When Did Churches Stop Confronting Sin Among Their Own?

Love2020Coaching Corner

As promised, let’s pick back up on a critical issue we addressed in passing last week – Conformity.  Just as telling one white lie requires more lies to cover the first one up, not following one biblical principle has led churches to break a couple others.  Enticing non-believers to join a worship service that shouldn’t be designed for them has led churches to look much more like the world than they should – both in how they operate and behave.  Those adaptations to accommodate non-believers (and retain members) have been costly, both monetarily and morally.  In other words, as a consequence of those first two breaches, churches have sacrificed the holiness and purity Jesus expected of His Church.

What the Bible Says…

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, rooting out sin among God’s people and removing it from their presence was a consistent, recurring theme:

Old Testament

  • Commanding Israel not to intermarry with godless nations
  • Destroying everyone and everything belonging to conquered, pagan peoples
  • Using only unblemished, spotless animals for sacrifices
  • Washing all items involved in religious rituals meticulously
  • Quick retribution for those who turned to false gods

New Testament

  • Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the temple
  • Jesus’ reserving his greatest condemnation for hypocritical religious leaders
  • God striking down Ananias and Sapphira for lying at the first church at Antioch
  • John listing out the sins and issuing calls to repentance to each of the early churches in the Book of Revelation
  • Paul insisting that evil people be removed from the body in his letters to churches

Yes, Jesus spoke much more gently to those outside the church who were guilty of sin (e.g. the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery) than He did to those defiling the church from within.  His parables about the Pharisees:

  • held them accountable for the sins of multiple generations
  • accused them of persecuting the prophets and killing the Son of God
  • said that unchurched Samaritans, who they reviled, had more compassion
  • called them “whitewashed tombs”, clean on the outside but filthy on the inside
  • exposed their arrogance, saying those they looked down upon “went home justified”
  • implied there’s a special corner of Hell reserved just for them

The Lord wants sin out of the Church.  In addition to the Old and New Testament examples above, Ephesians 5:25-27 spells out clearly that Jesus expects His Church, His bride, to remain “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless”.  Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the process for keeping churches “holy and blameless”.  Church leaders are commanded to deal directly and unapologetically with sin among churchgoers.  First, a fellow church member or leader should confront that individual, then if necessary bring along one or two other “witnesses” to make the case to that person.  If none of that works, their sin should be shared publicly with the whole church, and failing that the member should be removed from the church body.

What We Do Now…

All Christians know John 3:16 but few are as familiar with the verses that follow, like v. 20 “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed”.  Are churches today allowing sin to remain hidden and entrenched rather than exposed and eradicated?  Have you seen a church that consistently follows the Matthew 18 process?

Pastors envision the likely consequences of taking Matthew 18 literally, wondering how quickly it would empty the pews.  Current church growth models strongly discourage invoking the Matthew 18 process:

  • Asking congregations to invite non-believers to worship services and advertising “the perfect church for imperfect people”, seeking to maximize the number of unrepentant sinners within the “4 walls”
  • Hesitating to discuss sin directly from the pulpit (at a “corporate” level) for fear of bringing the collective church ”down” versus building it up, making non-believers feel unwelcome, or facing accusations of preaching “fire and brimstone”
  • Being careful not to offend non-believers, new believers or even “mature” Christians (at an “individual” level) who continue in life choices that are contrary to God’s word because crossing the wrong person could cause a split and fracture the body

For reasons we’ll discuss in the next section, church leaders rightly assume that few churchgoers are willing to confront another’s sin or be confronted about their own.  What pastors and Christians do today instead is to confront sin that happens:

  • OUTSIDE of their church, railing against those in other parts of the country undermining or questioning Christian values
  • OUTSIDE of their city, careful about getting involved in controversial morality issues too close to home for fear they might be ostracized or vilified in the media
  • AGAINST their church, eager to root out any recalcitrant “lone wolves” among the body with a poor attitude infecting the rest of the congregation (the subject of many articles and books)

In other words, churches are more inclined to tolerate…

  • …sin inside their church than sin outside the church (despite Paul’s emotional appeal to do the opposite and even though “outsiders” don’t consider themselves subject to God’s law)
  • …sin among their Christian friends than among those they don’t know
  • …sin against the Lord than sin against their religious institution (i.e. church)

What Jesus, David, Paul and John all shared was a righteous anger against professed believers who sinned against God and corrupted His holy Church.  They hated all sin but saved their most forceful words for those who brought sin into the church.  Why do pastors and Christians now seem to redirect nearly all of their “anger” toward those outside the church, rarely looking internally to take the “log out of their own eyes”?

What Changed…

I am often the target of that anger from those defending institution-building.  I question the status quo – the prevailing redefinition of “church” and its intended, biblical “customer”.  I’m considered a rabble-rouser for turning over the proverbial “tables” at churches seeking growth by catering and clinging to members (rather than challenging and equipping them to reach the lost in their community).  I’m not opposed to church growth of course, but only how it’s being pursued today.

In fact, the Matthew 18 process has historically stimulated church growth, not diminished it.  As members took responsibility for their sins, corrected one another through discipleship, and reflected Christ’s love and compassion to a watching world, the body of Christ was strengthened and blessed.  However, in an environment today where “church” is defined as a place to go on Sundays and the responsibilities of attenders have been reduced to inviting friends to a worship service, the Matthew 18 process has become far too personal and demanding for American churchgoers.  With sin left largely unchecked and discipleship waning, the Church is no longer growing – in size, impact, influence or public perception.

The reluctance of church leaders to hold members accountable for their actions is further evidence that churchgoers are increasingly treated as “customers”.  No longer seeing them as the embodiment of “church”, but redefining “church” as the institution itself, is why few churches…

  • …deal directly with personal sin, particularly in the family of a patriarch or matriarch
  • …risk the financial consequences of following Matthew 18 with significant contributors
  • …offer intensive, personalized discipleship
  • …still have “accountability” groups

The “customer is always right”, so they’re never questioned or insulted.  Yet customers can complain and criticize when they don’t get what they want.  Likewise, pastors no longer feel at liberty to confront churchgoers personally about sin, yet readily accept criticisms from them (and even heap praise on them when they lift the slightest finger to serve inside or outside the church).

It’s Your Turn…

Wouldn’t God’s plan for purity and remedy for sin among His children – confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ – be more pervasive if the Matthew 18 process were followed by more churches?

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