Two Introductory Stories
My mom and dad fondly tell the story of one of the first times my dad visited my great-grandmother’s old, back-country Oklahoma, Pentecostal church. My mom and dad were dating at the time, and my dad was not familiar with Pentecostal churches at all, so this event really stuck out to him. After the speaking in tongues and whooping had subsided, and the preacher had gotten into his groove, he was passionately talking about “…a man who comes to church on Sundays and greets people at the door and shakes hands, but on Saturday night he was out getting drunk and womanizing!” As he worked up to the crescendo in his tirade, he asked the congregation loudly, “What are we going to do about this man!?”
As the story goes, at that moment a tiny old woman at the back of the church, in a tiny-old woman voice, yelled, “Kick him out of church!”
I think about this family story more often now, as I prepare for a larger leadership role in ministry down the line and as I encounter more and more messed-up sinful people (myself included). Was that lady right? Should that man be kicked out of church?
Along these lines, I used to regularly attend a men’s group made up of other seminarians, and we used to have lively discussions. On one of the livelier nights, we were talking about the purpose of the local church, methods of church government, the state of the local church in America, views on the mega-church movement, and eventually we got on the topic of “how to deal with people who practice sin in your church.”
Some of the examples that were on the table that night were “a couple who is living and sleeping together,” “an openly homosexual couple,” and “a known and blatant alcoholic/drunkard.” We were discussing different angles and approaches to the question. What principles should be followed? Who’s job is it to address the issue? Isn’t the church a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints? Some in the group were far more liberal than I, claiming that it’s not the church’s job to force people to live a certain way, just encourage them toward holiness. I was confused by that answer, because we never got around to how one goes about “encouraging someone toward holiness.”
Clarifying the Lines/Defining Terms
Before I start giving my answer to this question I want to be clear about the question I AM answering and the questions I AM NOT answering.
I AM answering the following question: “How should a local church deal with people in their congregation who openly practice sin?”
Some terms in that question are important.
“local church” – I’m talking about an individual body of believers, led by (in my view) a plurality of elders (godly men who fit the description Paul gave in his letters to Timothy and Titus).
“in their congregation” – I’m not talking about those who do not claim to be Christians. I’m talking about those who say they believe the gospel. As Paul puts in the passage quoted below, I’m not talking about the sinners “of this world,” I’m talking about those sinners who “bear the name of brother.”
“openly” – I’m not talking about someone who is secretly practicing a sin. In a sense, that question can’t really be addressed, because in that scenario the only people who know about it are the sinner and God. In that scenario, I think the sinner in question needs to confess his sin, bring it out into the open, and repent of it (turn away from it/change his mind about it). But that’s not who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about about someone who makes their sin known to others and does not repent of it; someone who does not rightly call it a sin.
“Practice sin” – I’m not talking about someone who struggles against and resists a particular temptation to sin, but still fails from time to time. I’m talking about someone who habitually yields to a temptation every time it arises, and makes it a part of his routine and way of life.
So to give an example of one particular sin currently debated in the church, homosexuality, here’s what I’d be addressing with this post:
I’m not talking about someone who is tempted by same-sex attraction, but does not act on it.
I’m not talking about someone who is tempted by same-sex attraction, and who fails to resist that temptation, acts on it, but quickly confesses that sin to brothers/and sisters in the body, repents of it, and once again continues to resist it.
I AM talking about someone who is tempted by same-sex attraction, claims that acting on their same-sex attractions is not sinful, and regularly does engage in homosexual acts (whether monogamous or not), all the while claiming to be a committed Christian believer.
So now that we’ve got our definitions clear, what’s my answer? How should a local church deal with people who openly practice sin?
If you can believe it, that night with my seminary friends when we were discussing this question, I represented the conservative end of the spectrum. (shocking, I know…) I said that churches should follow Paul’s example from 1 Corinthians 5 and forbid openly unrepentant sinners from fellowship in their local body.
I honestly don’t think that this should be much of a debate. The Bible clearly lays out paradigms in multiple places for how to deal with someone professing to be a Christian, who instead openly lives in sin.
1 Corinthians 5 I think is the clearest, and details Paul’s reaction to the church in Corinth when they have no problem with a man sleeping with his step-mother. The text says, starting in 4:16:
I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.””
(aside: This last line is an allusion to a repeated refrain in Deuteronomy verses 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21. Just as the nation of Israel was to be “set apart” or “holy” from the world, so the church is to be “set apart” or “holy” from the world, hence the repeated instruction to both groups to “be ye Holy as the Lord God is Holy” in both Leviticus and Peter.)
Paul’s words are extremely clear and quite shocking to the modern “Christian.” “Purge the evil person from among you,” “Deliver this man to Satan,” and “Let him who has done this be removed from among you,” are not the instructions you hear in the average church from the average pastor on this issue… but they are the correct instructions.
It turns out that the old lady saying, “Kick him out of church!” was actually reading her bible correctly, but let us be clear what the spirit and motivation are for doing so.
Paul said, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
What does Paul mean by “deliver this man to Satan”? He means kick him out of church. Make him live outside fellowship of the body, out in the “world,” where Satan is the ruler (cf. Eph 6).
What does Paul mean by “for the destruction of the flesh”? He means that when this man is forced outside the fellowship of the body, to live in the “world,” his sinful desires will reap their rewards. The fleeting pleasures that the world has to offer will create in this man a thirst for holiness, but he will be starved of true holiness because he will be exiled from true fellowship, true love, and true community that only comes from a body of true Christians. In this way the “flesh” will be destroyed. The sinful desires in which he once reveled will ultimately become a thing of disgust to him and he will repent.
What does he mean by “so that his Spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”? Exactly that. At such a time when that man’s flesh really is destroyed by the systems of the world, he may come to real repentance and belief in the gospel and actually be converted, so that when the Judgment at the Great White Throne occurs, his soul will not be cast into the lake of fire. He will be saved.
The point is this: restoration and redemption is the goal. The goal is not to vehemently and mean-spiritedly ostracize people from the body, it is to bring sinners to repentance. It is for that man’s own sake that local churches are to “kick him out.”
To refuse to excuse someone’s sin, and instead to treat it like the sin it is, is in fact, the loving thing to do.
How to Go About It
So that’s the basic answer to the “what should be done” question: kick him out of church, with an eye toward repentance and restoration.
But what about the “HOW?” HOW should a local body go about “Purging the evil person from among [them].” My answer, in short: Very carefully, by wise men.
One need not look too far back in history to see that this idea can be misapplied and abused to the detriment of the Church. There is an oft-quoted passage in Matthew 18 in which Jesus outlines one method one might follow in a situation such as this.
Unlike many, I do not believe that this is the direct paradigm that we are to follow in the church age, because I think Jesus was talking specifically to the twelve apostles, specifically about the nation of Israel and their unbelief that Jesus is the Messiah… HOWEVER, I think it’s a darn good paradigm to follow. I won’t go so far as to say that you are required to follow it, but I will say that you won’t go wrong by following it, and if your elders determine that this is the paradigm their local church should follow, I say more power to them. It’s a great one!
The paradigm is this, Matt 18:15-17, “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. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (i.e. “Kick him out of church!”)
I think if you know that a brother or sister is practicing sin, this is a very good plan to put into action. First, confront him yourself. If he does not agree that he is sinning, take a few friends along and confront him. If he still will not agree, then take it to the church (…and do so through the channels of church government that your local body follows. As I’ve said, I believe elder-led with congregational support is best, but I do think other systems may be legitimate…) and if the church agrees that he is practicing sin, but he does not repent, then, “kick him out of church.”
Do ALL of this, with a view toward repentance, forgiveness, and restoration of fellowship. Be waiting with open arms for the day that man comes back to your body and says, “I am sorry. I was in sin. Please forgive me. I repent.”
I know that I experience regret over the times when I should have confronted a brother’s sin, and instead kept silent trying to make “peace.” (“Peace” is in quotations, because I wasn’t ACTUALLY trying to make peace. I was just trying to avoid unpleasant confrontation for my own selfish reasons.) I can’t go back and change that, and I sinned by keeping silent. I hate the fact that I’m a sinner, but I love the fact that God forgives sinners. He’s made a habit of it. Praise Him for his glorious grace.
No two situations like this are exactly the same, which is why I say the best answer on the “How” section is “very carefully, by wise men.” Allow those wise men whom you trust to lead you well (your elders in your local church, ideally) to guide this process carefully, with a view toward restoration.
Sometimes a situation will arise when YOU think something is sinful and it is actually just distasteful to you. (I’ve known people who say that drinking alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful. I believe they will be hard-pressed to prove this from the scriptures, since Jesus himself drank alcohol.) Since those situations will arise, ALWAYS enter such situations with a loving and humble attitude. When you “confront” a brother, confront him AS A BROTHER, not as a judge, jury and executioner. Again, this is why having wise men carefully leading the process of sin confrontation is best. Let a community of elders, well-read in God’s word, determine what will constitute a “practiced sin,” and determine a godly standard by which a body will be judged and restored.
I think open honesty about one’s sin, is a good policy to adopt. It’s no secret that Christians are sinners. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel. The difference between a Christian and everyone else is that Christians admit when they sin, and they call it that. They don’t make excuses, or explain away an actual sin. They humbly repent and ask for forgiveness from God and those against whom they sinned, and they go on with their lives once again resisting that temptation as much as possible. Live your Christian life THAT way, and your brothers will likely be much more open to your “confrontation” of their sin.
Or, as Jesus put it, in a different context, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.'” Notice, he doesn’t say to ignore both the speck and the log… he says to remove both of them!