January 13, 2017

Dealing with Sin in the Church

by Mike Riccardi

Dealing with SinA couple of years ago, our church had the privilege of hosting a number of law enforcement officers from our community for morning services. More than 100 police officers who patrol the city of Los Angeles responded to John MacArthur’s invitation to join us for a Sunday morning that, in part, honored their commitment to protecting our society and gave them the opportunity to hear what the Word of God has to say about them: the civil authorities. Pastor John preached on the various institutions that God has raised up for the sake of restraining evil and maintaining order in a society: the conscience, the family, the government, and the church. Each of these God-ordained institutions, he explained, serves to restrain evil and maintain order in a society.

As would be expected, Pastor John focused on the institution of government that morning. But there’s reason to focus on the fourth of those institutions as well. Just as there is a great need for law and order to keep the peace in a civil society, so also is there a need for such law and order in the church. A civil society that has no laws, or that has no system of order to enforce those laws—no system to punish and rehabilitate offenders—is doomed to chaos. So severe is the nature of human depravity that a society of depraved human beings unrestrained by law and order is just unthinkable.

And the same is true of the church. Now, it’s true that our depravity has been overcome by the work of Christ on the cross. It’s true that we who are believers in Christ have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling inside of us, directing our desires and causing us to strive against the flesh, and leading us to walk in righteousness. But those realities are not true for all who enter through the doors of the church on Sunday. Even within the visible church, there are those who believe that they’re saved, but who have not yet turned from their sins and put their trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. And for those who have been born again—even though we have been set free from the penalty and power of sin through the Gospel—we have not yet been set free from the presence of sin in our flesh. Galatians 5:17 reminds us: “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Paul says elsewhere, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21–23).

And so even though we who belong to Christ have been declared righteous in God’s sight on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, we nevertheless strive against the presence of remaining sin in our flesh. It is unhappy but all too familiar reality: Christians sin. And that means that the church needs to know how to deal with sin in its midst. There needs to be law and order in the church—a process for identifying, disciplining, and rehabilitating sinners.

Law and Order in the Church

And the Lord Jesus Christ has provided that law and order for His church. The rule of law in the church is the Word of God. The standard for conducting oneself as a citizen of the kingdom of God is laid out in the New Testament Scriptures. This Bible is, in a manner of speaking, our rule of law. But Christ didn’t only provide “law” for His church; He also provided “order.” He instituted a system to be followed when the law was broken, in order to restrain sin in the church. And we have that system of order laid out for us in Matthew 18:15–18. If there is sin in the church, there is first to be private rebuke: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” If he does not repent, but persists in his sin, there is to be plural rebuke: “Take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke: his sin is made known to the church, and the church is to pursue him. Law and OrderAnd if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be put out of the church and regarded as unbeliever—because in refusing to let go of his sin he’s acting like an unbeliever, and may even be showing himself to truly be an unbeliever, despite his profession of faith.

This is the system of order that the Lord Jesus Himself instituted for the sake of dealing with sin in the church. We often call it “church discipline.” And as long as there are sinful people in the church—which is to say, always, on this side of heaven—the church needs to be equipped to deal with sin in the church, according to the instructions the Lord Jesus left us.

The Controversy in Corinth

And the situation that was going on between the Apostle Paul, the false apostles, and the Corinthians provides a prime example of how church discipline is to be carried out. You see, false teachers claiming to be apostles had infiltrated the church at Corinth and began doing everything they could to discredit Paul in the eyes of the believers there. The controversy led Paul to visit the Corinthians ahead of schedule, as he hoped his personal presence would help to quell the rebellion that had arisen. But this turned out to be a sorrowful visit. While he was there, one of the men who belonged to the church of Corinth, but who was led astray by the false apostles, openly defied Paul and publicly insulted him before the church. This is the “offender” he speaks of in 2 Corinthians 7:12. But worse than that open insult, the rest of the Corinthian church failed to take disciplinary action against this man. Rather than coming to Paul’s defense and defending the Gospel that Paul preached, the Corinthians were taken in by this false teaching, and allowed this man’s sin to go unchecked.

Paul then returned to Ephesus and wrote the severe letter (cf. 2 Cor 2:4), rebuking them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly. And we learn in chapter 7 that God had worked through that letter, such that the majority of the Corinthians repented of their attitude toward Paul. Paul says that Titus “reported to me your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me” (2 Cor 7:7). They were made sorrowful according to the will of God, and that godly sorrow brought about repentance, and their love and affection for Paul was once again made manifest (2 Cor 7:9–12). They even had such a change of heart that they disciplined the offender. They carried out the process that the Lord Jesus laid out in Matthew 18 and put this man out of the church.

ControversyAnd God graciously worked through this discipline process! Just like the majority of the church, the offender repented. He owned his defiance as sin, repudiated it, and wished to be restored to the fellowship of the church. This man was so captivated by his sin that he refused the rebuke of a single person, of a group of people, and then of the whole church. And yet now God has so worked in his heart to humble him that he’s let go of his sin and is ready to rejoin the church. The grace of God is to be celebrated!

But there was a problem. Even though this man had brought forth the fruits of repentance, there were some in the church who were hesitant to welcome him back. The Corinthians realized what a terrible sin it was to side against Christ’s Apostle. They realized the damage this man had caused to the church, and knew of the pain it had caused Paul. And yet here is a man who has come to the very same realization and repented just as they had, and they are unwilling to forgive him and receive him back into fellowship.

Dealing with Sin in the Church

So in 2 Corinthians 2, verses 5 to 11, Paul instructs the church as to how they are to restore this man who has been disciplined out of the church, but who is now repentant:

But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. 6Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.

If we as the church are going to properly deal with sin in our midst—if chaos is to be avoided and there is to be law and order within the church—we must follow the principles that Scripture lays out for us as we seek to faithfully practice church discipline. And contrary to what we might assume, the church discipline process does not end at excommunication. The goal of all correction, all rebuke, all discipline, is that our sinning brother might be brought to repentance, would forsake his sin, and would be restored to fellowship. And in matters such as these—which are so sensitive, so delicate, and often so painful—we need an extra measure of divine wisdom in order to carry out our responsibilities faithfully, unto the glory of God. And in this text, the Apostle Paul gives us an example of how to do just that by outlining five stages of faithful and successful church discipline: harmful sin, corporate discipline, genuine repentance, comforting forgiveness, and loving reaffirmation.

We’ll take the next several weeks to examine each of those stages. And as we do, I think you’ll be impressed with the large-heartedness of the Apostle Paul as one who is eager to forgive a wrong suffered for the sake of the spiritual benefit of God’s people. The church deals with sin not only by reproof and correction and confrontation, but also by forgiveness. Stay tuned.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
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  • TW

    Thanks so much for doing this. Much needed…

    Here’s a question. What to do in the case of a clear violation of Scripture when you reach the step of public rebuke and the church’s duty is now to pursue that individual and call them to repentance and hold them accountable, and instead the church collectively holds off and says, “Nah, not really interested in dealing with it.”

    ?

  • alexguggenheim

    Nice to see John MacArthur’s thorough grasp of the left/right kingdom doctrinal dynamic, though he does not use those Lutheran terms but further, his left kingdom taxonomy of conscience, family (which obviously includes the divine institution of marriage) and government – though I realize this is a pretext for your main point.

    Ah yes, when to discipline a gossip. Ha

    • When to discipline gossip, which destroys one’s neighbor (Prov 11:9) and separates intimate friends (Prov 16:28; 17:9), which spreads strife among brothers, which is what the Lord hates (Prov 6:19)? The same as any other sin: when it’s been confronted privately, plurally, and publicly, and there has been refusal to repent. Just as Christ commanded.

      • alexguggenheim

        Amen. I would like to be a fly on the wall to watch the entirety of the process of complete ecclesiastical discipline with a gossip situation. Not ever wishing any such event occur but would it, the various responses during the process by an unrepentant gossip with their incredulity would be interesting along with the challenges it would present to those having to amplify their articulated counsel with its Biblical ultimatums.

  • A Amos Love

    This post describes Matthew 18:15–18, as…

    “If there is sin in the church, there is first to be private rebuke: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” If he does not repent, but persists in his sin, there is to be plural rebuke: “Take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke: his sin is made known to the church, and the church is to pursue him. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be put out of the church and regarded as unbeliever…”

    Have some questions, doubts, about…
    How this version of Matthew 18:15–18, is reported.

    The KJV says, in Mat 18:15–18…
    V 15 – “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee (me)
    go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone:
    if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

    Hmmm? “thou hast gained thy brother,” seems to be the goal.

    NOT – “If there is sin in the church…”
    He is MY brother… And the trespass is aganst me, his brother.

    NOT – “there is first to be private rebuke.”

    “Rebuke,” is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…

    v 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more,
    that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

    NOT – “If he does not repent, but persists in his sin,
    there is to be **plural rebuke:**”

    “Repent,” is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…
    “plural rebuke” is is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…

    v 17 – “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church…

    NOT – “If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke.”

    “Repent,” is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…
    “public rebuke” is is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18..

    v 17 – “…but if he neglect to hear the church,
    let him be unto thee ( Thee=Me, His Brother.)
    as an heathen man and a publican.”

    Isn’t? – “thou hast gained thy brother,” still the goal?

    Isn’t it up to me, His brother, to determine?
    How I treat My brother, as a heathen and publican?
    And, NOT the church?

    NOT – And if he refuses to listen even to the church,
    then he is to be **put out of the church**
    and regarded as unbeliever…”

    And – **put out of the church** is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…
    ————

    Maybe WE, His Disciples, His Sheep, His Ekklesia, His Body…
    Can observe how Jesus treated – The **heathen man and a publican?**

    Seems Jesus, and His Disciples, hung out with, ate with, the *tax collectors.* *The heathens and publicans.* But, it was the Religious Leaders, the Pharisees, who did NOT approve. Yes? And Jesus told these Religious Leaders who complained…

    “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

    • “thou hast gained thy brother,” seems to be the goal.

      Yes, the goal of all church discipline is restoration. As I said in the original post:

      And contrary to what we might assume, the church discipline process does not end at excommunication. The goal of all correction, all rebuke, all discipline, is that our sinning brother might be brought to repentance, would forsake his sin, and would be restored to fellowship.

      Had you missed that part?

      NOT – “If there is sin in the church…” He is MY brother… And the trespass is aganst me, his brother.

      This is an equivocation, a distinction without a difference. The church is the body of Christ (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:22-23; Eph 4:12), the household of God (Eph 2:19), and thus are members of the same spiritual family. So, our brothers and sisters comprise the church. If my brother sins, there is sin in the church.

      NOT – “there is first to be private rebuke.” “Rebuke,” is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…

      Here’s another equivocation. The text says, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” To show someone their fault is to rebuke them. It’s to say, “Hey, you’ve transgressed, brother. There needs to be confession and repentance.” Jesus says as much in Luke 17:3, which parallels and coheres nicely with the instructions in Matthew 18:15-18, and is the parallel to Matthew 18:21-22: “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”

      v 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. NOT – “If he does not repent, but persists in his sin,
      there is to be **plural rebuke:**”

      Another distinction without a difference. If your brother will not hear you when you go and show him his fault — that is, when you rebuke him for his sin and call him to repentance (cf. Luke 17:3) — then take one or two other brothers/sisters (i.e., plurally; you and them; multiple people and not just you) with you in an aim to win your sinning brother.

      “Repent,” is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…

      You’re straining gnats and swallowing camels, Amos. If you are to go to show someone their sin, and he “listens” to you, it means that he’s agreed with your assessment of his sinful behavior. Surely that doesn’t mean that he simply says, “Yeah, I’ve sinned! So what!” And then obstinately continues in his sin. It means he says, “Oh, brother, you’re right. I have sinned. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’m going to take this to the Lord. And brother, I ask your forgiveness for sinning against you.” That’s repentance. The parallel in Luke 17:3 only clarifies what’s plain to any unbiased reader.

      v 17 – “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church… NOT – “If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke.”

      This comment will stand as a record for equivocations, I’m sure of it. The instruction is to tell his sin to the whole church. And the next phrase speaks about the possibility of the brother not listening to the church, which implies that the church is told about the man’s sin in order to pursue him and urge him to confess, repent, and forsake his sin. Urging someone to confess, repent, and forsake sin is aptly summarized by anyone fairly familiar with the English language as “rebuke,” and the fact that it’s the entire church who is enjoined to issue this rebuke makes it public.

      v 17 – “…but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee ( Thee=Me, His Brother.) as an heathen man and a publican.”

      So, are you arguing that only the offended party should regard this man as an unbeliever, and not the whole church that has pled with this man to acknowledge and turn from his sin? Why would Christ instruct one person to regard him in one way, but imply that the rest of the church regard him in another? What would that even look like? Your bias leads you to absurd interpretive conclusions.

      Isn’t? – “thou hast gained thy brother,” still the goal?

      Of course. But Jesus goes on to give instructions about what happens in the case that my brother refuses to be “gained” (“won,” NASB; i.e., refuses to be won over to the position of those rebuking him; i.e., refusing to repent of his sin). The goal is always that a sinning brother be restored, but he can only be restored if he repents.

      Isn’t it up to me, His brother, to determine? How I treat My brother, as a heathen and publican? And, NOT the church?

      In a sense, it’s up to you and only you as to how you treat anybody, because nobody is going to treat people a certain way for you. But it is a collective matter, because the entire church has been called in to adjudicate this matter. That’s why, when Jesus speaks of binding and loosing, He speaks in the plural, because it is the leadership of the church (as represented in that moment by His disciples/apostles), that hold the keys.

      Otherwise, you’d have Bob treating Jim as an unbeliever because of a personal conflict, but then Ken treating Jim as a believer because it didn’t involve him. Is this man one of Christ’s or isn’t he? Should he be participating in the life of the body or shouldn’t he? Should he take communion, be permitted to serve in the church, etc., or shouldn’t he? The whole church, as represented by its elders who rule well (1 Tim 5:17) and have charge over them in the Lord (1 Thess 5:12), must be in agreement on what to do with this man, for the sake of his spiritual health and the health of the whole church.

      NOT – And if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be **put out of the church** and regarded as unbeliever…” And – **put out of the church** is NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18…

      The church is commanded to “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor 5:13), and to “not be bound together with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). If a sinner refuses to repent, he is acting like an unbeliever, and may actually be showing himself to be an unbeliever, despite his former profession of faith, because a mark of those who are saved is that they confess and repent of sin as they become aware of it. If a man is to be considered as a heathen, i.e., an unbeliever, and the church is to be made up of believers, and if the church is even commanded to remove the wicked (i.e., unrepentant sinners) from among their number, then yes, they are to be put out of the church and not associated with (2 Thess 3:14)

      Maybe WE … Can observe how Jesus treated – The **heathen man and a publican?** Seems Jesus, and His Disciples, hung out with, ate with, the *tax collectors.* *The heathens and publicans.*

      So that’s what you think Jesus’ instruction is for sinning brothers? “Go to him, show him his fault. If he refuses you, take others with you and urge him to repent. If he refuses the three of you, tell the whole church and have them insist that he confess and forsake his sin. And if he refuses to listen to the church, just forget about it and eat with him like nothing ever happened.”

      Right.

      Amos, in the 10 years I’ve been acquainted with the blogosphere, your name has only ever shown up in a comment thread to beat this one drum. You have your hobby horse of ecclesiological anarchism; we’ve heard it all before, and you simply haven’t made your case. You wrest Matthew 23:10 from its context and pretend that Hebrews 13:17 and 13:24 don’t exist. If Jesus meant that there was never to be a context in which the title “leader” could appropriately be predicated of anyone in His church, and the Holy Spirit inspired the author of Hebrews to write, “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” I don’t know how you escape pitting God the Son against God the Spirit. In fact, you don’t escape it. And you do so in order to make provision for your own fleshly refusal to heed the clear command of Scripture in Hebrews 13:17. And as long as you continue to fail to deal adequately with the implications of that passage (and others which speak of elders “ruling” over the church as a function of Christ’s authority [1 Tim 5:17], and which speak of those who “have charge over” others in the Lord, again as a function of Christ’s own authority [1 Thess 5:12]), we will not publish your comments, as we have no obligation to give a platform for your errors.

    • 4Commencefiring4

      The words “rebuke” and “repent” are not in the passage, true. But the sense of both are implied. What are you doing if you “go and tell him” if not to rebuke his behavior? You’re trying to get his acknowledgment of sin, aren’t you? And what does it imply that you’re seeking that he “hears you” if not that he is repenting of it? If he “hears” you, he’s saying Yes–I’ve sinned against you.

      The whole idea of the passage is showing someone their offense against you and asking them to acknowledge it. And if they refuse to “hear” (repent), escalate the matter, etc.

      We had a case awhile back where an elder’s practice was disturbing some of us who were in a ministry with him–even causing a few to cease their participation. He didn’t think his acts were problematic, and even defended them as completely harmless. Even after a letter to him explaining why it was upsetting to others, he never acknowledged its effect on them. When we next saw him and asked if he had gotten our letter on the matter, he said he had–and offered no comment. Then he changed the subject like the issue was over and done. The whole thing went over his head, or something. It was as though we were remarking that the sky was blue, and did he understand? Yes, he did. Thank you. Next?

      We could have made more of it, but the ministry was probably going to end anyhow before long–which it did. We decided he just had a blind spot about it and left it alone. The problem has not recurred, but it was never resolved, either.

  • Vinod Anand S

    Hi Mike, I have a question about a particular situation. A believing couple wants to join a church in another city. This marriage was the husband’s second marriage. The previous’ marriage ended in an unbiblical divorce. What should the church (where the couple wants to become a member) do? How to deal with this?

    • Hey Vinod. If I was interviewing a couple in this situation, I would first ask the husband whether he was a believer at the time of his divorce. Then I would ask about the circumstances of the divorce to determine whether it indeed was biblical or unbiblical, and then find out whether he was the offending or offended party — i.e., did he pursue this unbiblical divorce or did his wife? If he was a professing believer at the time, what role did his elders play in the matter? Did he follow their counsel?

      After understanding all of that, if it was determined that he was at fault in some way for this divorce, I would ask him if he realizes that, and has confessed and repented of that before the Lord. If he doesn’t understand why there’s a problem or why he would have needed to repent, I’d want to work with him on that as a precursor to the membership process. In times where I’ve had to do this very thing, I’ve been blessed to have such a person grow in their understanding of Scripture’s teaching on divorce and get to a place of repentance. In that case, we would proceed with their membership. In reality, what matters now is that there has been a second marriage is that the vows of that covenant be upheld, and that he be faithful to his current wife and she to him.

      So, to summarize, I would want to make sure the couple understands why the unbiblical divorce was unbiblical (if indeed it was), and as long as that’s the case and there has been repentance, it should be no obstacle to membership. Depending on whether it happened pre- or post-conversion could bear on his fitness for holding office (i.e., serving as a deacon or elder), but it shouldn’t be a barrier for membership.

      Hope that helps.

      • Vinod Anand S

        That was very clear. Thanks, Mike!

    • And I’m Cute, Too

      Dear Vinod,

      Pardon my asking, but what exactly do you mean by an “unbiblical” divorce? I wonder because I’ve heard that accusation made against people who have divorced in order to escape abusive spouses. In particular, one such case has made the news recently, and the church in question did nothing but add to the pain and distress of this woman.

      Were you speaking hypothetically in your comment, or did you have an actual couple and church in mind?

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