When Sin Persists in the Church
There is crisis of sin and immorality in Americas churches. Across our land, many professing Christians are practicing shameful lifestyles that are little different than those of unbelievers. Sins of adultery, fornication, drunkenness, drug abuse (just to name a few) are rampant among those to claim to be followers of Jesus.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise to learn that there is little preaching against sin from todays pulpits. And those churches who do voice their opposition against such lifestyles, rarely do anything to actually hold Christians accountable for their behavior. Without doubt, this is why sin seems to flourish among many professing believers... and perhaps why the church has been so powerless and ineffectual in America.
Lets face an important fact right up front. Persons who profess to be Christians, yet practice a continued lifestyle of sin and immorality, are really not Christians. The Bible makes it crystal clear that persons who practice lifestyles of adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and so forth, will NOT inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21). It doesnt matter whether they claim Jesus as their Lord or not. Persons who live like this are not right with God. Jesus said, Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matt 7:21).
What Should We Do?
The question is, what should be done about persons who profess to be believers, yet demonstrate a persistent lifestyle of gross immorality and sin? Among these persons, perhaps there are those who once knew the Lord but backslid away from Him and others who never really knew the Lord in the first place. But regardless of how they came to profess Christianity, Jesus has charged each of us with a responsibility to confront other professing Christians who practice sin not only for the sake of their soul, but also to help eliminate the spread of sins infection within the body of Christ (Matt. 18:15-17). The noted theologian, F.F. Bruce said, Since all sin damages, the Christian should not be indifferent to a brothers sin.
This, however, is not to suggest that we should become judgmental faultfinders, looking for every trace of imperfection in other believers. Nor are we advocating the idea of becoming a snoop and gossip, listening to unfounded rumors and stories (which is wicked and sinful). What we are talking about is that if you personally observe, or personally know for an absolute proven fact that another professing believer is involved in gross sin or immorality, you have a responsibility to confront them with the truth.
Confronting a Fallen Brother
According to Matt 18:15-17, if we observe a person who claims to be a brother, yet whose behavior is immoral and sinful, we should privately and gently confront this person with the truth of their sin, and seek to restore them to Christ through repentance. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (Gal 6:1). If they refuse to hear us in the matter, we should make another attempt with the assistance of one or two more Christians. Still, if there is no satisfactory response, we should then tell it to the church. And finally, if the restorative attempts of the church and its authorities are further rejected, we are no longer to esteem them as a brother (Matt 18:15-17).
When such repetitive efforts to restore a fallen brother are met by the absence of genuine repentance (turning away from sin), the church is left with a sad and unpleasant task to excommunicate the individual, as described in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. In this particular case, a man in the church of Corinth was persisting in a matter of sexual immorality (with his fathers wife), and Paul told the leaders that such continued sin by a professing believer was not to be tolerated within the church. He told them, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:4-5).
To implement this action, it appears that the church publicly dismissed the man from the church fellowship, as Paul said to ...put away from yourselves that wicked person (1 Cor. 5:13). It appears that expulsion was intended to remove this individual from the protective environment of the church, exposing him to the harsh reality of the Holy Spirits absence thus turning him over to Satans world of darkness and torments. Some suggest that destruction of the flesh may mean a visitation of a physical affliction or even death.
The Purpose of Excommunication
Nevertheless, the purpose of turning a person over to Satan is not merely punitive, but for the same familiar objectives:
(1) Restoration - Gods desire is, and always will be, to reconcile the sinner back to Himself. ...that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus... (1 Cor 5:5). The hope is that when abandoned to the wages of sin, the inevitable loss of peace, and subjected to Satans torments, the rebellious soul will eventually seek repentance and restoration.
(2) Protection - The unrepentant is removed from the church to protect the body from further infection by such sinful behavior. ...Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Cor 5:6). Paul reminds us that it is one thing to be among immoral people in the world, but it is not acceptable to fellowship with immoral people who profess to be Christians. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; not even to eat with such a person (1 Cor. 5:11). Persons in the church fellowship who resist correction and repentance in this type of immoral behavior, should be expelled. Furthermore, their dismissal is not a secret, but is made public so that Christians will no longer keep their company.
Excommunication is never the first choice for the church. The Lord is a reconciler and wants His church to restore people whenever possible. Our Lord is the Father of the prodigal, whom He so much wants to repent and to receive His forgiveness (1 John 1:9). But despite our best efforts, there are times when loving correction is not accepted and fails to alter infectious sinful behavior. In those cases, God requires that such persons be removed from the fellowship to prevent sin from spreading, and to impress upon them their need for repentance.
In Matthew 18:8, Jesus used the metaphor of a spreading infection to warn us from withholding personal sin in any area of our life. Similarly, if the infection of sin is allowed to spread unabated within the body of Christ, it will bring gangrene that will destroy the whole body. Obviously, to expel anyone from Christs body is a dreaded and painful task, no more desirable than to amputate one of our own limbs or organs, but there will be times where there is no other choice. Jesus said, ...if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire (Matt 18:8-9).
The Sins that Warrant Excommunication
It would not be possible to rid the body of Christ of all traces of sin, lest we expel most everyone from the church. However, expulsion is a fate reserved for those matters of sin that are especially blatant and infectious to the body -- and which have resisted our sincere efforts of correction. While it is clear that the church could potentially expel persons for persisting in any of the sins listed in Gal. 5:19-21, the Victor Bible Source Book says that scripture specifies at least seven sins for which excommunication is prescribed if repentance is not secured (See Prov. 22:10, 1 Cor. 5:1-13, Titus 3:10-11, Matt. 18:15-20). These are:
(1) Immorality adultery, fornication, homosexuality,
lesbianism, incest, rape, sexual impurity, etc.