How to Handle a Sinner, Part 1

Christ teaching the disciples
A medieval portrait of Christ teaching his disciples.

We live in a fundamentally broken world.  It is filled with broken people. And broken people tend to hurt each other. None of us are immune.  What do you do when you are hurt?

Jesus had something to say on the subject (Matthew 18:15-20). It would be good to hear him out on it because all of us get hurt at some time or another and we need to know how to handle the offending person. We need to get this right. If we do not, the cycle of pain, hurt, damage, and brokenness gets perpetuated.

Just before Jesus offered some teaching on how to handle a sinner, he a parable about a lost sheep – communicating that he is not willing that any sheep should be lost to the sheepfold (Matthew 18:10-14). The teaching on dealing with a person who wounds us is simply the logical extension of the parable. That is, Jesus told us in clear terms what must be done to bring the straying sheep back into the fold.

When attempting to retrieve a wandering person, the tools of guilt, gossip, nagging, and punishment are not consistent with the gospel of grace. Standing at a distance and lobbing verbal grenades toward an erring person is not mentioned by Jesus as an acceptable means of proceeding with those who have caused us suffering.

Jesus offered a three-step process of gracious intervention and a compassionate confrontation with the aim to rescue and restore. Radical independence has no place in the Church.  Strays must be lovingly pursued, carefully rescued, and gently restored.  Anytime someone wanders from the Lord, they hurt another or a group of people, and that wayfaring sheep’s life gets worse. We are not to add to their misery by going to the extremes of either being obnoxiously passive-aggressive to get them to change, or simply ignoring the person altogether, doing nothing, and just hanging back and licking our own wounds.

What others call an “intervention” Christians call “church discipline.”  It seems to be rarely practiced today, which is one reason why we have growing legions of de-churched people. In this post, I focus on step one of this process, because nine out of ten times this first step takes care of the situation. A subsequent post shall deal with the second and third steps.

Cartoon Matthew 18

The First Step – One on One (Matthew 18:15). 

Here are several observations about this step:

  • Approach the person privately. We are never to confront an individual in a group, having not first talked to the offending person one on one. We do not start with step two because these are progressive steps.  Furthermore, we are to avoid what I call the “Middle School adolescent way” of confrontation by having someone else do it for you and report back.
  • Focus on the sin event. We are to show the person their fault, and not make a list of all the things the person has done wrong in the last ten years; or, talk about how terrible they are. We must stick to the offense.  What is more, confrontation is not to be done simply with something we do not like. A person’s individual idiosyncrasies or personality is just that, and we need to have the maturity to allow people to be who they are.
  • Be vigilant to avoid overreactions. Steer clear of accusing others of wrongdoing based in some disputable matter. Let us be sure to face the person about a clear sin which has been committed. On the contrary, if we tend to dodge conflict at all costs, we must watch for our own denial and rationalization by saying “it wasn’t so bad.” The health of the church, not to mention our own personal well-being, may very well require that we do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has affronted us.
  • Pay attention to the approach. The manner in which we oppose another person is critical. The bull-in-the-china-shop approach is nothing more than responding to a sin with another sin. For example, rather than saying, “You need to stop and get right with God or you’ll go to hell,” you could say instead, “When you did that I felt sad and upset because I need to be in a place that values love. Will you please stop this unloving action?” In other words, knee-jerk reactions rarely go over well. But well-placed words said in love and wisdom go a long way toward restoration.
  • Confront our brother or sister. No one is to be the self-appointed ethics Nazi for people outside the church.
  • Confrontation is commanded. If we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, this is not a matter which is open for debate on whether we do it or not. We are to take the attitude that I am my brother’s keeper.  I am not to let a person run rampant with their sin over myself or others. When we are abused and offended, we do not wait for the person to come to us. Even as the victim, we are to initiate the reconciliation and restoration. “Go” to the person, Jesus said. Face-to-face is the way, without reliance on email or voice mail.  It is to be a conversation, not a drive-by comment or accusation.
  • Confrontation is not negotiation. This is a matter of restoring a person who has sinned.  Having differing positions on certain issues in a church or Christian community is a matter for negotiating, not confronting.
  • Do it more than once. This first can (and should) be repeated many times over. The goal is restoration, not get-this-step-out-of-the-way-so-I-can-see-you-get-in-trouble attitude.

Jesus did not invent something new with his teaching but upheld and restated Old Testament ethics about our attitudes in reproving others:

Do not secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.” (Leviticus 19:17-18, MSG).

In most situations, this first step takes care of the issue and mends the problem with a genuinely restored relationship. If, however, this does not occur, yet other steps ought to be taken. These will be handled in the next post.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our heavenly Father, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit be with you, today and always. Amen.

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