Have you ever heard of “Anosmia”? It’s a fancy word describing the inability to smell and thousands of Canadians have this problem. I read a little about it this week and it’s actually a much more serious problem then one would think because our nose is something that keeps us safe. Why do we sniff leftovers or milk when it has been in the fridge for too long? Because our nose is our first line of defence to keep us from getting sick. If it smells bad, then we don’t eat it. Instead, we reject the food and throw it away. People with anosmia can’t smell when their food is bad, or if there’s a gas leak from their stove, or if their house is on fire!
Losing the ability to smell is a huge issue because it’s one way that we can spot dangers in the world and keep ourselves safe. Everyone agrees with this, right? I’m especially thinking of the bad food one. We open the fridge, spot some old guacamole and wonder if it’s any good. Guacamole always looks a little funky, so it’s hard to tell by sight. So we smell it. If it smells good, then get the chips – if not, toss it out. We don’t feel bad about tossing it out because it is dangerous and could make us sick.
Hang on to that principle and open up to Psalm 15.
“O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
A few years ago I preached through this psalm over a series of 9 weeks and parked on one phrase in there that needed some explanation. Most people can get behind the rest of the psalm, but usually have a problem with one part. Can you guess which one?
I’ll give you a hint. People have no problem agreeing that God’s people are supposed to do what is right and speak truth. They have no issue with saying God’s people shouldn’t slander others or do evil against their neighbours and friends. They agree that believers should fear the Lord, admit their wrongs, and use their money wisely and generously. What part do people usually have a problem with? “Despising (or rejecting) vile people”.
The concept of believers rejecting or despising someone doesn’t sit well with some people. Most popular images of Jesus argue that He was all about love, acceptance, peace, and openness – that He would never reject or “despise” anyone, and would never call anyone “vile”. This simply isn’t true. While it may be true that Jesus didn’t call anyone “vile”, He did have some other choice words for them. He called some “blind” others “fools”. He called the scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”, “serpents”, “vipers”, “hypocrites”, “unmarked graves”, “children of hell”, and “murderers” (Matthew 23, Luke 11).
Jesus is the most loving, compassionate, long-suffering, friend that sinners could ever know – but He has no qualms about calling out sinners when He sees them. The most reviled sinners found themselves drawn to Jesus, compelled by his amazing grace, where they found forgiveness and acceptance. But no such softness was found when Jesus saw unrepentant sin and hard hearts. He called it out.
In the same way, Christians are supposed to recognize sin when we see it, recognize a hard, unrepentant heart, and reject the sin along with the sinner. We need to be able to detest what is “vile” for three important reasons. First, so that we, the community, and the unrepentant believer recognizes the seriousness of sin. Second, to compel the sinner to repent. Third, to protect the church from the effects of that sin. We’ve talked about these before.
We talked in the last couple weeks about the importance of recognizing the danger of sin and not tolerating or trivializing it, but instead confronting it. Last week we talked about who we are to judge, that being only our fellow Christians – and by what standards, that being the Bible. Certainly, the Holy Spirit helps us by working within us like a Geiger counter or radar detector that makes us sense when there is sin, but we always, always make sure we check our judgements with what the Bible says.
Going back to the food example: We open the fridge and spot some cheese. It’s covered in blue mold, we press it with our finger and it’s soft and funky, and when we give it the sniff test and it smells TERRIBLE. We immediately feel sick to our stomachs and cry out, “WHO LEFT THIS DISGUISTING CHEESE IN THE FRIDGE! HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN HERE? ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?!? I’M THROWING IT OUT! GROSS!” All of our senses are telling us that the cheese is bad for us, but then someone comes running around the corner saying, “No! Don’t throw that out! I just paid some good money for that cheese! It’s called Stilton and it’s delicious! The stinkier the better!”
You see, just because your senses say it’s no good, doesn’t mean it actually isn’t. That’s why we check with the Bible before we make a determination. It’s our standard for faith and life.
But what if something doesn’t pass the sniff test and doesn’t line up with the Bible? Then what ought we to do? How do we balance Jesus’ commands to love our neighbour as ourselves, love our brothers and sisters, bear with their faults, while at the same time “rejecting the vile” and as our passage in 1st Corinthians 5 which we are studying says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:13)?
We talked about Step One last week, which was to look inward and evaluate our own sin, motives, and relationship with God, so that we are humbled and prepared, but what comes next?
Turn with me to Matthew 18 and let’s explore there what needs to be done to get this right. This is a very practical model given by Jesus to help us understand how to deal with sin among His people. This isn’t the only place where we can learn about this, but I think it’s the clearest for most situations we will find ourselves in.
Step Two: One on One (Confront & Support)
“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.” (Matthew 18:15)
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 must bring witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This isn’t about special treatment – far from it considering the major impact it would have – it’s about giving public figures protection from 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 seen myself or heard from this person (yes, name that person so it’s not gossip) that you have been struggling with this sin.” For example, “I’ve heard that you are angry with someone, that you are harbouring unforgiveness, that you are addicted to something, that there’s something that is separating you from God. I’m here to ask you about it, tell you what God says, and I’m 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?” Confront, then support. Supporting them could be as simple as telling them how to make it right, and then they go do it and then hold them accountable by making sure they 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 regularly until they get right with it. Sometimes the issue is beyond our ability and we need to help them get into a treatment or counselling program and then talk to them about how that’s going. 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.
Step Three: Bring Friends
What if that doesn’t work? Jesus says in 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 that person 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 the sin is. This also shows them that their sin isn’t a secret – that people know about it.
The people you bring isn’t meant to be a pastor or an elder, but friends. This also isn’t your posse. Get a group of Christian friends that they will listen to and invite them over, or invite yourself over. And when you are all together, the group tries again.
If you are someone being 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!
After that meeting, you go back to what we talked about with loving support.
Step Four: Call the Elders
But what if bringing the group doesn’t work? This is where we 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” or “rejected the vile”. We are still working together as a church to combat this sin, break the hold it has on our brother or sister, and the next step is to get the church leadership involved.
God takes sin very seriously and we want to show this person just how serious it is. Bring yourself and the witnesses to the pastor and the elders of the church. (If you come by yourself, and I don’t know about the problem, chances are I’m 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 Five: 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.”
“…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
This is where the church “turns them over to Satan.” This is not a happy time, but a sad one. If this person is still unrepentant after all of this, then they are not acting like a believer, which means their soul is in jeopardy. Therefore, since they are not acting like a Christian we 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, we are told not to even associate with them. That’s what it means in 1 Corinthians 5:11 when it says “not even to eat with such a one”.
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. Here’s just a few from the New Testament:
“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)
Now, why do we get to this step?
Reject, Protect, Restore
What most people don’t understand is that this fourth step is actually a process. We don’t just “Reject” – but we also protect and restore. Let me explain.
When a church is faced with an unrepentant Christian who is more committed to their sin than to Jesus, we are commanded by God 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 because they are a danger to themselves and others. We purposefully make the believer feel badly about themselves and their sin by giving them a taste of life as an unrepentant sinner again. They want to live like a demon so we let them experience a taste of hell. 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 or that their sin is no big deal. We therefore become complicit with their sin – just like the church in Corinth.
The second reason for rejecting them 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. When we keep them around us we are in danger of being tempted to sin with them! We protect ourselves from their bad influence and protect them from feeling like their sin is ok. Removing them from membership and refusing to meet with them socially is 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. Being rejected by their fellow believers because of their behaviour 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.
When we refuse to meet with them it also makes it so that 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, Jesus’ reputation, and even show love to the sinner by our refusing to do these sorts of things for them.
Which leads us to the third reason to reject the person, and the ultimate reason for Church discipline: this sets up the conditions by which we will be able to restore this person 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 as pawns of Satan for a while, they will see their sin and want to be restored back to Jesus.
This is ultimately what this is all about. Not kicking the person out, but doing everything we can to save them from the sin that is entangling them and restoring them back to spiritual health.
Conclusion: This is Hard but Important
I realize that this is hard! Often, the practical working out of these sorts of commands from God is hard. There are some practical questions too: 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 of the church faith in Jesus, then how do we do it? Unfortunately, there is no way to answer every question.
Some people will lean towards “we have to keep showing them love” and keep talking to them in a friendly way while remaining 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 necessarily wrong, nor do I think any of them is totally right, nor will any of us will do them perfectly. What is certain is our need for spiritual sensitivity and an abiding desire to do the will of God. I think all of this needs much prayer, study, and godly wisdom. If we are listening to the Holy Spirit, reading His word, and seeking His glory, then I believe God can use us to help those around us grow closer to Him and protect them from sin.
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.
This is tough stuff and none of us are good at it. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve done it too harshly or have avoided it or been too soft. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying to get this right. It’s too important to ignore. Sin is too dangerous.
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. If we do this full of holier-than-thou pride it will be very damaging. The loaf will be ruined with the yeast of sin. But if we pursue Godly Church Discipline out of love and a desire to see sinners restored to the fellowship and to the faith, then it is an act of worship that God will bless.
Let’s keep seeing soft, repentant hearts towards, but always be willing to do the hard things that He asks us to do. If you know a brother or sister caught in sin, then pray for them, and courageously commit that you will help them see the danger of their sin and repent from it so they can get back to church, back in prayer, back to serving God, back in worship, and back in a loving relationship with Jesus.