Here’s a little quiz for you. When a Christian is caught doing something wrong, we should:
- Post it on Facebook
- Alert the press
- Talk to them gently, one on one
I wish the church was full of perfect people. I wish none of us ever did anything wrong—that no Christian ever had an affair, or watched pornography. Never cheated on their taxes or fiddled with the accounting. Never hated, or was slef-righteous, or ignored a person in need.
Unfortunately, the church isn’t like that. We all screw up at some point. God is in the process of taking broken, sinful people and remaking them to His likeness, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a life-long process, and we’ll never achieve perfection this side of heaven.
So what do we do when we catch someone with their pants down (either figuratively or literally)?
If my Facebook page and news feed is any indication, we quickly condemn the person and spread the gruesome facts of their failure far and wide. We can’t wait to post the news online. We gossip. We put on our masks and pretend we’ve never done anything that bad.
If the person is of our own political persuasion, we may give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s just hearsay, after all. But if their views don’t coincide with ours, we can’t wait to lambaste the person. Look how awful they are! And of course we’re not surprised—their sin is typical of those people. It’s a good thing our side doesn’t do things like that.
Do we stop and consider—are the allegations true? Do we believe the person who accuses, or the person who asserts that the accusations are lies? Most of these cases never make it into the courts where the evidence can be impartially examined. Instead, they’re tried in the court of public opinion—in the news, on social media—and found guilty long before all the facts are known. They likely will lose their job. Their friends abandon them; perhaps their spouse does too.
Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? A number of people are now claiming that we should always believe the accusers—especially if they’re women or minorities. Sadly, I’m aware of several cases involving my friends and relatives where the accused person was innocent, but was prosecuted anyway. They were threatened until they agreed to plead guilty to something they didn’t do, just to avoid an even worse accusation and a mountain of legal bills.
But let’s say that the person is guilty. There is unequivocal proof that they messed up. What do we do then?
Scripture is very clear how the church is to deal with sin in the flock. Paul instructed the Galatians,
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. (Galatians 6:1)
In other words, we should approach the person with gentleness and humility, realizing that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Jesus has more to say. Matthew 18:15-17 lists a series of steps to take when someone sins:
If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they 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 they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Note that we are to start small. Instead of spreading the sin far and wide, we are to approach the person privately. The next step is to involve just a couple of other people. Perhaps you were wrong, and the person didn’t sin. Or maybe you’re right, but it’s just your word against theirs. It’s still a private matter, but two or three people have more authority than just one.
The next step is to bring the issue to the church, not the whole world. The church should be a safe place for someone to repent, although that’s rarely the case anymore.
I find it interesting that the final step is to treat the offender as an unbeliever. (Read 1 Corinthians 5:2, 9-13 to see this principle in action.) This is appropriate; if they don’t respond to correction, they are in fact running from God. But how are we to treat “pagans and tax collectors”? We are to love them!
Note that none of these passages apply to the legal aspects of a person’s sin. We have laws. There are consequences for our actions. Dealing with lawbreakers is an issue for the government. The church’s role should be one of reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness.