Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 were a fundamental struggle for my family when we faced toxic leadership in a mission organization. Watching as others were run away from the mission for disagreeing with the CEO gave us reason to hesitate to confront him. We had sold our house in the US. We were dependent on the organization to provide housing for our family and school for our children half way around the world. We joined the organization expecting to serve until our retirement. The last thing we wanted to do was jeopardize all that!
Most the literature I have read takes for granted the applicability of Matthew 18 to all Christian relationships, as most of the Christians whom I have interviewed took for granted its applicability to their interactions with their toxic supervisor in a Christian organization. Some theologians and some who have experienced abusive leadership however, question the use of Matthew 18:15-20 in conflicts with someone of greater authority.
Jesus says in this passage:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” [Matthew 18:15-18 (ESV)]
There are three steps Jesus encourages when a brother sins against you. 1) Go one-on-one to confront the brother, 2) if he doesn’t repent, take one or two more people along to confront him once again, 3) finally, if he refuses to repent, tell the church. Though these seem to be pretty straightforward steps to take, there are a number of questions to be asked when that “brother” is toxic in their behavior and is higher in authority in the organization than you are.
When I began studying toxic supervisors in Christian organizations, I expected to find more written about this question from a biblical perspective. Would Jesus apply Matthew 18 to an employee under the authority of a Christian boss? I expected to find that most would believe this passage applies only to two brothers, equal in authority, and under an ecclesiastical [church] disciplinary structure.
One biblical commentator did. France suggested this instruction was intended for professing Christians on “equal footing.” He argued Jesus was giving directions to two professing believers, neither of which had greater authority. In addition, Susan, one of my interviewees, said it did not apply to non-ecclesiastical environments [like a Christian parachurch organization], though she did seek to communicate early in her conflict with the toxic leader in a private, one-on-one manner. Ben, another interviewee, believed he was not responsible to confront his supervisor, the CEO, using these principles.
However, it is more common for commentaries and sermons to gloss over the application of the passage in the context of unequal power structures. But, a mentor of mine shared a third way – neither ignore the passage in such contexts nor take it for granted in its application to the context. He suggested Matthew 18 be applied in these circumstances, but in a more principled nature. Rather than legalistically demanding its application in the three specific steps outlined by Jesus, the process should consider the threats inherent in one-on-one confrontations with a toxic boss, and proceed to broaden the scope of application to those who have the authority to discipline the non-repentant.
As I interviewed the participants, this is in fact what I found in their practice of this passage in real life. Though most of the writers and participants believed the process of an employee confronting an erring boss should be modeled on Matthew 18, the steps of going to the toxic boss one-on-one, then taking one or two others along, and then telling it to the church was not a clear or simple process for any of the participants.
There was no consistency in how my study participants applied the passage to their given circumstances except in principle.
In most cases, there were multiple individuals confronting the leader at different times one-on-one. But, the participants in my study said it was rare the boss responded with a change of behavior to the one-on-one confrontations. Two of my interviewees, John and Arnold, for example, noted their CEOs always justified or explained away their sin, often blame-shifting. They saw this happening both in interactions with him and as others confronted the boss. Two other interviewees, Martha and Eugene, explained their bosses would not respond at all. Frances’ boss cut off all communication with her. This is to be expected when dealing with those who abuse power.
Mary Alice Chrnalogar has worked with many who have been under the spiritual abuse of churches. In abusive situations she says, “Isolated confrontation of leaders by a layperson is dangerous.” Therefore, Jean-Lipman Blumen helpfully suggests, “Dissenters do better when they have a group standing with them.”
It is my opinion, the first step of confrontation be seen more broadly than the employee personally confronting the boss.
If the supervisor has been confronted by others and continually shows a lack of repentance, the first step has taken place already. There is no need to confront an individual who clearly does not have the humility to respond to loving exhortation. It is unnecessary, and unwise, to walk into the lion’s den alone.
Sometimes the second step of bringing one or two more along to confront the boss was also unclear. John said he began immediately with this step when he brought two others with him to confront the CEO on sexual harassment charges. He fully expected the high-profile leader to humble himself, seek forgiveness, and begin the healing process. John said his team had a plan prepared for the leader to get counseling and continue in the ministry…a face-saving plan John fully expected to be welcomed by the leader. However, the leader refused to admit wrong and in the end fired nearly 40 employees who called for his repentance.
Unfortunately, in none of the experiences of my interviewees did the leader repent of their destructive sin after various kinds of confrontations – one-on-one or in groups.
The third step becomes the most complicated for those serving in Christian parachurch organizations. This was apparent in my study as in every participant’s case, no formal church authority was informed such as the local church to which the leader was a member.
As parachurch and mission organizations, no one ecclesiastical governing body was given authority by the organizations to act as “the church” found in Matthew 18.
Considering this inconsistency in applying the third step of this biblical text to these situations, Arnold suggested the only higher authority he believed he could be accountable to were the stakeholders in his ministry – his donors. Some will consider this route in bringing accountability to their leaders, though most are concerned about gossip. One particular individual contacted several ministry supporting churches with information about the toxic leadership. Though none brought any formal ecclesiastical charges against the leader, at least one dropped their financial support of the mission agency.
Generally, employees of Christian organizations are encouraged to fulfill, in principal, the third step of bringing their complaint before the church by reporting to the board of directors of the ministry. Few of the participants took the matter to a higher authority like the ministry’s board of directors. And, as is found in much of the literature, few boards respond to these complaints if they did. In one toxic organization, forty missionaries sent a letter to the board asking them to investigate. The CEO encouraged the board to require psychological testing for their missionaries.
Often boards have been handpicked by the founder or CEO and are “indebted” to him. Their egos are often “stroked” by being part of an important mission or having a nice resume entry. In our case, when the going got tough (as missionaries made clear the toxicity of the organizational leadership to the board), board members resigned rather than seeking to bring accountability to the leader. There are times when the working conditions get even worse when board members are apprised of the situation because the leader seeks greater control over his employees.
Clearly, the practice of Matthew 18 is not a simple matter in toxic Christian organizations. But, as one interviewee (Living in Liberty Blog) argued, someone must stand up to toxic bosses. How, who, and when takes wisdom and careful consideration of the dangers involved.
 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 691.
 Mary Alice Chrnalogar, Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches That Abuse, Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 67.
 Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them (Oxford University Press, 2004), 149.