process of discipline, accountability, and restoration, we will write the story.
What is a "legitimate process"? We do not seek to judge, but we do believe it is reasonable to hold a person to their own words. By that, I mean if it is a Southern Baptist pastor, that pastor can and should reasonably be held to the accountability and oversight of his ordination vows. If the person is the leader of a Christian non-profit, that organization typically has a statement of faith and public statements regarding the behavior required of key leaders. We do not judge whether these statements or these people are "right" or "wrong," but we think we can reasonably say, "If you said you would live by this statement, then you should."
For example, we once heard about an independent Baptist pastor being accused by some of his deacons and members of inappropriate behavior. Not sexual misconduct, but inappropriate expenses, nepotism, and inappropriate use of his authority -- such as signing a bank note that indebted the congregation for some real estate. In addition, this pastor's son -- who was the subject of the nepotism charge because he was on the staff of the church – was credibly accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. The pastor refused the discipline of the church, and refused to submit to the authority of the deacons of the church. We wrote several stories about the matter, covering all the issues except the matter of the sexual misconduct.
The pastor threatened us with a lawsuit, but he ultimately resigned as pastor of that church without filing a lawsuit against us. He is now the pastor of another church and has since reconciled with us. The church he left is now a strong supporter of our paper, too.
Now that tempers have cooled -- more than three years later -- people on both sides, even the pastor we wrote about, commended us on our coverage of the events. Both sides said that it was our work to uncover the facts and to uphold biblical standards, and the strong likelihood that we would report about anyone involved in the controversy who behaved contrary to biblical standards, that kept both sides on their "best behavior."
This second story is evidence I cite regularly with my staff and when I speak to groups in the area for the need for Christian journalism.
Let me make a final point, a theological one. Many have tried to justify criticism of investigative journalism from a Christian perspective by appealing to the character of God or Jesus. "Jesus was more gracious than you are." Or, on the other hand, that "God is a holy God and punishes evil, so we don't have to." My point is that these (grace and mercy on the hand and justice and holiness on the other) are not opposite ends of the continuum, or opposite sides of the same coin, or separate attributes of God. In our limited human understanding we describe holiness and grace and justice and mercy as separate attributes that God somehow holds in a balance in His character, but that is a flawed understanding, I believe. God's mercy is not finite and a "balance" to His justice. Neither is His justice "balanced" by His grace. Indeed, His grace and mercy are worthless apart from His holiness and justice. Arguing a position based on a single one of God's infinite and mysterious attributes is to appeal to a "strange god," and to be satisfied with what many have rightly called a "cheap grace."
Warren Smith is the publisher of The Charlotte World.