Confronting sin among Christians doesn’t come easily to us, largely because our society emphasises tolerance. We fear that by confronting sin we are being judgemental and unloving, but Jesus’ commands in this passage tell a different story: dealing with sin in church is a vital part of becoming a loving community. Counterintuitively, tolerance often ends up leading to division as sin festers and people deal with it in unhealthy ways. If we want to be a community of grace, where God’s love is encountered, then we have to deal with sin as the Lord commands. Jesus command covers two types of situation in a church: when someone sins against us personally and when someone sins publicly.
Dealing With Sins Against Us Personally
When someone sins against us we should talk to that person privately about it before involving others. Jesus’ command is obviously good: speaking privately with a person usually resolves the problem straight away, either by uncovering a misunderstanding or giving the opportunity for reconciliation. We shouldn’t be neurotic, sharing all our perceived slights or insecurities with people, but, when someone behaves in a way weakens our relationship with them, even after we’ve prayed about it, then it is appropriate to speak to that person about it. While this might seem confrontational, it is actually loving, as it gives the opportunity to uncover misunderstanding, to bring healing and to grow. It also creates honesty and accountability. Usually it results in deeper and more loving friendships. All of these things give glory to God. When we don’t deal things in this way the result is destructive, there is often gossip, passive-aggressive or controlling behaviour, we write people off as not worth bothering with and we end up with mere tolerance.
Dealing With Public Sin
When a Christian sins seriously and someone in the church become aware of it, in the first instance we should go to that person privately and try to deal with their sin discreetly. This gives the opportunity to uncover the real facts, deal with misunderstanding and for repentance and restoration to happen as privately as possible where necessary. This private approach may happen over a long period of time. If this doesn’t work we should go to that person with one or two others, typically elders, the pastor or close friends of the person to try to bring them to repentance. If that doesn’t work we should bring the matter to the whole church, and if they still do not repent then the church should excommunicate them. Excommunication is where a church passes a formal judgement that a person is unrepentant in their sin, and therefore as far a can be seen from a human perspective not a Christian at all (although only God knows the person’s true state.) The goal is to warn them of the serious possibility that they may not actually be saved, and bring that person to repentance. In our church, at that point the person would be barred from taking Communion and removed from formal membership. This doesn’t mean we treat the person harshly, quite the contrary, we should still extend grace and love to them, and patiently try to win them to repentance and faith in Christ, as we would with anyone who is not a Christian. The result of people repenting when confronted about their sin is often deeply glorifying to God and an amazing witness to the church and the world about Christ’s Lordship. The process maintains the true holiness of the Church, which lies not in perfection, but in standing under the gracious Lordship of Christ.
- One of the main reasons for Church membership is to make ourselves accountable with regard to our sin to a specific group of Christians and a specific Church leadership. The Reformers concluded that the exercise of church discipline was so important that it is one of the three essential marks of a true church. For our health, but also for the fellowship that results, every Christian should seek to enter into covenant membership of a church where church discipline is upheld.
- We have to make sure that we are correctable and approachable when it comes to sin. It is hard to be confronted about our sin, even though we confess we are sinners! We should give thanks for correction in our own lives, publically, privately and in prayer.
- Correction should always be brought gently, patiently and above all lovingly. A person we confront about sin should, above all, be convinced of our love for them. We should help a person to repent by providing practical help to overcoming barriers, such a financial support and advocacy. The urgency with which we bring repentance will depend on the potential damage the sin will cause.
- We should weigh up our responsibility to speak to someone personally about sin depending on how well we know them and how serious the sin is. If we’re in doubt about how to help someone it may be best to speak to a friend of the person discreetly or to the pastor or elders of the church. Sometimes God gives prophetic words about sin, these should be brought tentatively and gently, as with all prophecy.
- When someone confronts our sin, or we have to confront another Christian, the real question is, do we actually want love rather than tolerance in our lives? Jesus’ command challenges our cultural norms around privacy, judgement and confrontation, all for the sake of a more wonderful and joyful love than non-Christian relationships can offer.