“Approaching a Christian in Sin”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
As the elders here have requested, every year Clay and I preach at least one sermon on the process for withdrawing from a Christian who is living an ungodly life. Obviously, neither one of us has any problem with doing so. It’s part of the whole counsel of God, and our job as preachers is to declare it along with the rest.
However, I worry that across the brotherhood, sound teaching on withdrawal can lead us to unsound conclusions. We can infer first that God’s solution to the problem of unrighteousness in the church is withdrawal, and second that going to such Christians is the elders’ business and not ours.
Both of these conclusions are wrong. God does not want to see those brethren withdrawn from; He wants to see them repent and be restored. Second, He wants to see every single one of us involved in that restorative work.
Sad to say, it is all too rare for Christians to go to a brother who needs help. We don’t want to get involved in a messy situation, and we’re afraid of having a difficult conversation. Nonetheless, these things are part of our responsibility before God. To help us carry out this responsibility, let’s consider the example of the apostle Paul in approaching a Christian in sin.
As we analyze this issue, we’re going to be looking at 2 Corinthians 13:1-10. We almost never study this text, but it shows us clearly what Paul’s strategy is for dealing with sin in the Corinthian church. The first thing we learn from him here is to ADDRESS THE PROBLEM DIRECTLY. This appears in 2 Corinthians 13:1-4.
The first thing that we see Paul doing is seeking a face-to-face conversation. Letters haven’t gotten the job done, so he is going to go to Corinth in person to resolve things. I think that modern-day American Christians struggle with doing this for two main reasons: our society is averse to direct conflict, and we prefer electronic communication to in-person communication.
Consequently, we are much more likely to talk about a straying Christian (which is gossip) than we are to talk to them. If we do talk to them, we’re much more likely to use a text or a Facebook message than we are to have a sit-down conversation.
The first is obviously evil, but the second is a mistake. I’m here to tell you: I spend more time on social media than almost anybody, and writing is the thing that I do best in all the wide world, but trying to persuade somebody in writing on social media is a waste of time. No matter how good a writer you are, writing can’t contain the non-verbal cues that are a vital expression of love and goodwill. There is no substitute for looking somebody in the eye and telling them lovingly that they need to repent!
Second, we must be willing to speak with authority. Notice that Paul warns the Corinthians that he is going to be coming to them in the power of God. When he shows up, nobody is going to be able to disregard him!
Obviously, none of us are apostles, but we still can speak with the authority of God. We do that when we use the word to convict the sinner. Again, this is not our natural tendency. Even if we’re having that face-to-face conversation, we’re inclined to dance around the problem and not say the hard truths that need to be said. This might seem kind, but in reality it is deadly because it allows the straying Christian to continue in the delusion that they are not in danger. If somebody is in sin, we need to show them their sin, citing book, chapter, and verse if necessary. Our speech must be gracious and loving, but it also must be clear and plain.
The second part of Paul’s strategy is to ENCOURAGE SELF-EXAMINATION. This is exactly what we see going on in 2 Corinthians 13:5-6. Frankly, I think this highlights a way in which brotherhood culture is much too debate-centric. In a debate, there’s a winner and a loser as judged by a third party. If you win, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve convinced your opponent or not. You’ve still won.
I believe that there’s still a place for debate today. My brother and friend Bruce Reeves is a skilled debater, and he does valuable work for the kingdom. However, I think that place is much narrower than we often think it is. In our preaching and teaching, it’s awfully tempting to get up and own the denominations or get up and own the liberals, and at the end we congratulate ourselves because we won the debate against somebody who wasn’t even in attendance.
So too, I’ve seen Christians try to correct those in error by winning the debate against them. “I’ve proven A, B, and C, so you’re a sinner. Boom! Done!” To be honest, I’ve been that Christian. However, that behavior reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the restoration process.
We don’t win by winning the debate, at least according to us. We only win when we convict the sinner. We win when they listen to what we’re saying, internalize it, use it to indict themselves, and say, “You know, you’re right. I need to change.” That’s what a win looks like.
In striving for this goal, we should use the lightest touch possible. Much of the time, the straying brother or sister has 99 percent indicted themselves already, and they just need a little nudge to get them back on the right track. On multiple occasions, I’ve persuaded a Christian who hasn’t been assembling to come back simply by asking them via Facebook message what they’ve been up to recently. They know. They have a good heart. They just need a little help.
Third, we must SEEK THE OTHER’S GOOD. Paul exemplifies this in 2 Corinthians 13:7-10. He makes clear that his concern isn’t his position or his reputation. It’s the souls of the people he loves.
Let’s put ourselves into this passage for a moment. Imagine that you are driving by a liquor store in town, and you happen to notice a sister’s minivan parked there. The next time you drive by, you see the minivan again. Third time, you see the same thing.
You decide you need to talk to Sister Irma. After services one Sunday, you ask her, “I’ve been seeing your car parked at Buzz’s Liquors an awful lot. What’s going on?” In response, Sister Irma explains that she’s been baking a lot of bread recently, and the kind of yeast that she prefers is only available in the brewing-supplies section at Buzz’s Liquors.
How do you feel? Embarrassed that you brought it up? Angry that you look like a fool? Disbelieving that yeast is all that Sister Irma is buying? Or, instead, are you relieved that she hasn’t become an alcoholic?
Paul’s perspective is clear. He tells the Corinthians that he would rather show up and prove to be wrong about them than show up and be right about their sins. He doesn’t care about being right himself. Instead, he cares about the Corinthians being right with God. He prefers to be wrong because then the Corinthians don’t have to repent! The soul of the other Christian should be our priority, and if it is, that will be evident in everything we say.