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When Should You Confront a Fellow Christian’s Sin? Part 1

When it comes to judging the sins of our fellow Christians, do we get a green light or red light from God?

We see plenty of verses in the rest of the New Testament that match Jesus’ warning against judging in Matt. 7:1-6. (For more articles on Jesus’ take on judging, see this, this, and this.) There are plenty of Scriptures telling us that judging is a bad idea. James says,

“Brothers and Sisters, do not slander one another. . . who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12).

Paul uses his rhetorical questions to say the same thing,

“You, then, why do you judge your brother and sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgement seat” (Rom. 14:10).

But we get mixed messages.

These two quotes specifically say not to judge fellow believers. Yet, in 1 Cor. 5:1-13, Paul says that he already has judged a problematic Corinthian believer (5:3), and then asks another rhetorical question:

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (5:12).

The implied answer is, “Yes.”

So, wait? Are we supposed to judge or not?

Look at it this way: our actions as believers can exist on a “disobedience” spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you have obvious acts of disobedience. Say, living in a sexual relationship with your stepmom (1 Cor. 5:1). Gross. On the other end of the spectrum, you have actions that are NOT obviously disobedient (and may not be disobedient at all). Say, eating meat that may or may not have been butchered in the process of worshipping an idol (Rom. 14:2).

On this end of the spectrum, things get real fuzzy. The issue is whether the practice violates a standard God has for his people. And it just isn’t clear that it does. Paul’s discussion of these “matters of conscience” indicates that, the farther someone is on this end of the spectrum (the more their actions are not obviously disobedient) the more we need to leave that call between them and God.

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom. 14:4).

But on the other end of the spectrum, we are dealing with things that clearly do go against God’s standard for his people.

Part of following Jesus means accepting him as Lord. He’s the boss. He makes the rules. When we commit to following him, we are agreeing to be held accountable to the standard God has for his people.

So, in these matters of obvious disobedience, “Judge not lest you be judged” still works because we are fully aware that the measure we use is the same measure used against us. We all signed up for that.

If I end up in such a bad place that I’m obviously not walking with Christ, I hope some of my brothers and sisters would intervene!

Why? Why would I hope that? Why would we call out fellow believers on obvious acts of disobedience? In 1 Cor. 5:1-13 (the guy hooking up with his stepmom), this guy and his family have some serious issues going on. Left unchecked, those issues are going to bite them in some very nasty ways. They need an intervention. That is the loving thing to do.

But Paul’s main concern is that this guy needs a spiritual intervention. Someone who accepts Christ, but then lives in blatant disobedience, is in a seriously dangerous spiritual place.

It’s like the man got a “Jesus” inoculation. It’s not strong enough to actually “take” and produce a life-change. But it’s enough to make sure that the life-change never happens. Paul’s response is radical: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:5).

There is also a wider, communal concern. As the community of God, what role are we called to play?

In ancient Israel, yeast was often taken as a metaphor for sin. The metaphor emphasizes its ability to spread. It doesn’t stay in one corner of the dough, but defiles the whole thing. So the Passover feast, celebrating Israel’s redemption, deliverance, and freedom was the beginning of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. All yeast was removed from the community. They were freed to be pure.

The people of God are a community that has been called to be holy. So Paul says,

“Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

The call to Christ is a call to continuously grow in holiness, both individually and as a community. Sometimes, faithfulness to that call requires us to “judge those inside.” This is all about church discipline. I’m mostly avoiding that language because “discipline” carries so many wrong connotations in our culture.

I mention it here to point out that discipleship and discipline are cognate. If you want the one, you cannot avoid the other.

But we do.

We have to recognize that, when it comes to this call to greater holiness, we simply aren’t doing it. We Protestant Evangelicals may look down on the Catholic practice of confession for all the ways it can become mechanical, routine, lifeless. But we aren’t even asking our people to do that.

We just ask them to warm a pew for an hour or so every week while we make sure they know that Jesus loves them as they are, and maybe try to sell them on the features and benefits of Jesus. (“Hey, did you know that Jesus can help you manage your finances?”) Meanwhile, nearly every young single in the audience is sexually active, and 2/3 of the men can probably remember the last porn they watched. And that’s just one issue on Paul’s list (1 Cor. 5:11).

The “accountability” movement was a gesture in the right direction, but it seems to have fizzled.

We had too hard a time figuring out how to do it right. And that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? What should this “prodding to greater holiness” look like? What’s the format, the venue, the participants? How, exactly, should it work? As a non-practitioner, I feel bad even bringing up the question. I can’t answer it. It may take a full-blown movement in the church to develop an answer.

But we can’t find the answer if we’re avoiding the question.

(To be continued…) 

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