Last week I presented a problem: What do we do with hypocritical people who call themselves Christians, but continue to love their sin? This week I want to look at a biblical solution.
This is all part of a series on Psalm 15 which talks about what it looks like to be a person of Christian Integrity. We can probably all easily agree that a person of integrity has the core traits that Psalm 15 describes. They are Truthful, Loving, Honouring, Trustworthy and Generous. But in verse 4, right before it talks about honouring “those who fear the Lord”, it says that a person of Christian integrity is someone “… in whose eyes a vile person is despised.”
That’s what we talked about last week. How do we understand what “a vile person” is? And we came up with a simple definition that said a vile person is someone who “claims to be a believer, but has clearly rejected God’s word.” That’s the biblical understanding of “a vile person.”
This week we are going to look at what we are supposed to do with a person who does that. How do we as a church respond, and how do we as individual believers respond.
We are looking at this through the lens of 1 Corinthians 5. We already went through verses 1-6 last week, and we are picking it up in verse 7 this week.
Cut Out Infectious Sin
So what are we supposed to do with an unrepentant person, who says they are a Christian, but who won’t let go of their sin? If a church is working properly, and helping one another to honour God, grow in faith, love Jesus, serve people… and avoid sin, then what are they supposed to do with a believer who won’t stop sinning? What do we do with the person who claims to be a Christian, but clearly lacks integrity?
Paul says that the church must protect its integrity and the people of the church by removing the bad influence – what he calls “yeast”. We are to cut out the infectious sin. Read from verse 7.
“Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
Notice again that we are not talking about non-Christians, or believers who have stumbled and sinned one or two times. We are not talking about conducting witch-hunts and tribunals where we go door to door nit-picking everything that we don’t like and judging people who aren’t like us. And we are certainly not talking about only allowing perfect people who never sin into the church. What we are talking about dealing with are Christians who have a rebellious and unrepentant heart – one who has heard the words of God and has rejected them.
Paul tells us to separate the bad apple from the bunch. Reject them. Remove them. Don’t let it take any more effect. Remove their voice from the group and don’t listen to them. Remove them from fellowship and don’t have close associations with them as you would a believer. Cut the yeast out of the church before it infects the whole loaf. And it will. If you let a person who is committed to sin free to roam the church, they will infect others.
Let’s use gossip as an example. If not confronted and dealt with through Church Discipline, gossip will affect the whole church and damage a lot of people. We all know the damage gossip can cause.
Laziness, or busyness for that matter, are also sinister and damaging if left unchallenged. If lazy people are allowed to be lazy, and too busy people are allowed to be too busy, then people within the group will use them as an excuse for them to live the same way.
Unforgiveness can spread as well. If we do not practice forgiveness with each other, unforgivness will become the norm. Avoiding the hard work of reconciliation will become standard procedure. Then the bitter root will grow in our midst and we will have a bitter church.
The same with cheapskates. If we admire and allow people to be sinfully frugal misers and skinflints who pride themselves for being a scrooge, then will help others become to become scrooges too. We need to confront them and tell them they are sinning.
- “I don’t have to deal with that… just look at so-and-so… they’re getting away with it.”
- “It’s ok for me to do it, so-and-so does it all the time.”
- “I don’t have to do that because so-and-so doesn’t have to.”
Keeping Our Integrity
Keep reading in verse 9, but let me note that sometimes people sometimes take this scripture to mean that they have to avoid everyone outside the church too. The thinking goes like this: “If we are supposed to avoid sinners inside the walls, then how much more should we avoid everyone outside!” It’s important to know that’s not what he’s saying. This is specifically talking about judging and dealing with people within the church. Listen here:
“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”
Do you see that this is not about avoiding the world? Just as I said before, Christianity is not a cult that tells you to leave the world and only hang around like-minded believers. No, this is about dealing with problems among believers.
And his solution requires three things. Rejecting, Protecting and Restoring.
Rejecting, Protecting, Restoring
The first response that a church makes to an unrepentant Christian who is in sin is to reject them. The believers within the church keep their integrity intact by doing what Psalm 15 says – “despising the vile person”. In other words, reject the one who has rejected God. When someone calls themselves a believer and is in flagrant, unrepentant sin – we don’t associate with them. We make the believer feel badly about themselves and their sin, by giving them a taste of life as an unrepentant sinner again. When we hang around with them and pretend nothing is wrong, ignore their sin, we are in some ways saying that we agree with their sin. We become complicit with their sin. And we are also in danger of being tempted to sin with them!
Now, we don’t arrive there all at once, and it’s not the first response, so we’re going to talk more about how we get to that point in a minute.
The second response is to protect the integrity of the church and the person who is in sin. We protect our church’s integrity by showing the world that this person doesn’t represent us, and by removing the object of temptation from within our midst. And we protect the person by isolating them from feeling like their sin is ok. As we talked about last week. Removing them from the church is a way to stop enabling and avoiding the sin. It’s harsh, but it’s a measure of protection.
What they need to see is that their behaviour is not acceptable to anyone who calls themselves a Christian, and they are not allowed to be a part of the church – but are now part of the world – it should cause them to grieve. It gives them a chance to look at their life, to realize that if they are going to claim that Jesus is the Lord of their life, but not act like it, then they are a hypocrite. You could also say that this is a way to protect them from self-delusion.
This also protects us, the church, and even that person – to some extent. When we step away, we cannot enable them to sin. Think of it this way: If a fellow believer is going out of town so they can sin, and you say that you are happy to pick them up, babysit, watch their house, or whatever – you are enabling their sin.
If they give you something to hang on to for a while, so they don’t get in trouble, you’re helping them sin. If they want to borrow some money because they have spent all of theirs on sin – no, they can’t have any, even if that means they can’t pay their rent or their bills, because you will not enable them to sin. We protect our integrity, our church’s integrity, and even show love to the sinner by refusing to be part of their sin.
The third response is to setting up the conditions by which we will be able to restore this person who is caught in sin back to the fellowship. By God’s grace, when they get a taste of life outside the will of God, outside the people of God, and live for a while in the arms of Satan, they will see their sin and want to be restored.
We’ll talk about that in a moment too.
Other Scriptures About Despising the Vile
Now, in case you think I’m prooftexting here, I want you to know that despising and rejecting the person who has rejected God is all over the scriptures.
- “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” (Thessalonians 3:6)
- “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14)
- “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)
- “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
I realize that this is hard! Even the practical working out of this teaching is hard. Are we allowed to pick up the phone if they call? What if we see them in the grocery store? How long do we do this for? If this is all about lovingly restoring them to the fellowship, and to the faith, then how do we do it?
Unfortunately, there are no way to answer every question. Some people will lean towards “we have to keep showing them love” and talk to them in a friendly way – and still remain firm on their need for repentance. Other people will lean towards, “I need to avoid this person because they will suck me into their sin” – and will avoid them altogether. Still other people will be more confrontational and only talk to the person when they are willing to talk about repentance, reconciliation and fixing their issue. I don’t think any one of those is wrong, and each can be supported biblically. What is needed is a spiritual sensitivity and an abiding desire to do the will of God. If we are listening to the Holy Spirit, reading His word, and seeking His glory, then I believe God can use us to help.
This is something that very few churches do well, and it’s one reason why there are so many problems among groups of believers. They refuse to practice church discipline, they allow sin to fester, and they will not reject those who have rejected God. This is something we have to get right because it is commanded by God, and lets us be a healthy, Christ honouring church.
The Matthew 18 Model
So, understanding that we need God’s love, discipline and presence to get this right, let’s go to the practical model for how to do this as taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. This is a scripture where Jesus teaches us how to deal with sin among His people.
This isn’t the only place where we can learn about this, but I believe it’s the clearest for most situations we will find ourselves in.
Step One: One on One (Confront & Support)
Let’s start in verse 15:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
When we confront sin, it is to be confronted one on one first. The only exception is when you are confronting a Pastor or Elder in the church – in that case you skip to the step two where you bring in witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
This isn’t about special treatment – far from it considering the major impact it would have. It is about giving some protection from capricious accusations based on how people feel about them, rather than actual sins.
But when it comes to personal confrontation, it’s always one on one first. Now, some people look for the loophole here and say, “Well, if the sin isn’t directly against me, then I don’t have to deal with it.” I’m sure you’ve thought that, right? To you I reference Galatians 6:1-2:
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
In other words, another Christian’s sin is your business. The big idea here is that we are members of the family and we have the right and the responsibility to pull each other away from harm, and to take care of each other. Go to the person privately, quietly, gently, lovingly, patiently, and say, “I’ve been noticing something in your life that is sin. I heard from this person that you have been struggling with this sin. I have heard that you are angry with this person, that you are harbouring unforgiveness, that you are addicted to this, that there’s something that is separating you from God. I’m here to confront you about it, but I’m also here to help.”
See, we don’t just jump strait to handing them over to Satan. This goes two ways – confrontation and support. Confront the sin gently, and then say, “How can I help you carry your burden?” Confront, then support. Supporting them could be as simple as telling them how to make it right, and then they go do it, and you make sure they went and did it. “You took that thing and shouldn’t have. Go give it back. I’ll wait here until you have given it back.”
Or, if it’s something that could take a while, like if they struggle with lust, anger, unforgiveness, addiction, foul language, it could mean meeting with them until they get right with it. Whatever it is, we are to lovingly and gently confront sin in our brothers and sisters, support them as they try to get it right, and win them back to God because we love them – and for their own sake.
Step Two: Bring Friends
What if that doesn’t work? Verse 16,
“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”
If that person doesn’t listen, they blow you off, they deny it, they tell you to get lost, that it’s none of your business, that they can handle it, that you can’t judge them… you don’t get to just walk away and say, “Oh well, I tried.” Instead, you get one or two other believers who love them, and want the best for them, who have witnessed and understand the problem, and ask them to get involved. This isn’t to embarrass them or bully them, but to show them how serious this is. This also shows them that their sin isn’t a secret – people know about it.
This isn’t the pastor, or the elder – these are friends. Get some Christian friends together and invite them over, or invite yourself over. This isn’t your posse, but theirs! It’s a group of people that they will listen to. And when they are together, the group will try again.
If you are asked to be part of this group, after praying about it, I recommend that you do so. If you know about this situation, the person’s struggle, and you haven’t had the courage to confront them – but someone else has, and they invite you to come and help – go and help!
Step Three: Call the Elders
Ok, what if that doesn’t work? Get the elders and the church involved. Verse 17,
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
Even when they’ve told you to get lost, and then told some of their friends to get lost, we still don’t let it go. We still haven’t “handed them over to Satan”. We are still working together, as a church, to combat this sin, to break the hold it has on our brother or sister, and the next step is to go to the pastor or the elders.
God takes sin very seriously, and we want to show this person just how serious. Bring yourself and the witnesses to the pastor and the elders of the church. If you come by yourself, and the pastor (or elder) doesn’t know about the problem, then chances are he’s is going to ask for some witnesses anyway! Once you are together, we can come up with a plan on how to lovingly confront this person. Sometimes that means the pastor and elders take care of it themselves, other times they need to enlist your help. Be open, be humble, and be ready to help.
Step 4: Lovingly Avoid
And then comes the last step,
“…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
This is where you “turn them over to Satan.” In other words, if this person is still unrepentant after all of this, then they are not acting like a believer, so don’t treat them like one. In fact, if they keep claiming to be a believer, and yet stay in their sin after all of this, don’t associate with them. They need to go through the process of “Reject, Protect and Restore”. We love them by showing them how serious their sin is and that they are slipping away from a right relationship with God! “Hand them over to Satan” because that’s what team they’ve decided to play for now.
We keep praying for them – all the time. We pray that their hearts would soften and they would come back. When they are before us, just like any other person in the world that is bound to Satan, we share the gospel and try to win them to Christ. We try to convince them to listen to Jesus, give up their sin, come to Christ, ask forgiveness, get right with God… but we do not allow them to believe their sin is ok.
I know this is tough. And I know we are not good at it. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve done it wrong, or too harshly, or have avoided it, or been too soft. But we have to try to get this right. If it’s not done well, under the power of God and the instruction of the Word, then the church will be in danger of being overcome by sin. The loaf will be ruined with the yeast of sin. This might sound harsh, and if done with pride, or arrogance, it can be very damaging. But if it is done out of love, and a desire to see the person restored to the fellowship and to the faith, then it is an act of love and worship.
One of my favourite preachers likes to say “hard words produce soft hearts, and soft words produce hard hearts.” We want soft hearts towards God, repentant hearts, and sometimes that requires hard words and strong actions. If this is a brother or sister, and we want them back at our church, back in prayer, back serving God, back in worship, back in a loving relationship with Jesus – then we always leave the door open for reconciliation, and we make sure we do it with firmness and love.