3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”—The words of Jesus from Matthew 7:3-5
Have you ever known a family that never had even a single problem? Where no one ever got seriously sick or was unemployed for an extended period of time? A family of perfect children and perfect in-laws? Of course not. No family escapes problems.
In fact, a healthy family anticipates problems and develops ways to deal with them. But a dysfunctional family is more likely to fall into a pattern of blaming and shaming when troubles come their way.
The dysfunctional family. Or, more specifically, the dysfunctional church family. That’s my topic for this blog post.
Throughout Scripture, God draws parallels between the earthly family and the family of God. Just read through Ephesians 5, as one example, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Remember these words?
Husbands love your wives, as Christ loves the church.
In any case, just like a healthy family, a healthy church family also anticipates problems and develops ways to deal with them. But, just like a dysfunctional family, a dysfunctional church family is also more likely to fall into a pattern of blaming and shaming when troubles come their way.
In a dysfunctional family, blaming says:
“You’re the problem in this family. You make a mess everywhere.”
“You never obey. Everything would be peaceful around here if you just did what you were told.”
“I can’t stand another day with your uncle living here! He makes my entire life sour. Nothing’s gone right since the day he moved in!”
Blaming someone else. Finding a scapegoat. Pointing a finger in another’s direction. Shouting,
“You’re the problem!”
Shaming takes it a step further. Shaming attacks, humiliates, sees no good whatsoever in the person. Shaming demeans with accusations like:
“You’re nothing but a lazy bum!”
“I can’t stand anything about you.”
“You’re no good. I wish you had never been born!”
If you think about this “blaming and shaming” carefully, you quickly realize that such behavior is simply a way for one family member to try to exert control over another family member. That’s right. It’s all about control. It’s such an important concept that I feel I need to repeat it. In almost every conflict it’s all about control.
When a child exists in this climate of control, it has a way of damaging the way the child perceives love and life. Maybe you’re someone who lived with a parent that used his or her approval or disapproval as a weapon to force you to behave in a way deemed acceptable. My heart breaks for you. No child should ever grow up in an environment where damaging psychological tools are used to exert control.
Now, this is probably obvious, but it’s still worth pointing out, that blaming and shaming don’t truly resolve any family problems. In healthy families, members talk realistically about their tensions and troubles. The emphasis, however, is always on,
“What can I do to help make things better?”
Maybe a family member has an annoying pattern of frequently making the others late. In a functional home this person is not called lazy and good-for-nothing. Instead the others ask,
“What can we do to help you get ready on time?”
They’re openly confronting the situation, but they’re not making blaming and shaming statements. And with this healthy approach, the problem person will be much more likely to improve.
Now let’s make a transition to the church, the larger family I’m concerned about. Do congregations ever manifest the dysfunctional trait of blaming and shaming? You’re laughing—at least on the inside—because you know the answer. Ever hear a comment like:
“As far as I’m concerned, the problem in this church is the choir. I can’t understand their words and they sound like a bunch of screech owls begging for their supper.”
“That new tile floor in the ladies room is an awful color. Why every time I walk in I think someone has lost her breakfast right there on the floor. I don’t know who’s making these decisions, but they obviously have no taste at all.”
“I don’t know about you, but if that preacher talks about her summer vacation in Hawaii one more time, I’m going to stand up and walk out. Doesn’t she know that in these tough times none of us can afford such a high-priced vacation?”
That’s enough. You get the idea. The problem is not a new one, by the way. Back in Numbers 14 the people of God got so frustrated with their spiritual leaders that they considered stoning them. Who were these incompetents so unqualified for their positions? Why Moses and Aaron, of course.
Did you notice the emotion-packed nature of those blaming and shaming statements? That’s the nature of blaming and shaming. Imagine the emotional intensity of words like these:
“Everybody knows the Christian Ed committee here is notorious for killing our volunteer teachers. They always do it. They’re power-hungry. That’s the problem. They’re not praying people. They don’t seek the mind of the Lord on these matters. They just like to make volunteers crawl.”
In the church we need to learn to recognize inflammatory statements like these. Very seldom are they completely true. Instead, be reminded that many people have developed the nasty habit of always accusing somebody else, of pointing an angry finger at the other guy or gal, of introducing emotionally charged statements into an already-difficult situation. And that’s because they haven’t learned to ask,
“What can I do to help make things better?”
Maybe certain board or committee members have been insensitive or acted sinfully. But have I prayed for them? Have I graciously confronted the issues through a carefully written letter? More importantly, back during the nominating process did I take the time to recommend Biblically qualified men and women to be nominated to serve on the board in the first place? Men and women who meet the detailed qualifications the Apostle Paul set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
To return to the obvious point made earlier, blaming and shaming don’t resolve many problems. This destructive pattern just makes them worse. It’s a trait that characterizes dysfunctional church families, and unfortunately, it’s a common one.
What if you had to choose between being blamed or shamed? Which option would you select? Maybe it’s good to review one final time. In a home, blame sounds like this:
“The reason our family didn’t have a good Christmas is because you didn’t make enough money, so we couldn’t buy enough presents.”
Blame accuses. It’s always points the finger at the other person. It accepts no personal responsibility.
Shame goes one step further. It not only gets a target in sight, it locks on it. Now there’s no escaping. It’s only a matter of time before the victim is destroyed! Not only can the given person do no good, he or she is no good. The individual’s very personhood is attacked.
“You’ll never amount to anything!”
“The brain in your head must be the size of a pea!”
“If you don’t like this church anymore, why don’t you just leave?”
People bring dysfunctional family traits, such as blaming and shaming, into the family of God. It’s important that we recognize these characteristics for what they are so we can begin to break the cycle. Otherwise the best family in the world, the family of God, becomes dysfunctional. More specifically in this case, blaming and shaming become the norm in the church!
Parishioners point fingers of blame at pastors or elders or staff members or each other and say,
“Let’s face it, our church isn’t growing. Every week when Ed, our church chairman, reads our church motto from the lectern—‘Where joy and service abound’—I can’t help but think, Under Ed’s leadership there’s just too much joy and too little service!”
Expressing such blaming-shaming comments, they lock on that issue, and to emphasize their point, add statements that, in reality, are shameful. They attack who the person is, so that before too long the person can do no good—at least in their eyes.
Congregation members blame ministers or leaders or staff members. Leaders blame ministers, congregation members, or staff. Staff members blame congregation members, leaders, or ministers. Ministers blame leaders, staff, or congregation members. The cycle of blame and shame can go around and around and around.
And with neither side assuming any responsibility for what it might do to make things better, how can the congregation ever become whole? As healthy families are on their guard against the blame-shame syndrome—they nip it in the bud—so healthy congregations are as well.
This doesn’t mean constructive criticism has no place in the church, or that people are allowed to say only “nice” things. It doesn’t mean ministers can’t preach about sin, or that nobody in the church will ever get angry or have their feelings hurt. It doesn’t mean there won’t be any misunderstandings in a congregation.
But thinking one person is the cause of everything that’s wrong—this is not good. Making insensitive remarks or talking behind someone’s back—that’s not good either. You shouldn’t be allowed to point an accusing finger at others and never ask yourself,
“What can I do to help make things better?”
What I’m saying in a sentence:
“Instead of the dysfunctional trait of blaming and shaming, healthy church families ask, ‘What can I do to help make things better?’”
Here’s an admonition. Sometimes you may find yourself on the receiving end of the blaming and shaming attack of another person or group of people within the church. Usually this will result when someone has a beef with you and refuses to follow the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Instead of doing what Jesus instructs, this person, or group of people, attack you, maybe without giving you an opportunity to confront the charges against you. Your best action, if such a thing happens to you, is to walk away from those who blame or shame you. You have a responsibility to protect yourself from abuse. Let me assure you that God will always rise to your defense. In fact, His defense will be many times more powerful than anything you can do or say for yourself.
Likewise, situations do arise in a church where sin has crept in and the church becomes dysfunctional because of that sin. Confronting sin in a loving and caring way—always with the aim of restoring the sinner to full fellowship within the body of Christ—is a requirement for a healthy church. That’s why choosing spiritually mature leaders is so important. The church must not excuse sin. But, at the same time, in confronting the sin, the church must extend God-breathed love to the sinner. And, whenever confronting sin, without exception, Matthew 18:15-17 must be followed. In fact, if anyone in the church tries to deal with sin without following Matthew 18:15-17, that person—or group of persons—is in danger of sinning themselves. Take note of Galatians 6:1-2:
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
In closing, I’d like to share a prayer with you. Let me suggest that you pray this prayer every day this week. It’s preventive maintenance, to remind you to avoid the blame-shame trap:
I know that no church is perfect, So help me not to be surprised when problems arise. Keep me from pointing a finger of blame at others; Guard my tongue from shameful remarks. Grant me the courage to do my part to make our church a better place. And thank You that—through the sacrifice of Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—You have graciously allowed me to be part of the best family in the world. Amen.
Praying that simple prayer can serve as a good reminder for you and for me to avoid blaming and shaming others, and to help us assume personal responsibility for what we can do to make things better.
The blame-shame syndrome is destructive. It always makes matters worse. It’s a characteristic of dysfunctional families. Conversely, when problems arise in healthy families, each member assumes responsibility for what he or she can do to make things better. May that be so in the church of Jesus Christ, the very best family of all.
Will you pray with me?
Thank You, God, for loving us. Thank You for sending Jesus to be our Savior. Thank You for sending us Your Holy Spirit to dwell within us.
Father, I praise You for the tenderness of Your mercy. Your nature is not to point a harsh finger of blame, or to shame us when we sin. But You surprise us with Your kindness—and gently call us to Your better way.
Here in the quietness of this moment where we’ve come apart from the hustle and bustle of the world, we invite Your Holy Spirit to speak to us right now, as we wait before You.
Thank You, Father, for the promise of Your Presence to lead and guide us through the week ahead. And, thank You for hearing our prayer in and through the precious Name of Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Author’s Note: I am indebted to my spiritual mentor, Rev. Dr. David R. Mains, who many years ago preached a series of messages on his radio broadcast, The Chapel of the Air, entitled “The Dysfunctional Church Family.” One of those messages formed the basic foundation for this blog post.