So how do we respond to sin in the church? Especially, what do we do when there is something that cannot - and perhaps should not - be hidden? Perhaps a church member will be convicted of a crime. Perhaps an ugly fight breaks out in a church meeting. Perhaps some gossip is spreading around Facebook for too many to see. The scenarios can be multiplied.
As I was grappling with this, I came up with the following list of "in principle" considerations and questions to ask...
- All sin is not the same. It is a common mistake that we think all sin is the same. All sin is sin, but not all sin is the same. In the OT, some sins (eg sexual ones, rebellion against parents, idolatry) required the death penalty, others did not. Jesus spoke about how some would receive more severe judgement than others (eg Mark 12:40, Matthew 11:20-24; cf Hebrews 10:29). Also, in the NT not all sins are given the same “coverage” (I haven’t checked the stats, but I suspect sexual sin gets comparatively a lot of “air time”).
- Helping the individual. Is the sinning individual being helped as best as possible? The first step of course is admission of sin. Is there already personal repentance and forgiveness, or not? Are we satisfied there is appropriate understanding of sin and repenting of sin? Are they assured of forgiveness? 1 John 1:9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 etc. Are there consequences of sin that we need to help work through (eg pregnancy, civil law issues)? Is there unrepentance that needs discipline? We also need to be careful so as not to cause unnecessary suffering to the repentant and forgiven individual.
- Helping the community. Biblical Christianity is not only individualistic, but it is community-oriented, as a family. Are there community needs that have to be addressed? What about gossip (about the sinning individual, or against the leadership, etc)? Will there be significant temptation of others to sin in the same way or to see sin as condoned (cf 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, 1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 4:27)? How will the community view the sinning individual, and how will that one feel in their presence (cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-11)? How does it affect the other congregations in the same church or denomination?
- Leadership. How does the eldership take the lead in such situations? Do we need to make use of the “keys of the kingdom”, whether to forgive or exclude (cf Matthew 16:19, 18:18)? What are responsibilities and privileges as Christ’s under-shepherds?
- Blamelessness/Fear of the LORD. Not about being sinless or perfectionism. Another important Scriptural principle is that Christians need to not only do what is right, but they have to be seen to be doing what is right, so as to be without blame (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:20-21; Philippians 2:15; 1 Timothy 3:7). A key witness of the church is not just in doing what is right, but in how we handle it when we fail. This is not so much about our personal shame and honour, as how it reflects upon the name of the LORD, and the fear of him (cf 2 Samuel 12:14). Also, in all this, in our motives etc we need to maintain a fear of the LORD and not a fear of men.
- Culture. How does our culture view the issue? Are there cultural expectations that need to be addressed, or cultural norms that need to be countered?
- Pastoral Opportunity. Most (all?) of the NT epistles are occasioned by some problem in the church. Those problems were a pastoral opportunity that became a public teaching legacy to benefit the whole church for every generation to come. Is there a pastoral teaching opportunity that we need to take hold of?
- Who needs to know? There are complexities relating to members and non-members (we may even have many non-members who are active and even leaders). And even with regard to new people, there are two perspectives. On the one hand, it may not be their business, or they may be put off by hearing. On the other hand, perhaps they need to know what Christianity is really like, and how the church works. Also, is it a private sin, that everyone doesn't need to know about, or something everyone knows about already?
If the leadership comes to a point where something needs to be said, what sort of things should be said? Here are some general suggestions:
- Clear acknowledgement of the reality of ongoing sin in the lives of Christians. (Let's not pretend it doesn't happen.)
- Clear position against sin, including the need for discipline if required. (Let's also not pretend it never needs to happen either. And let us never take delight in it when it does.)
- Clear position of free and full forgiveness and reconciliation and acceptance of the repentant sinner.
- A call to support a repentant sinner however we can as they work through the consequences of their sin.
- A call to support each other in the face of temptation (especially remembering others who might be tempted to fall into similar sin).
- Warnings against gossip etc.
- An offer from the leadership to help where possible with the general ongoing problem of sin (including admission of our own weaknesses and failings).