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.