A healthy church is not one where offenses never take place but rather one in which offenses are dealt with Biblically. As we began to examine in our last study, Jesus Christ himself gave us very clear instruction as to how to deal with offenses in the church. The end goal of this process is that sin be forsaken, offenders be forgiven and relationships be reconciled. This is the ideal and is quite possible if both the offended party and the offender are sensitive to the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, the offended party will not respond with hate, resentment or unforgiveness but with loving compassion for his offender. He does not become embittered or build up walls of hostility but rather seeks to be reconciled as soon as possible. On the other hand, if the offending party is at all sensitive to the Spirit, he will be convicted of his sin and seek out the one they have offended in order to apologize and reconcile.
But what happens if somewhere in this process sin gets the advantage and reconciliation doesn’t happen? What if the offended one responds in bitterness and pride or the offender justifies his actions? Well, knowing that we are prone to sin and selfishness, Jesus also gave us instructions on how to deal with these cases. Jesus Christ desires that his bride (the church) be pure – free from sin and disunity. For this reason, he instructs us in how to purge sin from the church – either by men and women repenting of their sin and reconciling with one another. Or, in the worst case, by purging the hard-hearted rebel out of the church altogether.
Either way, Christ would have his church pure. It is our responsibility as church members to take heed to His instructions regarding sin and offense in the church. As a potential church member, it is very important for you to understand the role of forgiveness in your Christian life.
So, in our last study we considered some principles which might help us to forgive our offender without ever having to confront him. These principles are vital for every believer to incorporate into their thinking. That being said, there are times when we must confront our brother over sin and offenses. This is important to realize because at times we will be tempted to avoid confrontation out of fear, embarrassment or pride. Consider the following Biblical principles and how, at times we are obligated to approach our offending brother.
When We Must Approach Our Brother
Having seen when it might be better not to approach our brother when we are offended, let’s consider when we must approach our brother. Consider these principles:
The Principle of Protection
(Of others who are offended)
Psalms 82:3-4 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
When we are the only ones offended or sinned against, we are perfectly justified in forgiving the offending brother unilaterally. It is completely within our power to decide to suffer graciously and choose not to approach our brother. This is not the case when we observe others, especially weaker brothers, being sinned against. In these cases, God encourages us to protect the weaker brother.
Look up 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33
In the eighth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul addresses a situation within the church where spiritually immature brothers were being offended by stronger brothers. In this particular case, there were men who had come out of pagan religion and as a result were disturbed by other believers who dared to buy and eat meat that had first been offered to idols. The weaker brothers had been delivered from paganism and consequently their conscience told them that purchasing meat from the market (which had first been offered idols) was somehow a compromise of the faith.
Paul goes on to explain that these weaker brothers were wrong to believe that eating such meat was sinful. After all, there really are no such things as other gods or idols and all food is sanctified by God through prayer. Yet, Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians was that the stronger brothers (who understood that idols are nothing and therefore eating meat offered to them was not an issue), should be willing to limit their Christian liberty for the sake of others. That is, they should be willing to forgo eating meat offered to idols, not because it was wrong but because it was proving to be an offense to others who didn’t yet understand.
This passage offers a fundamental principle on Christian liberty and how to love our fellow believers. We should be driven, not by a desire to explore every facet of what our Christian liberty allows us to do, but rather to find ways to encourage and build up one another. When the exercise of our Christian liberty proves harmful to weaker brothers, we should be willing to limit that liberty – we should always be ready to trade liberty for love. The question of whether or not something is sinful is not the final question we should ask. Even beyond this, we should be concerned with whether or not something is helpful to the encouragement of others.
Paul heard that some in Corinth were flaunting their Christian liberty with no concern for the spiritual wellbeing of weaker brothers. In a move of protection over these weaker brothers, Paul approached the church with firm correction. Sometimes in the church we also must approach others in order to protect weaker believers.
Obviously, the controversy over meat offered to idols is not one we encounter in our modern church. Yet, the principle found above is universal and applicable to every church of every age. Can you think of modern circumstance where we might apply the principle of love over liberty? What is something that may not necessarily be sinful, but could prove to be unhelpful? When might we need to confront someone over the flaunting of their Christian liberty?
The Principle of Intervention
(In the life of the sinning brother)
1 Corinthians 5:4-5 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Sometimes it is important to confront a brother over his sin in order to prevent him from continuing down a path of personal destruction. The Corinthians had to make some severe judgments on behalf of this sinning brother but even this was for his own good. It is not helpful to ignore or avoid confrontation in the name of “keeping the peace”. Especially if it means allowing a brother to continue in a pattern of living that will be detrimental to him in the long run. In such a case, the loving thing to do is not to gloss over their sin but to encourage him to overcome it.
Approaching a fellow church member concerning their sin is not helpful unless it is clearly done from a position of loving, humble care. Before ever doing so you need to ask yourself whether or not you have the type of relationship with this person which allows you to have such a difficult conversation. How might a sinning brother react to your rebuke if you have not shown a pattern of love and care for them? How might this reaction be different if you have consistently shown love and concern for them?
The Principle of Purification
(Of the body of Christ)
1 Corinthians 5:6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
What Paul is saying is that this one man, having been permitted to continue in sin, could have a sinful influence on the entire church (Heb 12:15). Just as a little bit of yeast spreads and permeates the entire loaf of bread, sin also spreads in the church, thereby defiling the entire congregation. Paul told the church that they should not have been boasting but rather mourning over the sin in their midst (1 Cor 5:2).
When sinful or offensive activities are continuing in the church body, it is the church’s responsibility to approach the sinning brother and confront him over his sin. The purpose in confronting the brother is to protect his own spiritual wellbeing and to maintain purity in the church. (see Acts 5:1-11 for a striking example of this).
The Principle of Reconciliation
(Of both you and the offender)
Another principle that we must consider when deciding whether or not we should approach our brother is that of reconciliation. Because God desires perfect unity in the body of Christ (Eph 4:2-3; John 17:21-23), we must seek to be reconciled to our brother whenever a relationship is harmed due to offenses (Matt 5:23-24; Matt 18:15).
Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
The idea here is that this man, while preparing to offer his sacrifice to God, remembers that he has, in some way, offended a brother in Christ. Once he remembers that he has caused an offense and that a fellow Christian has something against him, he should go and be reconciled to his brother and then come back and offer his sacrifice. This again emphasizes the fact that God is unreceptive to praise from Christians who refuse to reconcile with others. (Matt 6:14-15; Matt 18:21-35).
Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
Jesus said that mutual Christian love in the church would be clear evidence that we are his disciples (John 13:35). Consequently, he has placed a tremendous emphasis on unity and reconciliation in the church (1 Cor 1:10; Php 1:27; 2:1-2). If we have been offended, we should approach our brother, seeking reconciliation (Matt 18:15). If we have offended others, we should seek out our brother, seeking reconcilation (Matt 5:23-24). The desire for unity in the church and the desire to exhibit Christ-like love should motivate both brothers to reconcile with each other.
In review, so far we have seen that when we are offended we should Approach our Brother in Confidence. We learned that before we approach our brother we should consider the principles of Gracious Suffering, God’s Sovereignty and God’s Justice. We also learned that there are some principles that demand that we approach our brother; namely, The Principles of Protection, Intervention, Purification, and Reconciliation.
If we follow these principles and it results in the “gaining of our brother” than no other action is necessary. But, if our brother refuses to “hear us” and does not respond to our efforts at reconciliation or our confrontation of his sin, than Jesus gives us another step which we should follow. He tells us that we should approach this unresponsive brother “with counsel”.
Approach Your Brother with Counsel
There is no place for lingering animosity, unforgiveness, bitterness or any other sin within the church. For this reason, Christ has given us clear instructions regarding how to deal with such things when they arise. If the church were to obey Christ’s commands as given in Matthew 18, such sinful attitudes would be consistently purged from the congregation. Either through repentance, or in the worst case scenario, through the removal of a hard-hearted rebel from the church. Whatever the case may be, the end result is the same – the church emerges in purity. And so, what if a sinning brother does not repent of his sin and does not respond to an appeal for reconciliation? Christ and His church are not powerless in such situations. This next step in Matthew 18 is often referred to as church discipline.
Matthew 18:16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Here we are told that we should tell our situation to one or two other Christians who can act as objective witnesses (“that…every charge may be established”). These men or women can act as mediators or judges. They can view the conflict with fresh eyes and help to determine whether there has been a misunderstanding or a legitimate offense.
1 Corinthians 6:5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,
Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.
The use of two or three witnesses is a biblical principle stretching all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy. If the situation with our sinning brother is to rise to the level where the church body becomes involved these witnesses can serve as confirmation of the offense. They also serve as witnesses to the sinning brother’s willful rebellion and refusal to be reconciled.
If approaching our brother privately has failed and we must avail ourselves to this second step, we should be sure that our motivations are pure and that we are not involving others for the sake of justification, or because we are looking for people to take up our offense. Our motivation should be a sincere desire to be reconciled to our brother, to keep the church pure, or to intervene in the life a sinning brother for his spiritual wellbeing. The best practice would be to seek the elders of the church or others who have a reputation of godliness.
Jesus goes on to give us yet another step in this procedure. If our brother refuses to hear us privately and refuses to hear the Godly witnesses which we have involved, then we are to approach our brother as a congregation.