September 16, 2022
Recently, we have seen a wave of exposures involving several high-profile leadership sin scandals (Bill Hybels, Gordon McDonald, Jerry Falwell Jr, Ravi Zacharias, Brian Houston, Carl Lentz, Matt Chandler etc.). There have also been countless other sin scandals in smaller, relatively unknown local church environments (See report released on the Southern Baptist Scandals in May of 2022 revealing over 700 cases of hidden abuse). Over my 43 years of following Jesus, I have seen these things come in waves, almost as if it is a season Jesus is purifying His house of hidden things. Peter identifies this type of season as he describes judgment beginning with God’s house.
- 1 Peter 4:15-17 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; (16) but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (17) For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.
Sin scandals in the church, especially ones ignored or mishandled, can have devastating consequences, both among the people harmed by them and tarnishing the testimony of Jesus through His family, the church.
With the continual deterioration of culture in which people, including many “Christians,” embrace lifestyles and behaviors that swing further and further away from God’s design, how do we approach them when they are revealed? I am not talking about personal preference behaviors, but those that God identifies as sin. Does the local church have any responsibility in dealing with them?
Responsibly Dealing with Sin, According To God’s Word, Is Essential.
We know the church should be a place of love, forgiveness, acceptance, and grace. That doesn’t mean that we ignore sinful actions that arise and cause harm and abuse. As we shall see later, there is quite a bit of Biblical instruction about dealing with sinful actions that affect others.
God’s people participate in various organizations in their everyday life, such as family, work, civic organizations, schools, and charitable organizations. In every one of them, membership standards ensure that the organization carries out the purpose for which it exists. Those standards are essential for the organization’s direction and continued purpose. They have to oppose things that would derail it. The same is true for God’s house, the church.
One of the most significant misunderstandings about dealing with sin is the idea of love. Doesn’t love mean that the church shouldn’t do anything about sin but forgive it? Some passages of scripture that many take to mean that we don’t do anything about sin are the earlier verses in 1 Peter 4.
- 1 Peter 4:8 Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
Simply covering up all sin isn’t what Peter was getting at because a few verses later (as we saw in verse 15), he speaks of “judgment beginning at the house of God,” warning people not to suffer as “a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler.”
Love that “covers a multitude of sins” speaks of our ongoing relationship with others in which their sinful imperfections are endured and overcome as we extend love to them (“patience, kindness, not taking into account wrongs suffered,” etc). Some sins significantly harm others, break laws, and result in abuse, which must be addressed.
I once read a great perspective on church discipline by John Ortberg,
“Maybe the most fundamental dynamic in church discipline is also the simplest: Sin happens. It happens in big churches; it happens in little churches. It probably happens at roughly the same per capita rate, no matter what the congregation’s size. It should sadden everyone, but it shouldn’t shock anyone. So, the question is not how to respond IF it happens. The question is how to respond WHEN it happens.” The Bible is very clear, continual or serious sin is not to be ignored but addressed. While “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) it doesn’t ignore them or cover them up. Sometimes it seems larger churches are worse about it than smaller ones, probably to protect their greater influence. Either way, it is wrong.”
Over the years, I have been shocked at how God’s people are surprised by discipline in the church. It is almost like a foreign concept. Because of this, there are devastating consequences. Without God’s design for loving discipline, the beautiful “city of God” will become an ugly ghetto of sin, and many will be harmed.
A Real-Life Example
I faced the impact of the neglect of discipline with one of my relatives years ago who had begun to follow Jesus. He had a neighbor who was married with three children. They were good friends, and he had influenced my relative to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, the wife caught the husband in an ongoing affair. My relative appealed to the neighbor, but he refused to break off the affair. He later moved out from his family and in with his new girlfriend. All the time, he was still attending the same church.
Nothing was ever addressed by the church or its leaders. Now the ex-wife and children sat Sunday after Sunday in the same church service with their dad and his new girlfriend.
My relative, new to Christ and His church, saw the effects and thought something should be done. He approached one of the board members with his concerns and belief that it should be addressed. The board member responded, “There is nothing we can do about it. If we deal with his sin, we would have to deal with a bunch of other people about their sin as well and that would cause great problems here.” Wow, anyone would know there is something seriously wrong with that response.
Discipline isn’t inconsistent with God’s love, but a lack of discipline is. Hebrews 12:6 “Because the Lord disciplines everyone he loves, and corrects everyone he accepts as a child.”
The Bible Instructs Us in Dealing with Unrepentant sin in the church
Jesus speaks quite a bit in the New Testament about how to handle sin among God’s people. We see it on a personal level in Matthew 5 and 18. There are also twenty-eight other passages in the New Testament that show how to address the effects of unrepentant sin. Together, these passages can be categorized into six approaches, CHALLENGING, EXPOSING, AVOIDING or restricting the unrepentant sinner’s involvement with others, REMOVAL from the congregation (Mt 18:15-17), and RESTORATION of the repentant one (2 Corinthians 2:7). What is the essential goal of those passages? The main goal is to see the one in sin repent and be delivered while at the same time preventing or healing the effects of their sin.
Dealing with the effects of sin is much like someone kicking over a can of paint. We want to close the can (stop the sin) and help clean up the effects of the spilled paint. God says that His people are often “destroyed because of a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Here is the link to the systematic study of church discipline, including the 30 passages that give us instruction to help us gain God’s perspective of discipline. May God help us overcome, not cover up, the effects of sin so we can demonstrate to the world God’s better alternative.
You can view and/or download a copy of this study at: https://www.covenant-harvest.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Systematic-Study-Church-Discipline-Challenge-Restrict-Avoid-Remove-or-Restore-1.pdf
You can view the recently released report on the Southern Baptist investigation at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/22031737-final-guidepost-solutions-independent-investigation-report
FREE VIDEO SERIES FOR PERSONAL STUDY OR SMALL GROUPS: Pursuing a Culture of Discipleship.
Previous Editions “Equipping Thoughts for Leaders”
Church Discipline Covering sin without Covering it up 09-15-22
How to Walk in God’s Designed Place for a Leader’s Health and Calling 07-20-22
How God Develops Integrity and Authenticity in Leaders 6-01-22
Six Essential Steps in Overcoming Disappointments with People 04-22-22
How to Avoid the Dangerous Drive for Success 03-23-22
Business and Church Models of Leadership Not always the same 03-01-22
Leaders pursuing a Spiritually Healthy Life in the New Year 02-08-22
Avoiding a scheme of the enemy against leaders 02-09-22
Six questions to ask about vision in the new year 01-05-22
How to lead God’s people into empathy during this time of crisis 06-09-20
Helping God’s People Exit the Crazy Train of Conspiracies 11-19-21
7 Important Truths to Help God’s People Avoid Political Polarization 1-28-2020