How to Handle a Sinner, Part 2

Reconciliation Statue
Reconciliation Statue, placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, England, bombed by the Nazis in World War II.

Being emotionally and/or spiritually wounded by another downright hurts. So, what do we do when it happens? Gratefully, Jesus provided some clear teaching on how to handle a victimizing person. (Matthew 18:15-20)

In part one, we considered the initial step to be taken when a person has been offensive and brought damage to another and/or the community. In their straying from the law of love, we are to respond by speaking to the person privately, to attempt a one-on-one reconciliation and restoration. This effort may be repeated several times over.

These next two steps are only to be undertaken when it has become evident that the person’s intransigence about hurting others will not budge.

The Second Step – Take One or Two Others (Matthew 18:16).

Reconciliation Statue Berlin
Statue outside of the Church of Reconciliation in Berlin, Germany.

“If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” –Jesus

The idea here is not to get a few buddies together who agree with our assessment. Rather, we seek others who know the person and can provide loving and objective help. This upholds the ethics of the Old Testament:

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

When a person fails to respond to reproof privately, then others need to get involved so that there is not a situation of “he said, she said.”  The witnesses are to help establish the nature of the problem. This is purposely meant to be a rather drawn out process because the goal is restoration. We are to give the person every chance to respond to correction.  People need to be given the grace of time to be effectively wooed back to the flock.

The Third Step – Tell It to the Church (Matthew 18:17-18).

Reconciliation Statue Hiroshima
Reconciliation Statue in Hiroshima, Japan

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” –Jesus

If the person ignores the group of witnesses, the group is to report the problem to the church. If the person still refuses to listen, then the person is to be treated like “a pagan or tax collector,” that is, the person is to be excommunicated and treated as though they are an unbeliever who has different needs. Jesus did not mean that we never talk to the person again. It is just the opposite: We communicate to them the need for grace just as we would to anyone.

The sixteenth-century Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, took up this this matter (Question and Answer 85):

Q: How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?

            A: According to the command of Christ:

Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and after repeated and loving counsel refuse to abandon their errors and wickedness, and after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, fail to respond also to their admonition – such persons the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from them, and God himself excludes them from the kingdom of Christ.  Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.

This approach is also germane with groups of people, churches, or Christian organizations. In the last century, churches around the world ostracized the South African Dutch Reformed Church for their refusal to bend concerning their racism and stance on apartheid.  Restoration did occur.  Not only that, but the Belhar Confession was eventually crafted from this church, a document which stands as a thorough biblical stand against structural racism and racist actions.

The Power of the Small Group (Matthew 18:19-20).

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Jesus

Jesus reiterated his point about binding and loosing; opening and closing; banning and forgiving. One of the great Reformation teachings is the priesthood of all believers.  The beauty of this is that we may confess our sins to one another in a close, intimate setting so that the steps do not need be done. Small gatherings of believers coming together to confess sin and pray together is the most powerful setting there is.  If we neglect this, we are missing out on the power of God.

Conclusion

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons to him. “I am too old to work anymore,” he said. “I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends.”

When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then, one day there was an argument between the two brothers, and they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, not a word was spoken between them.

One day, one of the brothers was at his house when a carpenter came to his door and said, “I would like to do some work. Do you have any work that I can do?” The brother thought for a moment and then replied, “I would like for you to build a fence on my property. Build it down near the stream that separates my farm from my brother’s. I do not want to see my brother and I would like for you to build a high fence there. I am going into town and I will return this evening.

Bridge over stream

When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence he built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side. His brother said, “After all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can’t believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back.” He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.

The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. “Can you stay?” he asked. “I have more work for you to do.” The carpenter answered, “I’m sorry but I can’t stay. I have to go, for I have many other bridges to build.”

Sometimes you and I have hurts and wounds from our brothers and sisters in Christ. When that happens, we often build a fence between ourselves and them. We stop talking to them. We do not want to see them. We do not want to be around them. However, Jesus wants something different. Instead of fences, he wants us to build a bridge of love.  He wants us to connect and work it out.

RCA Worship Service

Hello, friends! As an ordained Minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) I am pleased that we can virtually worship together as both denominational friends, and with brothers and sisters from all places.

The preamble of the RCA’s Book of Church Order states that the purpose of the denomination “together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works.”

May we all be built up in our common faith and life together today as God’s people. Simply click the video below and let us worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will bless you and be kind to you! May God bless you with his love, and may the Holy Spirit join all your hearts together. Amen.

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.

Revelation 3:1-6 – Remember

Sardis
Ruins from the ancient city of Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, in present day western Turkey.

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (NIV)

When Christians think of biblical epistles (letters) to churches, the Apostle Paul might immediately come to mind. Yet, contained within the first three chapters of Revelation are seven succinct letters to seven different churches.  What makes these short bursts of exhortation so powerful is that they come from Jesus himself.  Yes, that Jesus – the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church.  So, it seems to me that Christ’s observations about the church carry more weight than anybody else’s thoughts.

And the thoughts of Christ were about how far the church was from completing the work of God. So, Jesus gave a pointed admonition, almost like a parent trying to awaken a teenager in the morning. “Wake up!” said Jesus because he found the church’s obedience incomplete and lacking strength. If this were the Apostle Paul talking, he would likely have framed it this way: “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Our Lord went directly to the heart of the church’s life… that is, death.  The stark reality is that these statements from Jesus remain penetrating and relevant for today’s church. So, what is to be done about the situation of spiritual death and dryness in the church?  Jesus did not leave the church hanging but in a few compact words let them know exactly what they are to do to remedy their spiritual malady: Remember. Obey. Repent.

The Seven Churches of Asia - York Minster
The Seven Churches of Asia, stained glass window in York Minster, England.

Sometimes, if not many times, we may tend to forget the things we need to remember and remember the things we are to forget. We are to follow God in his pattern of remembering and forgetting. God has said:

I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done. (Isaiah 43:25, CEV)

I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Jeremiah 31:34, CEB)

I will forget their sins and never again remember the evil they have done. (Hebrews 10:17, ERV)

When it comes to those who have wronged us, we are to emulate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness through forgiveness. To “forget” does not mean performing a personal lobotomy but simply not to hold an offense against another by continually bringing it to mind. On the other hand, God remembers his promises to his people. Likewise, we are to constantly bear in mind what God has put before us to remember:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, NRSV)

We are to have an abiding remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the very person who spoke to the church hundreds of years ago. It is in those times when we become distressed that we must center our memory on Christ:

We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. (Hebrews 12:2, GW)

Remembering Jesus Christ sets us on the path to fulfilling the work of God and completing that which has been given us to do. This is precisely why I choose to follow the Church Year and remember time by having it centered around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Always think about Jesus Christ. He was brought back to life and is a descendant of David. This is the Good News that I tell others. (2 Timothy 2:8, GW)

I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Let us remember together in prayer:

Awesome Lord Jesus, your words penetrate to the core my being.  Strengthen me by the continuing presence of yourself through the Holy Spirit so that my every thought, word, and deed is done in your holy Name. Kindle in my heart a vision of your love and shine the light of your victory over sin, death, and hell over this dark world. Continually take me to yourself; keep me in your wounds and mindful of your presence so that I shall fulfill all the will of God for my life through your divine enabling. Amen.