Christian cannibals in the court of public opinion

Thurgood Marshall Courthouse
The Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York, New York, home of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. |

Christianity in the U.S. is facing a crisis of trust, not only from the outside, but also from within the body, and it is shaking believers’ faith to its core. Nowhere is this distrust more evident than in matters of money, where we judge each other for the whole world to see. If we are to heed Apostle Paul’s warning against taking our disputes between believers “to court—and this in front of unbelievers!” (1 Corinthians 6:6), how much more does this apply to airing our differences on social media? It’s tough enough that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). How much worse when we turn on each other. “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15). In our quest for the truth, we are in danger of becoming Christian cannibals in the court of public opinion.

My purpose in pointing out this danger is not to condemn the millions who follow social media. After all, new news technologies have a long history of holding the Church accountable. Over 500 years ago, it was the printing press, the greatest technological advancement of its time, that allowed Martin Luther to get out his 95 Theses, calling out the Church’s illicit fundraising that simultaneously hid the true way to salvation. How is this different than the viral podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill"?

As Christians, we know the importance of accountability. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). But we also know that we aren’t supposed to judge others. Partly because we aren’t very good at it, and partly because we’re guilty of the same things of which we accuse others. As Apostle Paul warned, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1-2). Ultimately, we are accountable to God, because unlike us, He’s good at judging. He knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts. And he is righteous and holy, so he isn’t guilty of doing the same wrong things we do.

So then, what is the best way to hold Christians accountable?

As I tried to wrap my mind around this, first chasing down a trail of alleged financial improprieties by a famous pastor, then looking at a beleaguered Christian university’s financial reporting, I was reminded of “Catch-22,” a term coined by Joseph Heller in his famous 1961 novel by that name, for "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.”

In the case of accountability, the Catch-22 is the tension between transparency and confidentiality. Transparency “ensures that information is available that can be used to measure the authorities' performance and to guard against any possible misuse of powers.” Transparency achieves accountability by providing information to the public, who in turn can judge for themselves the rightness of a person’s conduct. That’s why all publicly traded companies must report their financial performance regularly, using fair and full disclosure. This kind of transparency allows for a fair game for current and prospective investors. In the same way, transparency holds nonprofit leaders accountable to their donors.

Confidentiality, on the other hand, ensures “that information received by the accountant must be kept in secrecy and respected in the course of duty.” Confidentiality respects the privacy of the organization and the people in it, by holding the accountant accountable to the organization.

Obviously, confidentiality and transparency are important to achieve accountability. The Catch-22 is that you can’t get both at the same time. While airing financial improprieties on social media may increase transparency, breaking confidentiality may not be justified when it harms those it is intended to help. As an example, years ago, I was called to testify as an expert witness against a CEO who had misstated his own company’s financial performance. And while he was rightly accused of these improprieties, airing this news in court destroyed the company, whose sole business was to write proprietary software to protect banks’ financial information. Transparency killed the company which could have handled their grievance in private.

The purpose of accounting is to measure the truth. What Christians do with the truth after we find it makes all the difference in the world.

So where do we go from here?

We should speak the truth. In love.

What does this mean for you? If you see something, say something. But remember that whistleblowing is a last resort, not first. Limit your whistleblowing to the ethical kind, by asking yourself the following questions before you go public:

  1. Will the organization or leader's actions do serious and considerable harm to others?
  2. Have you reported your concerns to your immediate supervisor?
  3. If your supervisor didn’t act, did you take your concerns up the ladder as far as the Board of Trustees?  
  4. Do you have documented evidence that would convince a reasonable and impartial observer that your view of the situation is correct and that serious harm may occur?

If you have answered all of these questions affirmatively, prayerfully consider going public to protect those at risk.

Remember, speaking the truth isn’t enough. It must be driven by love.

In this way, we can “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13).

And as Christian writers, we especially need to test our own hearts to make sure we don’t cannibalize Christians in the court of public opinion. No matter how delicious they appear.

John Thornton is the L.P. and Bobbi Leung Chair of Accounting Ethics at Azusa Pacific University, and author of Jesus’ Terrible Financial Advice: Flipping the Tables on Peace, Prosperity, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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