Are you Fighting Sin, or God?
This post is the second of two posts on the subject of how Christian “culture” can be infected with screwball values. In part one I described how Christians accept poor listening as normal, without realizing the seriousness of the spiritual issues involved in allowing poor listening to be the norm in church life.
Here I wish to discuss another but somewhat related matter: how we deal with sin in the church. Were I writing this post for a Western audience I would be eager to show how secular tolerance of sin has infected the church to the point where Christians often have no idea how to confront sin when it happens within the Body of Christ. Even worse, many churches and denominations have moved away from even calling some things sin. For the time being the Church in Russia does not have this kind of problem. If anything, it suffers from the opposite problem: a destructive approach to sin that not only tears people down but makes overcoming sin even less likely. Let me explain.
First is the question of what our job is in the face of sin. In the Old Testament the Law tells us what the standard is that we must uphold. Then Jesus comes along, and then Paul, the champion of grace, gives us a new way of looking at sin. On the one hand, keeping free of sin is even less possible than people thought had been the case under the Law. Jesus said, for example, that adultery happens with your eyes! Paul builds on this principle to show that we have all sinned and fall short of God’s standard of righteousness. The solution, he says, is not to try harder, but to accept that we are now, in Christ, a totally new creation. We can’t make ourselves good, or even better. We have been made the righteousness of Christ. We have not only been saved from sin, but we have been given a new nature. That nature is connected to Christ (we are one Spirit) and internally motivated towards godliness.
What do these truths imply for church life? If we think of people as though they are by nature rebels bent against God, then we will speak to them just this way. We will treat them as bad kids who need a spanking. If we assume a child is bad, then he will probably turn out that way. Of course we can all sin, but the question is whether sin is the essence of our nature – our new nature.
- It is no longer we who live, but Christ in us (Gal. 2:20).
- We died to sin (Rom. 6:2).
- Our old self was crucified with Him (Rom. 6:6).
- Our body of sin is done away with (made powerless) (Rom. 6:6).
- We are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6).
- We are no longer under the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2).
- Joined to the Lord, we are one Spirit with Him (1Cor. 6:17).
It is in this very context that Paul urges us not to sin, not because we must work hard to avoid it at all cost, at the risk of the wrath of God, but rather because that is our true nature. How this attitude should be applied in the Body is clear. We appeal to the best that is in a person, which is the Holy Spirit Himself, rather than fight against a defeated Enemy. We call out life from our brothers and sisters, rather than assume there is only death. We speak with hope and not exasperation. We assume that since the Spirit is alive in this person, God is working, rather than assume that nothing is happening, which is what many Christians do. I call these Christians “relational atheists.” What do I mean?
Ask yourself: How does it impact your relationships, considering that:
- you and the person with whom you are in conversation have a common Father (Eph. 4:6)?
- Jesus considered this person worthy of His sacrificial death (1Pet. 3:18)?
- the Holy Spirit gave you each different gifts and values for unique purposes (1Cor. 12:4)?
- the Holy Spirit is already active inside each person (Rom. 8:15)?
- Jesus the reconciler has called you to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:16)?
- the Father has entrusted each of us with the management of our lives (Mt. 25:14-30)?
Or are you a “relational atheist” who:
- assumes others are merely victims of circumstances and that God has given them insufficient resources to move forward?
- considers opposition a virtue?
- thinks yours is the only solution?
- sees only the problem and not God’s activity?
- wants to make sure that your insights get recognized?
Many Christians find it to be a badge of honor that they can discern evil. Even ungodly people can see evil in others without any advanced degree or spiritual gift. What is true maturity is the ability to discern the hand of God in someone’s life, especially when everything seems, on the surface, to be falling apart. The Bible has a lot to say about the problem of judgmentalism.
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is 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” (Mt. 7:1-5).
This verse does not merely mean that you should be innocent of the sin in question before you look at someone’s speck. Jesus is calling for us to have the self-awareness necessary to see our own weakness and to see how we could so easily be guilty of the same thing. In fact, what may be the most important, and yet almost universally overlooked point about this passage is that Jesus is saying that the key to helping a stumbling brother is our awareness of how God has delivered us from the very same thing. Such an awareness gives us two advantages in helping others:
- Humility. I have been there. I am no better than you.
- Wisdom. God has helped me. He can help you, even if a different way than for me.
“A fool’s anger is known at once, But a prudent man conceals dishonor” (Pr. 12:16).
You can know the fool by the fact that he is more interested in speaking openly of his “righteous indignation” than in solving a problem in private.
The New Testament has 36 places where the Holy Spirit is instructing the Body of Christ on how to relate “one to another”. Most of these admonitions tell us what to do (love one another, forgive one another, serve one another, etc.), while 6 verses specifically tell us what to avoid:
- Judging one another (Ro. 14:13)
- Challenging/Provoking one another (Gal. 5:26)
- Envying one another (Gal. 5:26)
- Lying to each other (Col. 3:9)
- Slandering one another (Jas. 4:11)
- Complaining about one another (Jas. 5:9)
Notice, and take heed, that all 6 of these prohibitions are most easily violated in the context of dealing with a supposed (or real) problem from a church member. Take slander, for example:
“He who conceals hatred has lying lips, And he who spreads slander is a fool” (Pr. 10:18).
In Hebrew writings of this sort, there is a parallelism between the first and second parts of this proverb. That is, they are the same thought repeated twice. In other words, lying lips spread slander, and a fool has hatred in his heart. In the context of church, it is not hard to think of examples of people who spread slander and call it “speaking the truth” or “calling someone out.” Slander is a form of underhanded/concealed hatred (malice) towards others. Rather than dealing with a concern directly, the fool attacks indirectly.
In our courses, starting with Real Talk, we teach that judging one another is never appropriate. Instead, we learn how to discern between behavior that we have agreed to speak about with each other and the condition of the heart, which is not readily visible. Many people have no idea that there is a critical distinction between what we can see (behavior) and what we can’t see (the heart) and so destroy relationships by a supposed zeal for righteousness. The problem is that 1) they probably never had a mutual agreement to speak about such things with the person they are judging, and 2) they probably haven’t considered that their insights about the other person’s heart may be flat wrong!
In our courses we learn to build the capacity and the trust to speak truth into each other’s lives with love.
Last comes the problem of what gets classified as sin and what your church’s policy is about it. The Bible had quite a big list itself in Old Testament times, and the Jewish leaders were so eager to protect people from even coming close to breaking any of them that they added a whole bunch more. Every church or denomination seems to have its own list of sins. Regardless of what your church’s list looks like, there is one thing every church can do to minimize conflict and relational pain. Implement this policy:
- Communicate clearly with your congregation about what kinds of behavior require church discipline. Some actions are so minor that they are just a matter of personal preference. Others are so important that the purity of the fellowship is at stake. The rest fall somewhere in between. The last thing you want is for people to feel ambushed because they did not know what your expectations were.
- Communicate clearly what church discipline looks like, as well as what it does not look like. The point is to assure your members that the process is not only biblical, but that it is also honoring, gentle, and aimed towards restoration and not punishment.
- Ask new members to specifically give their agreement to be held accountable to these standards. You may even want to write a “community covenant” to increase buy-in.
In our course “The King’s Community, we show how there are different levels of access that we might give to each other to speak into each others’ lives, and we build that capacity over time. We also write a community covenant together during our course “The King’s Treasure.” We also are available to consult with churches in difficult situations.