How to Respond When a Christian Friend Stumbles

Sharon Church, Forgiveness, Sanctification 9 Comments

This week I came across a story about a large evangelical church that exercised church discipline on one of its members in a seemingly harsh way. For those of you who haven’t read the story I hate to be a tease, but I won’t share the link here. Church discipline is an exceedingly complex and difficult process, and since the story only shares one party’s perspective I have misgivings about shedding a spotlight on it now.

After reading this story I spent a lot of time reflecting on confession, repentance and church discipline. The story resurfaced some feelings and convictions I have developed over the years about this topic. Church discipline is one of those practices that is both Biblical and restorative, but when done poorly it can also be destructive and humiliating. I have seen both.

Since I have been ruminating about these issues all week, I want to offer a few tips for responding to another Christian when they are caught in sin. These thoughts are based not only on Scripture but the mistakes I have seen others make and the mistakes I have made myself. I hope they will be helpful to you.

One of the first things to consider when a friend confesses her sin is that sin brings out sin in others, including ourselves. Sin is a bell that cannot be un-rung, and its knell penetrates everyone around it. Not only does sin negatively impact the life of the sinner and those directly impacted by the action of the sin, but it also has the ability to sour an atmosphere, to corrode trust among friends, to create division, and to tempt.

I think a lot of Christians are aware of this dynamic, which is why many people react to sin in fear. There is a fear that we will somehow be sullied by the situation or pulled down by it, a fear that leads some Christians to distance themselves relationally and emotionally from the sinner, or take extreme measures to purge the sin from the community.

However, it’s important to realize that these very reactions can also be manifestations of sin. When the sin of a friend comes to light, Satan can gain a foothold in that moment by infecting us with the brokenness of the situation, but he does so in incredibly subtle ways. Often times the greatest temptation is not the originating sin itself,  but a temptation toward self-righteousness.

While we should always be sickened by the ugliness of sin–just as God is–we must also treat the sinner the way that God does: with grace, love, compassion, and mercy. That doesn’t mean we ignore what happened and brush it off–neither did God–but God was not so righteous that He could not come to earth and be near to us in our brokenness, to deliver us from that broken state, and restore us.

When a friend is caught in sexual sin or financial sin, it is not the inclination of most Christians to draw closer. We are more likely to recoil and judge, so be on guard against the additional brokenness that is caused by this un-Christlike reaction. Self-righteousness is nothing more than a consequence of sin, and it greatly inhibits the process of church discipline and restoration.

Second, there is a crucial distinction between a repentant sinner and an unrepentant sinner. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus teaches, “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.” In this passage about church discipline (verses 15-20), this opening verse divides the passage in two: We are presented with the appropriate response for a repentant sinner, and the appropriate response for an unrepentant sinner. When dealing with a repentant sinner, the remaining verses of this passage are practically irrelevant.

Knowing this distinction, an unrepentant sinner is typically one who either denies their sin as being sinful, or who simply refuses to stop engaging in the sin. And while this distinction would seem clear, it is my experience that Christians have trouble determining when the sinner is “truly repentant.” As a result of this confusion, extra measures are sometimes put into place–beyond measures of accountability–to ensure that repentance has occurred.

To be fair, this is a difficult process and I sympathize with any leader who is charged with overseeing it, especially since this is the point at which church discipline can either be restorative or destructive, or a mix of both.

Every situation is different so I hesitate to prescribe a list of rules about how to detect whether a person is truly repentant or merely paying lip service. What I would encourage Christians to consider is whether the church discipline/accountability is at all punitive or excessive. Not only has Christ already paid for our sins (thereby nullifying the need for additional punishment), but the Holy Spirit also convicts and breaks us in the midst of our sin. If this conviction seems to have taken place, it is the job of the community to help the repentant Christian work toward restoration, not to ensure conviction and brokenness.

This leads me to my final thought about church discipline. We need to exercise church discipline in a way that will encourage confession among the body of Christ, not terrify people away from it. That is perhaps the most concerning element about the story I mentioned above. Regardless of the particular church’s perspective on the story, it is difficult to imagine that any church members who are struggling with the same sin would be encouraged to confess it. If repentant, confessing believers are treated to an iron fist and public humiliation, rather than compassionate chastening and disciplined restoration, the result will not be a transparent confessing community.

Confession is a tremendously difficult, humbling act by which one lay themselves bare before those they trust. Through confession one becomes extremely vulnerable. We must therefore be good stewards of this sacred trust. When a fellow Christian confesses their sin to you, you are put in a place of tremendous power to either restore them or break them further.

Church discipline is never easy and it may look harsh to those outside the church. That’s ok sometimes. But since we are sinners handling sin we are bound to respond imperfectly, and that is a humbling fact. Scripture is available to guide us, but the passages on church discipline aren’t the only relevant ones to direct us. The life and example of Christ is an even better starting point.

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Comments 9

  1. Tripp

    I think I know the situation you’re referring to. Full Disclosure: I attend the church in question. At first I reacted much the same way you did. It seemed harsh, and an overreaction. When I went back to re-read the published set of events (which are, as you said, only told from one side of the story), I started to wonder whether it really was too harsh.

    Going back over what was being asked of the person in question, what it boiled down to was this:

    – Keep attending Community Group/church
    – Don’t serve for the time being in the Church
    – Don’t tempt yourself while you are working through the ramifications of your sin
    – Fully admit and repent of what you were hiding in your past.
    – Fully admit and repent of the current sin that brought all this to light
    – Seek forgiveness from those that you’ve harmed in the above ways

    Really, I can’t really claim that any of these things are over the line or harsh. I also don’t really think it’s unreasonable for a pastor/elder to oversee this, to ensure that full reconciliation does occur.

    I agree that it’s hard to imagine someone reading the story (as told online) and wanting to confess sin in this area. At the same time, maybe it’s because we, as modern day Christians, struggle with the idea of church discipline in general. I am quite sure that most Christians (myself included) initially react as if it’s harsh to ” to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5) or “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18).

    So I wonder, are the above steps that were requested really harsh? Or were they reasonable, and we just struggle with the idea of Church discipline in general?

  2. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Tripp, as a member of the “church in question” thanks for weighing in. Because of the reasons you listed I was hesitant to make much comment on whether the church was right or wrong. At face value, I’m not convinced that anything they requested was necessarily out of line.

    Now, the article indicated that the bigger issue was the tone and manner in which those standards were implemented. The person under discipline seemed to feel that the process revealed some unhealthy control issues that made him feel uncomfortable and unsafe, a dynamic which would certainly discourage others from confessing for fear of judgment. But again, that is a matter of opinion that cannot be determined by reading a mere blog post about it.

    Either way, my point in raising the issue was not to debate the church’s “rightness.” Instead, I wanted to use it as a conversation starter that goes beyond bashing churches that we disagree with. Whether or not the church handled everything (or most of) the process correctly, it is a reality that Christians are hurt when the church discipline process is mishandled. In fact, I was just talking to a counselor about how many of her clients are in therapy due to such mishandling. That is not to say that Christians inappropriately bristle at church discipline–you are right that it’s a foreign paradigm for our culture–but that doesn’t mean churches don’t also make mistakes along the way.

    For church discipline to be effective, I think humility and trust is required on the part of both parties. Leaders have to humbly admit their frailty in such difficult situations and also trust that a repentant Christian is indeed sincere and treat them accordingly. Church members, in turn, need to trust the judgment of their leaders, even when it’s hard, and humbly recognize that God placed them in leadership for a reason.

    But I think you’re right–the fact that church discipline is so strange to our modern sensibilities does not help the situation. Submission to authority is not a popular option when leaders require something difficult, even when it is for the good of the church member.

  3. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Actually, I would like to qualify part of my above statement. I said that nothing the church requested seemed out of line, but there were two items that, without knowing how the church implemented it, seemed potentially inappropriate.

  4. Tim

    Good job on a tough subject, Sharon. You’d think that Jesus’ teaching on how to reconcile with one another would not be so divisive, wouldn’t you? One major part of Jesus’ and Paul’s instructions that I see on the subject of church discipline is that they are designed to restore relationships with one another; nowhere are we told that the person is out of fellowship with God, and for good reason too, since once we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit we are always in fellowship with God even though we still sin.

    That all makes me question church discipline that goes beyond leading a person to repentance. Things like demanding a person do certain things after repentance, such as going to those harmed and asking forgiveness or attending certain church functions (home group or Sunday services or whatever), go beyond what Jesus and Paul tell us to do. In fact, once the person repents I think the matter is closed, biblically.

    Great article, Sharon.

    Tim

  5. Patricia

    Sharon, I really appreciate this blog post for a variety of reasons. First, because my father functions as an elder at my church and I’ve seen “church discipline” from multiple angles. Secondly, because one close friend recently came under church discipline because of her unrepentant heart in regards to a sinful lifestyle she previously hid and now openly persists in. This has been devastating to me, but I don’t feel that alienating her is the biblical response, even though she only told me about her way of living at the last minute so I wouldn’t “hear it at church.” Needless to say, our friendship has had some adjustments. I’m still learning how to maintain the delicate balance of being obedient to God, remaining undefiled and learning how to be a friend in this situation. We are compelled in 1 Corinthians 5 not to “mix” or associate habitually with those who have committed certain sins and remain unrepentant because we can become defiled. Paul urged the saints at Corinth “not to eat” with anyone who had called himself “a brother” (or a sister) and done those things. In light of the scriptures I mentioned, how do you see the restorative process being implemented by those who feel burdened to win those back?

  6. Tripp

    Sharon,

    I agree that a couple of things could have been inappropriate, depending on how the church leaders were communicating it. One can speak truth to someone in various ways, so there is a possibility that it was done harshly.

    I also wholeheartedly agree that church discipline is a fine line to walk. Christians and churches have a tendency to come across as judgemental, not helpful or encouraging, in a lot of cases. At the same time, none of us wants to be rebuked, so a lot of times legitimate counsel gets reacted to poorly (we all want to make ourselves out to be the victim).

    Regarding some of the other criticisms of this method of church discipline, I have to disagree that insisting that the offending party apologize goes beyond what Paul and Jesus tells us to do. The Matt 18 example is between two people initially only because the person who confronted the sinner was the victim of the offense.

    For example, if I found out that an elder an was guilty of adultery, but the wife did not know, would it be sufficient for the pastor to “repent” to me, without coming clean to his wife? If the offending party has harmed someone else, and it’s serious enough to warrant church discipline, I don’t think we can call it repentence if they haven’t asked for forgiveness from those that they harmed. So while I agree that leading a person to repentance is the true goal, I don’t think it’s true repentance unless it is accompanied by confession and seeking forgiveness. (Much the same way faith alone saves, but faith without works is dead)

    Either way, at the very least this situation gives us a good opportunity to examine two things, and has challenged me personally to carefully watch how I act if a fellow Christian is in sin, and also how I think about the Church, and whether my modern sensibilities are making me recoil from real community in the Church when I am the one who did the sinning.

  7. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Patricia, that is a really tough situation. Really tough. As difficult as it is, I do think there are times when it is right for the church to put a person outside the church community, but it has to be done in an overtly loving way. To the person under church discipline, even overt love will probably seem harsh and unloving. But if someone is engaged in unrepentant sin, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not seeing totally clearly either.

    You have said that your friend is admittedly unrepentant, and since she is under church discipline I think it is right that your friendship has undergone “adjustments” as you said. Sin divides, and that is not your fault. That said, part of the impact of church discipline is to create a longing for the church community. When one loses the benefits and fellowship of their church body due to sin, that loss is meant to create clarity and a yearning for restoration. But if we half-heartedly enact church discipline, this effect is not achieved.

    Every situation is different so I can’t offer anything concrete in your situation, but I think it is right for you to uphold your church’s stance while emphasizing to your friend that you love her and want to be there for her and that her repentance will mean instant forgiveness and reconciliation. I don’t think that requires cutting her off altogether (ie. screening her calls), but it does mean being clear about your feelings on the matter and changing your relationship. I would imagine your behavior toward her will look like more of a dance than a list of rules to follow as you discern the right response in each situation.

    But we all have to remember that at the end of the day, church discipline IS prescribed by Scripture in communities where there is Christian fellowship, trust, and intimacy (the kind of community that makes this kind of discipline effective is a topic for another day!) so we have to trust that God will use our faithfulness, even when it is hard. But the emphasis must ALWAYS be on love and restoration.

  8. Deepali

    It is wonderful to read about this in such a simple language.

    I have been a Christian all my life, and in a weak moment of temptation, married my non – believer , hindu lover. Years of trying to be someone who i am not, and hating every thing about our hindu life, i was pleasantly surprised to see my Bro in law convert to Christianity. I thanked the Lord for the sign…and came back to believing and Church going. What I didnt realise is that my Bro in law had converted to escape an angry wife and insecurities, and entered an adulterous affair leading to his rejection from his brother, my husband and a very difficult time for me. I knew what my Bil was going through as he refused to participate in all the rituals during his mother’s death, and we have kind of grown closer. He is such a wonderful support to me in my struggle with his brother’s insecurities now due to my confidence in the Lord being bufferred by his own brother. Only God can be praised.

    But, despite all of this, I have been through the feelings of rejection and shame when I heard of the BIL’s affair, and I can only thank God that he had a good pastor to fall back on and show him the way.

    I do hope more people read and understand this well. Especially where it matters to someone in a very deep way.

  9. Anonymous

    This topic brings back bad memories of an incident that happened in a small group that I was involved in leading. One of the members became involved in what we considered to be an inappropriate relationship, and despite our attempts at loving counsel, took it all the wrong way.

    Basically his marriage was on the rocks, his wife was divorcing him, he was hoping for reconciliation (which we were praying for as well), but during the hurt of it all he got involved with someone else and in the space of a few weeks went from desperately wanting to save his marriage to wanting for it to be over so he could marry his new sweetheart.

    Whether we were to blame for the eventual outcome (there were a couple missteps made on our part in the way we handled it for sure), only God can say, but the end result was he decided we were being legalistic and controlling, that there was nothing wrong with the relationship, and so opted to leave the group when we would not apologize for our stance and accept the relationship.

    This was several years ago and we haven’t been in touch since, but I still think back and wonder how we could have handled it better, if only we had said X and not Y…stuff like that. It hurts to know that our actions resulted in the destruction of our fellowship, regardless of who was really at fault.

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