How to handle sin within the church?

This Sunday, the lectionary will invite us to ponder our personal and communal responsibility for sin committed by others. The passage, Matthew 18:15-20, also teaches us about the onerous and blessed responsibilities of church leaders – do click now and read it.

Why does Jesus care about sin? What is sin anyway? Why did Jesus speak about personal, one-to-one sin? Why did Jesus speak only of church members? What about the sins of those who are not church members?

In the NIV[1], the first verse begins “If your brother sins, go and …” But most other versions begin as in the ESV[2]: “If your brother sins against you, go and …” The “you” is singular, addressed to one person. As also in verse 17. However, in verses 18-20, it’s plural, like the American “y’all.”

The word “sin,” which we use so freely, isn’t easy to define. If you look in a Bible dictionary, you’ll find a very long entry. This is how it begins in Baker’s:

“Sin is a riddle, a mystery, a reality that eludes definition and comprehension. Perhaps we most often think of sin as wrongdoing or transgression of God’s law. Sin includes a failure to do what is right. But sin also offends people; it is violence and lovelessness toward other people …”

So, when Jesus spoke the words in our passage, what sins did he have in mind?

It seems best to think of interpersonal wrongs. Things like taking or using something without permission; failing to deliver on a promise; telling a lie; using violence; being rude; behaving or speaking as if something were true or good despite disputes over it.

Why does Jesus care about interpersonal sin? Why did Jesus speak only of church members?

Jesus referred to the offended and the offender as brothers, siblings. Church members are people who call God “Father,” are children “born” into His family.[3]

In families, in gatherings, we almost always see children quarrelling with each other, and parents asking children to apologize and make amends. Outlines of sermons the apostles preached [4], and their letters, show that they spoke of the church as family.

Parents and children know that happy relationships are built upon agreements about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s offensive and what’s not. Confronting each other when we feel offended or hurt is how we grow together and explore rights and wrongs.

Jesus confined his remarks to church members because he expects the church to act like a family – with responsibility and authority, with peace-making mechanisms grounded in love. He said so explicitly:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[5]

The radicality of that statement becomes clear if we reverse it:

Interpersonal relationships between church members must be so good that parents could reference them as examples when correcting their children.

What about the sins of those who are not church members?

The simple answer is that Jesus speaks of the unchurched in other places. But there’s another answer. It’s in the previous paragraph: Jesus was teaching about the church as a showcase of best practices in interpersonal behaviour.

Such behaviour is only possible in a forgiving community, a community which lives under the cross, accepts Biblical teaching as a vital source in every effort to heal and build relationships, and accepts the authority of church leaders.

The process of restoring relations begins with responding to a perceived offence. It moves to saying to the offender/s, “you offended me,” and explaining why. The goal is dialogue, finding common ground, resolving the conflict. This involves admission, apology, making restitution, committing to behaviour change. Confidentiality is key.

If there’s no resolution, the offended person discusses it with at least one other, preferably two, persons. If they agree that there is indeed an offence, they should[6] bring the parties together to again seek reconciliation. Once more, confidentiality is expected.

If that too doesn’t produce the desired change, the “two or three” should escalate it to the leadership of the church. The church leaders may need to make an explicit statement to the offender/s, perhaps even to the whole church. But this should be a rare event, since it goes to the leaders only if the first two steps fail.

What does Jesus mean when he says we should treat the offender like a Gentile or tax collector?

“Gentile” today would be “non-Christian”[7] and “tax collector” could be “corrupt official.” This is not as harsh as it sounds. It’s just the language of that time. Eugene Peterson, in The Message translation, paraphrases it well: “start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

Moving on, what does “loosing and binding” mean? By this, Jesus means rules for our life together. Yes, there are rules. We live in a society which mocks, abhors rules. But being counter-cultural means accepting the need for rules.

Why? Because Jesus expects churches to make and enforce rules.[8]

Why? Because the decisions church leaders make, they make together, slowly, prayerfully. And God, the Three-Mile-an-Hour God – in theologian Kosuke Koyama’s compelling phrase – joins them in the decision-making. This is why I said at the outset that serving as a leader is a blessing, not just an onerous burden.

Every decision has a “victim.” Saying no to sleeveless tops and/or shorts for men or women causes some to be hot and sweaty (not an issue in our congregation). Saying no to street shoes in the church building makes some uncomfortable when using the toilets (not an issue for us either). You get the drift.

But we must face a painful reality. Often, church leaders have made bad rules. Think of patriarchy in the church, which denied women the office of pastor and bishop for centuries. Think of slave-holding church members. Think of Christians wresting children from aboriginal parents “for their own good.”

Some things must change. The question of “if not now, when?” is always appropriate. But the answer is seldom “just do it.”

Let’s be Christians. Let’s dare to speak about these things. In love.

Peace be with you.

[1] New International Version translation.

[2] English Standard Version translation.

[3] See John 1:12b; John 3:7b

[4] In the book of Acts.

[5] John 13:34-35.

[6] Some suggest the word “must” better represents Jesus’ intention. I prefer “should” because I think these are guidelines, not imperatives.

[7] The J B Phillips and Mounce translations uses the word “pagan.”

[8] Nowadays, when some Christian organizations invite people to participate in their meetings, they ask them to read and consent to various rules before enrolling them.

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