In 2007, pollster George Barna reported that while faith plays a role in the moral lives of Christians, the role is smaller than what might be assumed. For example, after studying fifteen moral behaviors, Barna concluded that Christians were “statistically indistinguishable” from their non-Christian cohorts. (The exception is the 9 percent of born-again Christians that embrace a biblical worldview.*) Among the behaviors evaluated were lying, gossiping, substance abuse, and extramarital sex.
And this is not a recent observation: In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi concluded, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians”; in the 19th century, the famous existentialist Frederick Nietzsche quipped, “I would believe in Christianity if I saw more Christ in Christians”; and in the 1st century, the apostle Paul upbraided the early church for succumbing to the moral rhythms of the Greco-Roman culture.
Stunningly, little more than a generation after Pentecost, the Corinthian church’s attitude toward sin had become so complacent that an open and egregious form of sexual immorality went unchallenged by the church leadership.
Then, as now, the church was not giving off an aroma intended to draw people to the “Bread of Life.” Yet Paul’s handling of the situation in his time holds valuable lessons for the church today.
Upon learning about an unaddressed sin in the church at Corinth, Paul called for the immediate expulsion of the unrepentant party. He went on to say that open sin among the brethren was not to be tolerated, such that believers were not even to associate with professed brothers who are unrepentant. He then closed his counsel with the accusing question, “Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?”
Judge? But didn’t Jesus warn us against judging others?
Few Bible passages have been as misunderstood and proof-texted as Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” In the context of the full passage, Jesus was not prohibiting our judgment of others, but rather he was providing the prerequisite: Before turning the moral spotlight on our neighbor, we must shine it on ourselves and address our own moral failings honestly and biblically.
But how do we judge? Since sin a disease of the heart, how can we discern the moral state of others?
Our brother’s keeper
While it is true that we can’t probe the thoughts and attitudes of our neighbors, we can determine whether their behaviors align with those prescribed in the Bible. In fact, later in Matthew 7, Jesus tells his disciples that “fruits” are reliable indicators of one’s spiritual condition. That the “fruits” Jesus refers to are physical rather than the spiritual ones that Paul associates with true Christian character is clear from the end of the passage: “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Not only does Jesus not prohibit us from judging others, he expects us to do so: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Yet how can we know that our brother has sinned, much less rebuke him, unless we’ve made a moral judgment?
The preconditions are that we know the standards of moral conduct set down in Scripture, we have taken stock of our own spiritual state against those standards, and we have addressed them through confession and repentance.
But wait! Didn’t Jesus say that he who is without sin should cast the first stone? Yes, but the question to be asked is “What did he mean?” Since no one is without sin, that statement, on its face, would go against the balance of his teaching that, contrary to Cain’s slack-jawed response to a probing God, we are our brother’s keeper.
Importantly, the crowd that Jesus challenged was not intent on rebuking a sinner or restoring her, but on executing her and trapping Jesus in a Pharisaical sting operation. Jesus’ response was ingeniously crafted to show grace to the woman while making her accusers consider their own moral failings. His actions also serve to show why we judge others.
The Christian virtue of love calls us to seek the highest good of others to the point of self-sacrifice. Thus, rebuking others for the purpose of condemnation, embarrassment, or to gain a heightened sense of our own moral standing is not love. Neither is it love to take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to our Christian brothers and sisters.
Rather, real love is found in the ministry of Jesus, whose concern for people moved Him to probe and ask leading questions, to the point of meddling and intruding. His purpose was not to condemn, but to prompt sinners to spiritual introspection and repentance so that they could be restored to right fellowship with Him. Paul challenged the church to follow Jesus’s example, urging “spiritual” members to restore those “caught in a sin.” Paul's counsel to the Corinthians was intended for the ultimate restoration of the unrepentant sinner, “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
To restore wayward members, spiritual members must be in submission to the authority of the church, spiritually accountable to its leadership and membership. They must be open, honest and teachable, as ready to accept spiritual counsel as give it. In their genuine concern for the well-being of the Body, they must be in tune with its “vital signs” against the health measures of Scripture. If an indicator appears suspect, they are duty-bound to approach the affected party ot parties, in an attitude of grace and love, for follow-up. If a “get-well” plan is called for, they work with them to develop one.
Every plan to restore a sinner will include four things: 1) personal acknowledgement of the sin, 2) confession to God, 3) the petition for forgiveness, and 4) repentance -- the heart-felt commitment to cease the sinful behavior and change the attitudes that enabled it.
If the sin is against another person through offenses like lying, cheating, stealing, or slander, the plan for restoration must also include: 1) confessing the offense to the one offended, 2) asking his or her forgiveness, and 3) attempting restitution.
For offenses involving property, the principles of restitution are put forward in Exodus 22:1-15 and Leviticus 6:1-7. In the New Testament these are reflected in the story of Zacchaeus who, after his encounter with Jesus, committed to restore fourfold to anyone he had cheated as a tax collector.
In keeping with the Christian virtue of love, such actions would not be restricted to property issues. In fact, the more general principle is contained in Numbers 5:5-7: "When a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the LORD, that person is guilty and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the person he has wronged."
In cases where an individual is aware that an offense has been committed against him and knows who the offending party is, Matthew 18 calls for him to confront the offender concerning his offense. Notwithstanding, whatever the offended brother does or does not do, the offending brother is not relieved of his duty to reconcile and make amends. That is implicit in Jesus' instruction that if there is anything between you and your brother, you need to make it right before approaching the altar. Regardless of who is guilty or who takes the first step, Jesus’ expectation is for reconciliation.
In all cases, genuine repentance is accompanied by the conviction of the need to redress wrongs; or, stated conversely, without the attempt to recompense those wronged, there is no true repentance.
In his "Eight Steps to Biblical Forgiveness," Bill Fields of PeaceMakers calls for "the OFFENDER [to] confess specifically to the OFFENDED what was done or said wrong that caused offense" and to "identify the biblical principle(s) he violated." In Step Eight, "the OFFENDER recognizes what impact and consequences his sin has caused the OFFENDED, and is more than willing to do all he can to give back more than his sin cost the OFFENDED." (Caps in the original.)
Take gossip, a sin that most of us succumb to at some point in our Christian life. Operating in the shadows of the church, gossip is used to spread our discontentment with others to our social network. Fueled by a little rumor, hearsay, and innuendo, a minor human failing becomes a major pathological flaw that those in our inner circle must know, for their own good. It’s important that they know what we “know” and that they know we’re thinking about them.
Yet, rarely does gossip reflect the true picture of our neighbor; and never does it accomplish reconciliation or restoration. In fact, it accomplishes just the opposite: isolation and alienation.
When convicted of the sin of gossip, the offender should not only confess his offense to God and his neighbor, asking their forgiveness, but he also should attempt to recompense his neighbor by admitting his fault to those he involved in gossip, especially clearing up any misinformation shared.
If the church is ever to be distinguished from the ambient culture, it cannot ignore or be complacent about sin within its walls. Unless pastors, leaders and every member are committed to address sin in the ranks openly, honestly and biblically, the “aroma” of the church will remain something between flat and fetid.
*For the purposes of polling, George Barna defines “biblical worldview” as “believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.