Treat Him Like an Unbeliever

We don't talk a lot about church discipline as a church, but it happens all the time. Most "discipline" never goes nuclear - it ends at the first step in Matthew 18 where a person confronts his brother about a sin the brother has committed against him one-on-one, and nobody else ever has to know about it.

Occasionally, two or three people have to go to a person about a sin issue and on a few occasions, ministry leaders have to get involved in trying to restore a person. Often by that point a person has either chosen to repent or chosen to remove him or herself from the church altogether.

On very rare occasions, the process Jesus talks about in Matthew 18:15-20 reaches the point at which a person has to be treated as a "pagan or tax collector," whatever that means!

So what does it mean? How did Jesus intend that we would treat pagans and tax collectors?

When you look through the Scriptures, it doesn't seem as if Jesus had in mind that we would ignore them altogether (Luke 19:1-10). Where else will they be restored if they don't have Christian influence to speak Truth into their lives?

However, it also doesn't seem as if Jesus was passive about their sin (Mark 2:13-17). He associated with them but never passively. He loved them, but never allowed his love for them to be mistaken as implicit agreement with their paganism.

One of the hardest conversations you can ever have with a fellow believer who has chosen to live an unrepentant lifestyle goes something like this: "I love you, and I'm going to continue to pursue you because of that love. But we need to be clear on something: you are living in willful, sinful rebellion against God which is completely unacceptable to me as a follower of Christ and as a person who loves you and wants better for you. So you need to know that in choosing to live this way, our relationship must necessarily change. I still want to love you, and want to be there to celebrate when you choose to honor God with your life. But until that point our relationship needs to change. I'm not going to disappear from your life and hope that you won't either; but until you get to the point that you are willing to live differently, our conversations will revolve around this topic; it's too important to ignore.

In order to truly love a person through a period of self-imposed brokenness it is important to be clear about sin, clear about the issue, and clear about the relationship. All with the purpose of seeing a person restored in his or her faith, and restored in community the way God designed it.


Debbie said...

I seriously cannot believe you posted this today. Okay...yes, I can because that is the way God works and He has been teaching me for months to "expect the unexpected."

For three days, I have thought about setting up an appointment to talk with you about this very subject. Instead, I felt God telling me to do some studying of my own first.

Rather than leave an extremely lengthy post here, I'd love for you to read the blog I wrote on this subject and what God seems to be speaking to my heart on how I am to love and point to Jesus...the One who can say "go and sin no more."

I'd love to hear your thoughts...or maybe I'll still set up a time to discuss this with you. At any rate, thanks for a very timely post. It is exactly what I needed today...especially the Scripture references.

Chris Freeland said...

Hey Debbie,

Good post. There's definitely a balance here that is really hard to strike.

I do think there's a place for the Christian to tell a person to stop sinning. Paul makes that case in 1 Corinthians 5, and I think that's what Jesus is saying in Matthew 18. We have an obligation to one other to point each other toward Christ-centered living - to stimulate one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Sometimes that means helping a person see how they're off the path.

The intersection comes through speaking in line with the Holy Spirit. If Scripture is clear about a behavior, we are able to be clear about it as well. If Scripture is silent, we should tread more softly.

Debbie said...

I agree completely with what you are saying. 100% I'm not one to ignore people's sin and let them continue. In fact, I've had conversations very similar to your example, with the 3 people mentioned in my blog...and our conversations since then are centered around that subject.

Most of the time, I find when people come to me, they already know they are in sin and are crying for somebody to love them enough to help them find their way out of their mess and back on track. Unfortunately, they've been met with condemnation and desertion from Christian brothers and sisters...leaving them to wander deeper into their life of sin because they had nobody pointing them to Jesus. In fact, they had the attitude of "if that is what Christianity is all about, I'm done with it."

So, yes, it is a balancing act between being clear about their sin and what Jesus has to say about it and loving them back to restored fellowship with Christ. Too far either way and you either lose their trust in you or you compromise the gospel.

I love how you have worded it...pointing others toward Christ-centered living; stimulating to love and good works; helping to see they're off the path. All of those are positive ways of ministering to those in sin...not condemning.

Interestingly, I've hit 1 Cor. 5 really hard this week...and learned a lot. Even in that passage, Paul was encouraging discipline for the sake of restoration of a person to Christ. That must be kept as our goal...always, always, always. On a side note, I wonder what would happen in our churches if we quit associating with everybody who committed all the sins listed in verse 11. That was pretty convicting to me.

Thanks for responding--and for posting this in the first place. It's been a help to me this week as I've wrestled through these things with my Lord. I so want to make sure I'm on track when ministering to others.