January 20, 2017

Drastic Measures: Protecting the Body from Spiritual Cancer

by Mike Riccardi

SurgeryLast week we began a series on dealing with sin in the church. 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 according to the instructions the Lord Jesus left us. And we turn to Paul’s directives in 2 Corinthians 2:5–11 to observe five stages of faithful and successful church discipline and restoration.

This week we come to that first stage, and that is the harmful sin that makes discipline necessary. This passage teaches us that all sin is harmful to the body of Christ. Paul says in verse 5: “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.”

Grace and Charity

Notice, first, the great pastoral sensitivity that Paul exhibits here. He speaks so vaguely about the offender and his sin that you almost have a hard time understanding what he’s talking about. He’s careful to avoid mentioning the man’s name; he only says, “If any has caused sorrow. . . .” That’s the most generic way to someone. Everyone in the church knew who this man was, and because of that I doubt anyone would have thought Paul uncouth to identify him by name, especially because he’s making an appeal on his behalf to forgive him and welcome him back. But he doesn’t.

And he doesn’t even use the term “sin,” though he’d be perfectly justified in doing so. He doesn’t speak of the nature of the offense; he doesn’t get into gory details. He simply says he’s “caused sorrow.” He says, “If any has caused sorrow.” Everyone knows full well that the man did cause sorrow! But Paul graciously downplays the severity of the issue. He even says, “. . . he has caused sorrow not to me, but . . . to all of you.” Now again, this man did cause Paul sorrow! He was the occasion for Paul’s spiritual children to rebel against their spiritual father (cf. 1 Cor 4:15). Paul left from that painful visit in Corinth, changed his travel plans and immediately went back to Ephesus, and he wrote a letter “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears” (2 Cor 2:4). And yet Paul refuses to take that offense personally.

This is such a Christlike example of grace and charity in the life of Paul. And it’s right for us to ask ourselves how we measure up against this example. In a real sense, Paul has this man by the throat. He had defied Paul to his face, flouted his authority, led his loved ones away from him. And now, all have turned against this man and have sided with Paul; his fate is entirely in Paul’s hands. Here’s the Apostle’s opportunity to really make this guy pay! He could have said, “I’ll teach that fool to cross me! Let him wallow in his sorrow and grief! God knows I’ve had my share of grief over this situation!” Does that sound like something you’d say? Or at least, something that you’d think?

Nothing could have been further from Paul’s mind. There was no self-pity; there was no wounded ego; there was no self-preservation or political retaliation; there was no bitter resentment or seeking of vengeance. He does everything he can to downplay his own hurt, and urges the church to deal with the offender objectively. And may God grant that His people would be possessed by such a spirit of humility that we are eager to forgive those who have trespassed against us. May we be the kind of Christ-like, Spirit-filled people who love from the heart—who are not provoked, who do not take into account a wrong suffered, and who bear, believe, hope, and endure all things (1 Cor 13:5, 7).

Sin Harms the Whole Body

But besides that wonderful example of grace and charity, notice that the first stage of discipline is harmful sin. Paul may downplay his hurt to whatever degree that he can, but doesn’t make light of sin. He says that that sin was more principally directed at the Corinthians as a whole. He says in verse 5, “But if anyone has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me,”—it’s not personal—“but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you.” And here we see more evidence of the essential interconnectedness of the body of Christ.  Sin’s harm is not restricted to the offender and the offended. It brings sorrow to the entire church.

We are all members of the body of Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” Just as the health of one member of my physical body affects the health of the other members, so also in the body of Christ. The spiritual health of the body as a whole depends on the spiritual health of each member. The presence of sin affects the entire body even if it’s only in one member.

Spiritual Cancer

Cancer CellsSome people scoff at the practice of church discipline. They say, “If you do that, you’re going to empty the church!” “You’re going to get sued!” “That’s not loving! That’s judgmental! I mean, to read somebody’s sin, publicly, before the whole church?!” The natural mind simply can’t understand why such drastic measures need to be taken. I saw a story about a teenage girl who was admitted to the hospital with an unknown ailment. She was very physically active, and was even preparing to earn her living by being involved in nautical sports. During her stay at the hospital, the doctors had discovered that she had cancer in her arm. And it was so advanced at this point that the only way to make sure that it didn’t spread to the rest of her body was to amputate her arm. As you can imagine, that was absolutely devastating to her, and, expectedly, she resisted it. She was hoping for chemotherapy, or surgery, or radiation—anything less drastic than amputation. But the disease was too advanced, and drastic measures were unavoidable. To allow the cancer to linger any further would have led to its spreading throughout her body, and would eventually kill her.

Unrepentant sin in the body of Christ is the same way. It’s a spiritual cancer that, if left unchecked, will infect the whole body until it destroys all spiritual life. And so if there is a member of the body of Christ that is infected with the cancer of unrepentant sin, and they refuse to do anything about it—they prefer another less drastic treatment—the church nevertheless needs to take the drastic but necessary action, and amputate. Paul said it in 1 Corinthians 5:6: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump.”

No Victimless Crimes

Dear Christian, none of us lives or dies to himself. We are part of the same body; if a member is sick, the body is sick. That means there is no such thing as merely personal sin. Some of you have your private sins that you’ve nursed and managed to keep in the dark, hidden away from your brothers and sisters in Christ and the light of the Word of God—sins that you think don’t harm anyone but yourself. “Victimless crimes,” the world calls them. Victimless crimes don’t exist in the church. Sin even against your own body—sin you’d say involves nobody else—involves everybody else, because if you’re a member of the body of Christ, you are vitally connected to all of your brothers and sisters, especially in your own local church. As Pastor MacArthur has often said, “A church is only as strong as its weakest member.”

And so when one of your brothers or sisters is faithful to come to you and to bring your sin to your attention, and to lovingly make you aware of the consequences, and to graciously call you to repentance, don’t tell them to mind their own business. In the truest sense, they are minding their own business. The spiritual health of the body of Christ is our business. Sin is so serious. And so it must be confronted and dealt with. We’ll look more into what that process looks like next week.

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.
  • Jason

    Lack of church discipline is a very common issue. I’ve experienced it far more often than overly aggressive discipline, though that seems like the only stories you’ll hear when someone brings this topic up.

    However, the truth that “every sin is a sin against all brothers and sisters” doesn’t seem to apply to church discipline. If every sin is against the whole church in this context, than the “against you” doesn’t make any sense and neither does the “between you and him alone”, because EVERY sin of a brother would automatically be one against you and every believer would be responsible to confront the person “alone”.

    The context seems to be more those sins that have specifically co-opted you into the situation and, therefore, those about which you must confront your brother personally regarding their fault.

    That’s not to say we should ignore the elephant in the room, during the course of fellowship, where sins come to light. We should be able to gently correct and encourage one another into godly living in those cases (and be grateful for that correction ourselves).

    In the case where someone who needs discipline is encouraged in this way it will likely become a Matthew 18 situation (John 3:20), but according to Matthew 18 we are only called to make a confrontation personal when it already *is* personal.

    • I think your comment is off-base for a couple of reasons.

      In the first place, I never said, “Every sin is a sin against all brothers and sisters,” as if I was saying that every sin of every believer is a personal offense against every other believer. I said that every sin of every believer affects every other believer, especially within a particular local church. And that’s simply incontrovertible from the texts that I’ve outlined above.

      Second, while it’s true that the majority of English translations keep the words “against you” in Matthew 18:15, there is some question as to whether it was original, since it’s present in some manuscripts and absent in others. The parallel in Luke 17:3 doesn’t have “against you” in the critical text, and the majority of contemporary translations don’t include it there (NAS, ESV, CSB, NIV, NET). I don’t know if we can say with certainty whether “against you” is original in Matthew 18:15, but it seems pretty solid to say that it’s not in Luke 17:3. So, Luke gives us Jesus’ instruction that if our brother sins we are to rebuke him, without limiting that exhortation to personal offenses against us.

      But even if we assume that “against you” is original in Matthew 18:15, it still wouldn’t follow that the only sins of my brother that I ought to confront are offenses my brother has committed against me personally. For example, if a number of believers are hanging out, and I notice that my brother is somewhat harsh or sharp in the way he communicated with his wife, and I recognize it to be somewhat of a pattern — in the sense that it doesn’t seem out of place for him, or that I’ve seen it happen before — I would be totally in line with Matthew 18:15 and Luke 17:3 to, at a later time when I can speak with him in private, to say, “Hey man, can I talk with you about something? You know, the other night I noticed that you were pretty sharp in the way you spoke to your wife. And I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but it’s not the first time I’ve noticed that. Are you and [name] doing OK?”

      My brother has not sinned against me personally, but against his wife. But precisely because sin in one part of the body does affect the entire body (i.e., the main point of this post), it’s a service to my brother and the church at large to speak with him about it, rather than let the cancer fester. The confrontation doesn’t have to be boorish or hostile; in fact, it mustn’t be: it must be gentle and loving, with a view to restoration (Gal 6:1). But I think we fall short of discharging our responsibility to say that, because that sin was not against me personally, I ought not to speak with my brother about it.

      So, it’s just not true that this doesn’t make sense of the instructions of Matthew 18:15. One, because every sin truly does have an effect on the entire body, just as cancer, localized in one part of the body, if not checked, will undermine the health of the entire body. (This fits with Paul saying the sin against him has caused sorrow to the entire Corinthian church.) Two, it doesn’t undermine the admonition to confront in private (i.e., “between you and him alone”), because even when the sin I’m addressing isn’t a personal offense against me, I can lovingly address that with a brother between him and me alone.

      • Jason

        “In the first place, I never said, “Every sin is a sin against all brothers and sisters,” as if I was saying that every sin of every believer is a personal offense against every other believer. I said that every sin of every believer affects every other believer, especially within a particular local church.”

        That’s what I was seeing as the disconnect between the reality that sin affects the whole body and the text covering church discipline, which seemed to be specifically speaking of what to do when someone sins against you.

        I didn’t know that some of that context may not have been in the originals. That would make it easier to connect the dots between our mandate in many places(such as Luke 17:3) to rebuke a brother that is sinning and this text.

        Like I said, I don’t advocate ignoring sin. I just saw what may be two different degrees of treatment in view.

        One being a sin that is directly harming other members (as you say, like a cancer that spreads) and may require intense treatment and even amputation.

        The other being sins that, for now, are primarily impacting the member in question which still require care because the member is less able to serve the body and because it could eventually become something that will harm the body, but the concern at this point is for the member but not yet the rest of the body.

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