our community group prayer time recently, I spoke to Jaimie in a way that demonstrated a lack of trust in her. I quickly apologized after the meeting ended, but the damage was done, and everyone saw it. Later that evening, one of the other young men in our group wrote me a concerned message confronting me for the way I had spoken to my wife. It was a humbling experience, to say the least – but also a beautiful picture of Christian community.
The next week, after I shared this same story with our community group, another member of the group commented to me privately how gutsy that confrontation had been – and so it was. It required a good deal of courage, and accordingly I held my friend up as an example for the rest of the group to emulate.
But the truth is that it shouldn't have been a particularly gutsy move to follow up with me like that. When one Christian confronting another about his sin is notably courageous, something has gone horribly wrong.
Slaves to our culture
This generation of Christians is more concerned about the possibility of hurting people's feelings than about the danger of sin. Christians are just following the trend here; our culture has a deep aversion to conflict and finds judgment abhorrent.
As accommodations to postmodern sensibilities go, this one has been sufficiently unobtrusive as to mostly slip under the radar. Unlike the many blatant attacks levied on the categories of truth and ethics, almost no one has directly argued for a church culture where sin goes unchallenged. It simply happened – an insidious, cancerous result of failing to evaluate our culture's values. We have made real sin a small thing and put in its place that great crime of our age: offending someone.
The sad result: most Christians now attend churches where their sins will never be confronted at all (unless – perhaps – if their sins are sexual in nature).
After all, in my own, relatively healthy church, it really was a brave move for my friend to urge me to repent of my sin toward my wife. How will people grow out of their sin if no one ever helps them?
The result of our silence in the face of sin is an awful stagnation. People cannot grow in holiness when they remain under the sway of sin. Further, none of us are perfectly aware of our own sins. We need other believers checking our blind spots. Unfortunately, if you dared to bring up someone's sin, you will inevitably hear, "Judge not, lest you be judged!"
That refrain is right, but most people shouting it completely miss the point. Look at Matthew 7:1-5 again, paying special attention to Jesus' conclusion:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”
When we actually read Jesus' words in full, his meaning becomes clear, and it couldn't be any further from an injunction against confrontation. Jesus simply calls us to deal with our own sin first so that we can confront our fellow Christians' sins appropriately and without becoming hypocrites. A host of other passages1 speak to this issue as well, most notably Matthew 18:15-20:
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. 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. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
If we take Jesus seriously (as I hope all our readers do), we should recognize that the confrontation should be neither rare nor considered particularly courageous in our churches. In fact, if we intend to shape our churches around Jesus' teaching, graciously confronting one another should be normative, one of the defining traits of the church.
Indeed, the whole process of church discipline should be a normal part of church life. Too many Christians hesitate to offer a strong critique, much less actual discipline, yet the New Testament clearly indicates that discipline is good for both the church and the individual being rebuked. Moreover, there is often no need for those final, painful steps if we faithfully confront each other early on, instead of letting sin go unchecked.
Loving One Another
Brothers and sisters, we need to recover a biblical vision of holy community.
When we are more likely to quarrel over the color of the carpet than to correct one another for quarreling, something has gone terribly wrong. When a kind and gracious rebuke to an obviously sinning brother (like me) has become a gutsy move, something has gone terribly wrong. When we cannot conceive of putting unrepentant sinners out of the church, despite Jesus' clear instruction to do just that, something has gone terribly wrong.
When we submit to Scripture's teaching in this area and love one another enough to call each other on the carpet – when we care deeply enough about one another's to fight against sin and grow in holiness together – we will see something beautiful. We will see a church that really does reflect Christ more perfectly every day.
1 See, for example, 1 Corinthians 5, Galatians 6:1-10, 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Titus 3:1-11, and James 5. For a more detailed discussion of Jesus' teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18, see PJ's treatment of the subject.