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.

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.

Genesis 45:1-15 – The Big Reveal

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let us gather together around the Word of God.

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

For the story of Joseph set to song, click Bend by Brandon Heath.

May the Lord bless you
    and keep you.
May the Lord smile down on you
    and show you his kindness.
May the Lord answer your prayers
    and give you peace. Amen.

Luke 15:1-7 – One Lost Sheep

The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep
“The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.” By Peter Clarke, 1969

A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They grumbled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their complaining triggered this story:

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. (MSG)

Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul found is the grounds for a big celestial party.  Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God himself is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found.

Celebration is an important activity for the Christian. God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected. Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God.  God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much to him that God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I can still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help.  But God, in his great mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked:  Can you live with that?  My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd.  Thank you for going after me when I was lost.  Help me to remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

Click Compassion Hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty to remember the lengths of love God went to in restoring us.