We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?
The church understands itself to be forgiven and in the process of being transformed. But it is still a company of sinners. Martin Luther’s description of the Christian as being “simultaneously justified and a sinner” is an admission that although Christians have been forgiven and declared righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ, we still struggle with the sinful nature. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for admittance to the church (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). What is more, when Jesus spoke about relationships in the church, He seemed to describe sin between believers as a probability when He commanded: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15).
The practice Jesus describes in this verse doesn’t fit the image many of us have of Christ. The contemporary church favors an uncritical and accepting Jesus. This popular Jesus doesn’t point fingers but stands with arms wide, ready to welcome everyone as they are without expecting either remorse or change. Rather than urging us to point out our brother’s fault, we would expect Him to say that we should let it slide.
Christ’s command to point out a brother’s fault is a hard pill to swallow in an age that regards amiability to be the chief of all Christian virtues. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “expel the wicked” seems incomprehensible to those who are persuaded that the church’s primary mission is to be a place where people feel comfortable and accepted. We are further confused when we read that with one breath, Jesus counseled His followers to confront those who sin, and then with the other, told them to forgive the same person repeatedly (Matt. 18:22). We tend to see these two responses as mutually exclusive.
According to Jesus accountability and mercy are not opposed to one another. These two obligations do not contradict each other, nor does one cancel the other out. Confrontation is its own kind of mercy because its ultimate aim is not to punish Christians for their sin but to loose them from its grip.
Although the vocabulary of confrontation that Jesus uses is drawn from the courtroom, He speaks of reproof more than prosecution. The aim is not revenge or even necessarily justice but restoration of the offender. Yet, the conditional language that Jesus uses to make His point implies both the possibility of failure and the probability of resistance. “If they listen to you, you have won them over,” Jesus says in v. 16. We must win over the offender before there can be any hope of reconciliation, and they might just reject our reproof.
The likelihood that our attempts will initially meet with resistance suggests that the scenario Jesus outlines is not a simple three-step procedure. We do not approach the person once and then immediately move on to stages two and three until we eject them from the church. Many private appeals may take place before one decides to move to stage two. Furthermore, every step provides an opportunity to reevaluate. Is the issue serious enough to take things further? Or should we merely absorb the offense and “bear with” the person?
The truth is that many of the things that bother us about others never even rise to the level of stage one. They may be the result of a moment’s thoughtlessness or perhaps the person’s immaturity. Most of the time, they are not even sins in the technical sense but merely irritations that we must tolerate with grace and patience.
What raises a matter to the level that it compels us to heed Jesus’ command to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17)? It isn’t necessarily the level of outrage we feel or even the fact that we have been wronged by someone. The gravity of the sin is one obvious factor. When the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to expel someone from their fellowship, it was because the sin he was committing was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in following his example is that our standards have sunk so low that we have begun to wonder whether any sin warrants such a response from the church. The gap between what pagans tolerate and what the church accepts has closed. Church discipline itself has come to be seen as, if not a sin, then at least a form of spiritual abuse.
The confrontation that Jesus prescribes for the church isn’t only for the benefit of the person who has sinned against us. Church discipline has a reflexive effect as well. Jesus warns those who intend to confront others to scrutinize themselves first and remove the plank from their own eye before they try to remove the speck from their brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5). We usually think that our reluctance to confront those who have sinned against us springs from a fear of how others will react. But theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that we are just as liable to be afraid of how it might affect us. “Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront,” Hauerwas observes. “The process of confrontation means that we may well discover that we have been mistaken about being wronged.”
Even if the erring sister or brother repents, we may find that we are unwilling to reconcile with them. “I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate,” Hauerwas explains. “It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?”
What is it that separates the church’s execution of this kind of discipline from bullying and spite? Self-interest and revenge often clothe themselves in the garments of righteousness. How can we tell whether our aim is to win over an erring brother or sister or to exact revenge? The presence of grief is one indicator that we are not acting out of our own selfish interests. If we take pleasure in confrontation, we can be certain that we are motivated by the wrong kind of spirit. Church discipline should always be exercised with a measure of reluctance (1 Cor. 5:2; 7:7–11). Careful forethought is another characteristic. No church should be in a hurry to expel someone from their fellowship.
Jesus’ command is a stark reminder that grace has a prickly side. To comply we need to submit ourselves to the same light of truth that we must shine on others. That light will change our view so that we can no longer approach the offender from the moral high ground but must come to them as a companion and peer. And even if things go badly and we find that we must treat the offender like an outsider, we do so in the hope that we will once more be able to call them friend.