The Victory of Eucharistic Truth Over Heresy by Peter Paul Rubens (Wikimedia Commons)
When non-Christians sin against us, we may see it as a golden opportunity to forgive them for Jesus’ sake. For me at least, a bigger challenge comes with knowing how to respond when a Christian sins.
I won’t mention anyone by name, but there are a lot of angry Christians out there. They appear to be mostly angry at other Christians, especially other leaders. These Christians are upset because of what they believe to be unbiblical teachings.
If only it were as easy to respond to a sin or offense on the part of another Christian as the eucharist cup-bearing angel in the above scene makes it appear. However, we don’t have the option of wielding communion wine and wafer, holy water, a cross, or the Bible as a weapon.
In my experience, few Christians know how to respond in a loving and respectful manner to sin in the life or ministry of a fellow believer. When we respond in our own way rather than in Jesus’ way, we offend our Lord; don’t help the offender; and gain little or nothing for ourselves. That’s why we all need to know how to respond when a fellow Christian sins against us.
As I will explain, God gave us principles for how to deal with sin in the church. I’ll start with an example of my own, followed by what I believe to be some poor examples. Afterwards, I’ll review what Jesus said about it, and explain how we can apply His (and the apostle Paul’s) teachings in any circumstance.
How I Responded to False Teachers
I can relate to the anger and frustration that so many Christians seem to be feeling. I was deceived by many false doctrines that are commonly taught in churches to this day. Like many others, I received a distorted image of a mostly judgmental God.
Logic would dictate that false teachings hurt me, but who’s to say for certain? Maybe that idea of God and that fear of Him kept me from some committing some sins that could ultimately have caused more spiritual harm than the unbalanced teachings. Perhaps the extra adversity in my life helped me learn to sympathize with others or helped me grow stronger.
I must linger on this topic because you may have similar regrets about your past. Whatever happened in your past, I suggest that you try to accept it as having provided some kind of benefit or silver lining. I understand that there may have been a lot of trauma or abuse, and my intention is not to minimize that. You can’t change whatever happened, but over time, you can change how you feel about it.
I shed the blinders over many years as I read God’s Word, along with a wide range of books on Christian theology. When I came to understand the many ways in which I’d been deceived, I lost much of the respect that I’d once had for the false teachers. In fact, so many Christian teachers were getting important doctrines wrong that I felt obligated to pass on to others what I had learned.
At long last, I felt free to study God’s Word without concern about pleasing any human authority. I trusted that God would reveal precious truths to me from His Word, and He exceeded all my expectations.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)
Even though I wasn’t concerned about pleasing men, I did have to explain why certain teachings were unbiblical. In Return to Genesis (June 2012), I attacked false teachings, not Christians who propagate them. It’s true that I showed little respect for John N. Darby, but he was without a doubt one of the worst deceivers in the history of Christianity.
My goal was to cut off the future of false teachings by exposing them, refuting them, and replacing them with biblical truth. This took much more effort than, say, to ridicule false teachers by pointing out foolish things they’ve said. The biblical course of action isn’t always easy, but it’s always the best way.
I don’t anticipate a need to extensively criticize any Christian through this blog, especially not by digging into his or her past to even find things for which they’ve apologized! I mainly want to challenge teachers of false doctrines to respond to my critiques of their teachings.
One reason why I explained my take on it is because I know that I sometimes appear to be argumentative. People often choose to take things personally, even when a disagreement isn’t about them.
Truth is God’s ultimate standard of judgment, not cultural standards such as decorum, etiquette, political correctness, or feigned respect for a status quo. The Lord Jesus Christ was known for His unfaltering opposition to false teachings (Mt. 7:15, 23:1-36, Rev. 1:15, cf. Gal. 2:11, 2 Pet. 2:1-3).
As much as possible, I want every Christian to know what’s true and biblical. At the end of the day, however, I’m willing to shake hands with the opposition. If someone is truly a believer, I’ll gladly acknowledge our unity and fellowship in Christ.
Sports teams approach their matches in much the same way. They play according to rules, but push the boundaries in their battle for victory. Needless to say, the battle for truth is of much greater importance than any sporting event.
I see love as being the “glue” of Christian unity, and truth as the foundation and the substance. The Bible describes love as a fruit of the Spirit, not as the root. If we overemphasize love, we won’t have true unity, and the love will never be entirely sincere. We must also discover and defend biblical truth. There’s never any need to engage in unfair, personal attacks on those who disagree with us. Unfortunately, truth-centered love is often lacking among Christians today…
Christians Attacking Christians
Burning of a Heretic by Stefano di Giovanni (Wikimedia Commons)
Two events came up recently. First, there were judgmental responses to John Piper. After the destructive tornado that recently hit Oklahoma, John sent the following tweets:
Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead. Job 1:19
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. Job 1:20
When some people began to take this the wrong way, John deleted the tweets. That didn’t stop Rachel Held Evans and other prominent Christian bloggers from writing scathing rebukes, based on what they thought he must have been thinking.
Piper’s explanation can be found here. He only wanted to lift up the tornado victims’ hearts with the idea that despite the horrible tragedy, God is still sovereign, and still worthy of our worship. Since John had served as a pastor for 33 years, I assume that comforting people must be nothing new for him. His critics seem to have sided with unbelievers who question how a loving God could have permitted such a tragic disaster to occur.
The other recent incident that inspired this article was a blog post written by Jonathan Merritt about pastor Mark Driscoll. Jonathan’s writing is usually good, but I was disappointed by this one.
Jonathan reminded readers of some offensive or unpopular things that Mark has said in the past, probably in case we hadn’t learned of them from non-Christian or anti-Christian sources. I suppose gossip seems easier for Christians to accept when it comes from a fellow believer.
Jonathan cited a Driscoll quote about stay-at-home dads being “worse than unbelievers.” Anyone could derive this, or something very much like it, from 1 Timothy 5:8. Where’s the scholarly interaction about the meaning of this verse?
One of the quotes was a statement for which Mark had later apologized. If we want God to forgive and forget our sins, shouldn’t we do the same for fellow Christians who have publicly repented of a sin (Mt. 6:15)?
Some of the quotes were things that few people would take seriously anyway, such as Mark’s advice about sex and his opinion of the movie Avatar.
Jonathan stated that Mark has a “cult-like following” of Christians who do take this stuff seriously. He predicted, without a hint of regret (barely suppressed delight?), that Mark will continue to spout off on in this way until he fades away like Pat Robertson. This didn’t strike me as coming across in the spirit of someone who only wanted God’s best for Mark.
The launching point for Jonathan’s critique was this recent statement by pastor Mark:
I know who made the environment. He’s coming back and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.
Like Jonathan, I find this offensive because it’s our duty as the Creator’s children to care for the earth (Gen. 2:15).
Even so, it was obvious that Jonathan had gone too far with the criticism. Therefore, I posted this comment on the blog post:
The most sensitive and relevant context for a critique of Mark Driscoll’s statement about the environment would be one in which you discuss why Christians should care about the environment. This would effectively be a conversation with Mark and his followers.
The most sensitive and relevant way to have addressed your (and others’) concern that Mark is kind of a loose cannon would be to have prayed for him (as you may have done) and contacted him privately.
I think that at the time when a Christian leader says something that’s unbiblical, other Christians can respond in a timely and loving way if they feel it is necessary to distance themselves from it. People will usually remember these faux pas without further prompting and take them to the social media grapevine without any nudging.
I think Mark Driscoll has done and is doing a lot of good work for the Lord, which shouldn’t be overlooked.
The problem is, Jonathan had ignored the Bible’s instructions on how to respond to sin in the life of a fellow believer. As I had mentioned at the start of this post, by no means is he alone in this.
We all need to know how to respond biblically when a fellow Christian sins. More importantly, we all need to be obedient. Let’s look at what Jesus said about this topic…
Responding to Sin in the Church
I learned about the proper, biblical response early in my Christian walksimply by having read the Bible. Jesus instructed us as follows:
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. – Matthew 18:15-17
The Exhortation to the Apostles – James Tissot (Wikimedia Commons)
This teaching of Jesus could lead to the church treating one of its own like an unbeliever. Therefore, the sin in question can’t be merely a peccadillo or breach of etiquette. It must be something that is clearly sinful. We may also talk to a fellow believer who commits a minor offense that is, say, bigger than a peccadillo but still smaller than an armadillo. Hey, nobody said this was an exact science!
In the above passage, Jesus instituted a 4-step response to sin in the life of a Christian brother or sister. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
- One person, usually the offended party, must go and talk with the offender privately. Don’t wait for the person to come and apologize. In fact, don’t even assume that he or she has any idea that they have sinned.
After hearing the specific accusation, that individual can respond in only one of four ways:
(a) deny it;
(b) try to excuse it;
(c) offer a good explanation, disproving the accusation; or
(d) confess it and repent.
In the case of (c) or (d), the matter is settled. Otherwise, the process continues with step 2.
- Return to that individual together with one or two other Christians as witnesses. The person making the accusation won’t necessarily be in control here because Jesus, citing the Law, said the two or three witnesses must agree. This is to be a judicial process, not a kangaroo court. This can even take the place of the civil court system. In fact, Paul said Christians shouldn’t sue one another in the secular courts (1 Cor. 6:1-7).
We should be forgiving, and willing to suffer loss, but must also be concerned about the spiritual state of a professing Christian who would offend one or more other people, then fail to repent (1 Cor. 6:7-10). Their sin can become like a cancer, spreading within the congregation if tolerated (1 Cor. 5:6-7). The witnesses should seek to lead the offender in the process of repentance and reconciliation. If they find that the accused is both guilty and unrepentant, they may proceed to step 3.
- Tell the congregation about what happened. Ideally, large churches will have house churches or “small groups” to which such a matter can be revealed. The offender would still be welcome in the church for a limited time, in the hope that the brethren can restore him or her to a proper relationship with God and man. Based on the context of Jesus’ teaching, the emphasis should be on mercy (Mt. 18:10-14, 19-22). Every Christian involved should have a forgiving heart and be anxious to restore the offender. Again, if the sinner repents, that becomes the end of it. If not, the congregation must go on to the final step.
- The last step is to treat the unrepentant sinner as a non-Christian. The model provided here is that of how the Jews used to treat Gentiles and tax collectors. God wanted His people to be hospitable to Gentiles; to not practice double standards; and to love the stranger as themselves (Lev. 19:34, Num. 9:14, Dt. 10:19). They just didn’t recognize Gentiles as members of the family and tribe, nor as fellow partakers in God’s covenant with the nation of Israel.
Tax collectors were Jewish outcasts because they worked for the Romans. However, Jesus was known for having been a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 11:19).
The lesson seems to be that Christians can continue to talk to the sinner and show God’s love in appropriate ways. However, anyone who’s been disfellowshipped can no longer be regarded as a member of God’s family. As sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, they would no longer be eligible for church membership, or to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
For many offenses, church leaders won’t go so far as to disfellowship or “excommunicate” an offender. Among the offenses that could lead to excommunication, we might include sins such as heresy, divisiveness, sexual immorality, and violence.
Christians should seek to apply biblical principles in social media, blogging (for those who blog), and in all our communications. Even though we come from many different kinds of churches and denominations, we’re all members of the same body, which is the body of Christ.
Based on what we’ve learned from the Bible, I’ve put together what I believe to be the most important principles…
- Since truth is always important, we should feel free to debate theological questions and issues in a mutually respectful manner. It’s inevitable that much of this will happen in public, such as on Christian blogs and discussion forums.
- Jesus’ instructions show that we shouldn’t publicly accuse another Christian of something if we have no evidence or witness. The need for witnesses and for direct confrontation will inevitably stifle most gossip. The 4-step procedure directs meaningful issues to the appropriate channels in a private manner, unless and until it becomes necessary to inform the congregation.
- Even though a Christian may say things in public, that shouldn’t prevent other Christians from confronting him or her about those things in private. Christian leaders are in the best position to confront other leaders, but anyone can send a polite message through a medium such as email. We ought to be praying for all our leaders, especially when there seems to be a weakness or sin.
- The goal behind confrontation should be reconciliation, not to hold a fellow Christian up to public shame and ridicule. If unbelievers or even other Christians publicly condemn a believer for something, that doesn’t give the rest of us a free pass.
- In any theological dispute, we should focus on the theology instead of on the person. If, for whatever reason, we can’t present a good argument or can’t even provide a link to one, silence is always an option.
- I’ve noticed that liberal or “progressive” Christians, in particular, often seem to write with a secular audience in mind as they ridicule conservative Christians and their beliefs. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian, but this is wrong. God didn’t give unbelievers the role of judging our disputes. Sometimes, public opinion means nothing. I’ve personally seen unbelievers yank Christians’ chains by writing something that got one Christian or group of Christians to attack another in a knee-jerk response on the same day!
- Finally, let’s not support Christians who cause divisions. Titus 3:10 instructs us to give a divisive person one or two warnings, then reject him or her. In practical terms, suppose you like a blog, but that blogger posts something that’s divisive. You might try posting a gentle rebuke similar to the comment that I had posted (as quoted above). Check to see whether any other Christians posted a similar rebuke. If you ever revisit that blog and find anything else that is divisive, unsubscribe or unbookmark it, and don’t bother going there again. If you support such blogs, you become part of the problem.
Some people who know me may be surprised that I’m such a strong advocate for Christian unity. I’m not especially known for being a “people person.” However, one reason for this is that I see the way most people treat other people, and I don’t like it. It’s especially sad to see Christians mistreating one another. As explained above, the New Testament gives us explicit instructions on how to respond when another Christian sins.
If you would like to learn more about Christian unity, God graciously revealed to me the biblical model of Christian unity, which you can read about in Chapter 27 of Return to Genesis. It’s not rocket science, but other Christians hadn’t found it. If you would like to learn more about peace making and non-violent conflict resolution, please see the articles that I collected here.
Note: Someone wrote to tell me I had offered “terrible advice” here. Apparently, she had done as Jesus commanded in Matthew 18, but it didn’t work out. She had to go public on her own. Another thing worth mentioning is that she had been in a cult.
If you get one or two church leaders as witnesses but they knowingly refuse to do the right thing, you should appeal their decision if possible. Failing that, you don’t need to stay in an abusive church. That wasn’t the intent behind Jesus’ instructions.