Dealing with Sin in the Church
The church of Jesus Christ is a work in progress. The church is made up of sinners. Yes, they are sinners saved by grace but not one of its members on earth is yet entirely free from sin. This means that you should never waste your time looking for the perfect church – you'll never find it and were you to do so it wouldn't remain in that condition after you joined it!
But just because sin still stains the church should not lead us to accept it with a complacent complicity as though sin wasn't really a problem worth worrying about! The salvation that Jesus Christ has secured for all his redeemed people is a salvation from the guilt, penalty and pollution of sin he did not leave heaven's glories to die upon the cruel cross of Calvary so that his followers might continue to live comfortably with sin in their lives and in the lives of their various local churches.
Sin is always a blot on the life of a church and reflects poorly on the Lord who has redeemed his people at such cost. Sin will have a detrimental effect upon relations within and between churches too. So the true church will not want to tacitly create alliances with sin which acquiesce in the very kind of behaviour and practices that made the Saviour's death necessary in the first place.
However dealing with sin within the church full of sinners is not necessarily straightforward. There are mistakes to steer clear of and extremes to be avoided. The church in Corinth had got itself into a right mess and had first made serious mistakes and then swung from one extreme to another. Paul writes in this section to help them.
Dealing with sin – in normal circumstances
Paul's relationship with the Christians in Corinth was a long-
Sometimes all that is needed for sin to be redressed is for clear light from God and his Word to be given. When believers don't understand truth properly they may act wrongly and what they most need then is clear instruction. Such instruction will enable them to think more suitably and behave well.
So Paul taught the Corinthians not just the gospel but also the implications of the gospel. In doing so he called for changes to be made in the way they lived out their Christian lives in the Christian community, the church. When a Christian (or a church) becomes aware of sin repentance is the beginning of the way forward.
This is the normal way in which a Christian and a church make progress:
"The entrance of (God's) words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple." Ps.119:130.
Sometimes however the teaching of God's word is not readily received and the call to repentance is resisted. When that is the case the exercise of discipline becomes necessary.
Dealing with sin – discipline
But Paul's relationship with the Corinthians had become difficult. He had not hesitated to rebuke a number of sins in the church and had called for a significant change of attitude and behaviour on the part of the Christians there. This call had not been well-
While the Corinthian church was troubled by several sins (Paul refers to some of these in 1 Cor.) there was one particular matter that was the cause of special concern. As we read 2Cor. We are reading a real letter from one real person to other real people – it is not some kind of theological treatise or article. As such both Paul and the Corinthians knew exactly what he was writing about – he had no need to spell it all out in great detail for them. We are 2.000 years further on and it is not so immediately obvious what the specifics of the problem were that Paul was concerned about.
Some/most(?) writers think that Paul was referring to the immoral man we read about in 1Cor. who had taken to living with his father's wife. Others suggest that the issue was more likely a church leader publicly contesting Paul's authority as an apostle possibly over how Paul said that same moral issue ought to be handled.
Whatever the exact details were tensions had arisen between Paul and the Corinthians. And the point is that sin will always produce some sort of bad fruit like this. Sin causes pain and distress though sadly we can be oblivious to this and imagine that while it might be so as far as others are concerned we're a different case! When sin raises its ugly head it is because someone is failing short of God's standards and in doing so is responsible for causing pain and distress to others.
How different this is from what we hear so often as people justify their behaviour on the grounds that what they do/have done doesn't hurt others. In the Christian church this is simply not true – as John Donne wrote in his sermon: "No man is an island."
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he is primarily concerned for their welfare and that if he has experienced pain over the contentious matter they have been harmed by it more!
This is surely of real importance: church discipline is not about making us feel better as though a brother gets his comeuppance for poor behaviour – church discipline is all about the restoration of an erring brother and the restoration of proper relationships within the church again.
The trouble is however that after leaving a sin undealt with for overlong, a delay which allowed the whole matter to fester and degenerate, the Corinthians had now swung too far in the opposite direction!
They had finally accepted to follow the procedure called for by the apostle and this meant that the majority had punished the guilty one. Such punishment/discipline would have involved treating the guilty brother as though he were not a brother, not a member of the family of God and consequently he was being treated as an outsider, a stranger to the benefits and blessings of Christian fellowship. This would in all probability have included exclusion from the Lord's Table which was usually celebrated in a social context from which he was now excluded.
The aim of such discipline was to bring the one who strayed to realise the seriousness of his sinful behaviour and bring him to repentance.
And in this particular case the discipline had secured just such a desired result. Sin was recognised and deep sorrow experienced by the guilty party – everything was going well... Or was it?
It now appears that the Corinthians who had previously been tardy in confronting sin were now being overly harsh by continuing to exclude the repentant sinner. He had repented and should now be welcomed back into the fold. The church having successfully exercise of discipline and attained the desired outcome should now readily forgive this man for to do otherwise would crush him.
Were some out to try to teach him a lesson? Or were they simply unsure how to proceed? Paul warns them against prolonging the rigours of discipline when it had already worked its beneficial effects. The Corinthian were now faced with a different scenario: if they didn't forgive and reinstate this man they ran the very real risk of causing his sorrow to become destructively overwhelming. After all what else could he do but repent? If he had repented but still his situation remained unchanged he would be reduced to a hopeless kind of fatalism.
Paul assures the Corinthians that he has no further grievance and urges them to freely extend forgiveness to their brother.
Paul is careful not to force his decisions and opinions upon the church – the local church has to make up its own mind on such matters and Paul resolutely refuses to lord it over them. Yes, he will teach very clearly and rebuke sin but he here encourages and urges the members of the Corinthian church to do willingly what they ought to do.
How easy it is when there are differences and tensions in church relations to lose sight of the wider context in which such scenarios are actually worked out! How easy it is for us to come to see the problem as him or her or them!
Paul knew that more must be taken into account. Christians live in a spiritual environment and Christians have spiritual enemies. Paul would later write to the Christians in Ephesus not to allow themselves to be duped into thinking that their struggles were simply against flesh and blood. The real enemy for the Christian (and for the Christian church) was not a brother who had got tangled up in sin, indeed the fundamental enemy was not a human being at all!
Sometimes working openly but often working away behind the scenes to oppose the work of Christ in any way he can is Satan. Satan is cunning and wicked with multitudes of evil spirits ready to work with him to destroy and to distract wherever possible. Satan is a clever enemy with many different schemes and wiles – he is a ruthless opponent of Christ and of Christ's people. It is not for nothing that he is variously called the Accuser, the Adversary, the Destroyer and a murderer. We overlook this at our peril. Some of his "best" work is carried out incognito as he stirs up trouble without making himself known and sometimes he likes to go about as though he is concerned for what is right as he presents himself as an angel of light.
This is the one that the Corinthians must beware of! The Corinthians must take care not to give him a foothold, not to allow him access in any way. He will outwit them if he can but, says Paul, "we are not ignorant of his designs." v.11.
Satan will enter to destroy if he can!
Here he seeks to gain an advantage via church discipline. Now such discipline had been rightly applied but the danger was of it being kept in place for too long. The danger was that having been applied and having done its work it was kept in place for too long; the danger was now of maintaining a stern approach when forgiveness was called for.
To the Christians in Ephesus Paul wrote encouraging them to stand against the schemes of the devil and then explained just why:
Eph.6:12 "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
A divided people makes for an easy target for Satan. How careful we should therefore be not to allow ourselves to be outwitted by Satan!
Sin damages a church and the way to deal with it is not by tolerating it but by confronting it.
Sin is usually confronted by the Spirit applying the truth.
When teaching and preaching fail to achieve their desired end then proper church discipline is to be applied. The application of such discipline is not to allow one side to gloat over the other but as a means to restoration.
While all sin is offensive in the sight of God not all sin is equally serious as to its effects upon church life. We've already said that the church is and, until Christ returns, will continue to be constituted of sinners. But we do not find examples on every page of church discipline being applied. This should lead us to consider such discipline not as the norm but as the exception. When we think about church discipline we are not to imagine that we are being encouraged to seek out sin in the lives of others rather discipline becomes necessary when such sin becomes flagrant, proud and persistent.
As soon as repentance occurs the Christian should be ready and indeed eager to forgive. This strand of teaching also contains a very encouragement if only we will see it. Church discipline under God is effective and will do what it is designed to do ie. to restore the erring brother. Our task is not to make his full return any more difficult than it need be. Indeed our task is to demonstrate genuine love, and that will mean putting definitively behind us hurts and pains that we have been caused when the actions that caused them have been repented of.
Finally, we must remember who our real enemy is – Satan.