Author: Member of United Church of God
What are your thoughts, reactions and actions after you learn about someone’s sin—present or past, one-time or ongoing—especially a sin by a fellow church member and especially when the weakness seems strange, shocking or repulsive to you?
How do you react to news or gossip about someone’s wrongdoing? The reactions of many people tend to be rather ugly in one way or the other.
Let’s consider some common and carnal reactions that can be conscious or subconscious: I love gossip and can’t wait to tell my friends. I hope I can learn some more titillating details of what happened. I’m shocked—how could he do that? I’ll never be able to respect him again. I hope he gets the severe punishment he deserves. I’m feeling smug and good about myself because I would never do that! That sin probably shows he’s a no-good person overall.
Just as sharks are drawn to blood and join in a feeding frenzy over a wounded shark, people are often quick to condemn a fallen comrade.
Because raw human nature loves gossip, news media and entertainment offer up a lot of gossip. Scandal sells! Sensation sells! Sin sells!
How does this subject apply to us in the Church?
Those of us who want to imitate Jesus Christ are seeking to replace carnal human nature with a godly nature. We’re seeking “a new heart”—a spiritual heart transplant! (Ezekiel 36:26). We’re trying to learn very different thoughts, emotions and actions toward other people. We’re seeking to replace pride, self-righteousness and judgmentalism with love, humility, mercy and compassion. We’re trying to make Galatians 6:10 our everyday goal: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
At the same time, we must be prepared for the special challenges we have within the Church. In a congregation, we naturally have an intense interest in one another. That’s good overall because it means we feel close like a family. But just like families can have problems, congregations can as well. For example, there can be a temptation to be nosy or busybodies about the weaknesses and failures of our brethren.
Once we are called out of spiritual darkness, we learn that we should strive to be perfect like God (Matthew 5:48). But after our standards are raised, there is a temptation to judge others by ultra-strict perfectionism, rather than each of us focusing primarily on overcoming our own faults (Matthew 7:1-5). Furthermore, there can be a tendency to react in self-righteous and unmerciful ways when we learn about the faults and failures of fellow saints.
This article is dedicated to those who want to resist those temptations and who want to react the way Jesus Christ would react when learning of someone’s sin.
Do all church members still commit sins?
Yes, we all stumble and sin at times, usually in small ways (James 5:15, 20; 1 John 1:8-10; 2:1-2). And sometimes a church member sins in a big way. We are all still pulled in wrong directions by our human nature, by the world’s bad influences, and by a very real Satan the devil. Many of our temptations are similar, but each member can have some unique temptations because of his background or circumstances or the level of his conversion.
Even the apostle Paul acknowledged he had two natures warring within himself—the godly nature imparted by the Holy Spirit plus the inescapable downward pull of the old carnal nature (Romans 7:14-25).
John’s epistles are written to fellow converted church members, so when he uses the pronoun “we” he means we believers, we Christians. In 1 John 1:8, he warns that no believer should think that he no longer has a sinful nature. And in verse 10, he warns that no believer should think that he no longer ever commits specific sins. Therefore, all of us in the Church of God must regularly repent and “confess our sins” to God in order to receive His ongoing forgiveness and cleansing (verse 9).
Don’t forget that Satan the devil and his demons are very real, and the people they most want to “make war with” and destroy are God’s people (Revelation 12:17). Satan will certainly tempt and deceive us whenever we give him any opportunity to do so.
Are some sins worse than others?
Some sins are definitely more damaging and destructive than others. Deliberate sin is worse than impulsive sin. But God doesn’t categorize and classify sins on a scale of minor to major the way people do. Jesus taught obedience to all of God’s laws and repentance from all sin.
But for what types of sins did Jesus display the greatest anger, announcing “greater condemnation”? It was over people’s self-righteousness, hypocrisy, hard-heartedness and for causing spiritual stumbling blocks for others. (Matthew 23:14; see all of chapter). He was not nearly as angry toward people because of their moral weaknesses and transgressions when they were spiritually blind or when they were sincerely sorry. He was quick to forgive when they were repentant and trying to overcome. He was and is the perfect Judge but never judgmental in the sense of being prejudiced, unfair, unmerciful and condemning.
How should we view and react to the sins of others?
Every action and attitude that breaks a law of God is sin (1 John 3:4). The Church of course must never condone sin or minimize its destructiveness. The Church must teach God’s laws, identify sin, show why sin is evil and against God, explain its consequences and teach repentance leading to God’s forgiveness.
We must hate sin but at the same time love the sinners (Proverbs 8:13; John 3:16-17). Counseling or encouraging someone with a past or present problem should be done with humility, sensitivity, empathy, gentleness and Christ-like love. When members and prospective members see that compassionate approach in the Church, they feel safe and confident they too will be treated that way, and are much more apt to open up to a minister or fellow member about their problems in order to seek help.
If a member thinks he might be humiliated or treated with contempt or scorn, he almost certainly will want to stay in the closet with his sins, not getting the help he needs. On the other hand, members are much more likely to open up about their wrongdoing to get help if they feel confident that instruction and correction will be given in a respectful and loving way, promoting and encouraging repentance and celebrating progress.
Everyone knows that people tend to react differently to shocking sins than to non-shocking sins. That’s why it’s relatively easy to confess some common sins, like profanity, gossip, coveting, or gluttony, and feel safe and accepted. It’s also why other sins are harder to admit because the person feels deep shame and fears strong reactions of disdain and disgust. And if there are knee-jerk negative reactions to shocking sins, the guilty party will try to retreat back under cover.
So, if upon learning the nature of a person’s sin, a counselor or friend feels shocked, disgusted or horrified, he must avoid displaying those reactions and work through those emotions if he wants to be of real help. As counselors and friends, we must imitate the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not fixated on a person’s past—He was looking to see if the person’s heart was deeply repentant.
Church: A spiritual hospital, not a fraternity of perfect people
Jesus compared His role to that of a physician. In Mark 2:17, He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
The New Testament records examples of people in the Church with all kinds of serious sins. Sadly, the same is true today. After a member has been baptized, he still has weaknesses and habits—sometimes very serious ones—to work on overcoming. Therefore, within the Church are people who are struggling with addictions to smoking, alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, pornography, or other things. Some struggle with heterosexual temptations and others struggle with homosexual temptations. Some have eating disorders or other behavioral addictions.
Depending on our backgrounds, each of us can be shocked or repulsed by some weaknesses more than other weaknesses. If we have not been tempted by a particular sin, it is more difficult to comprehend why others are tempted. If we grew up in a strong family, it’s hard to understand the struggles of those trying to climb out of their dysfunctional pit that resulted from an abusive childhood.
But the way God judges is far different than the way most people judge. God will forgive any kind of sin, no matter how bad, when the person is sincerely repentant—meaning the person has godly sorrow and has turned around—has quit the sin (2 Corinthians 7:9-10; Ezekiel 18:21-32). Everyone will have the opportunity to be saved because of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace (Ephesians 2:5, 8).
The Church should be the ideal environment for spiritual growth because of its focus on loving God and loving one another. The soft side of love gives warm friendship, support and encouragement. The firm or tough side of love gives instruction and correction from God’s Word and, when necessary, discipline to help members make needed changes.
The church should be a safe and inviting place that provides guidance, support and encouragement to the members in their struggles to overcome and grow. Just as doctors subscribe to an oath to “do no harm,” we should be dedicated to do no harm to the spiritual growth of any of the precious, vulnerable people that God is calling.
Repentance leading to forgiveness and growth is the church’s hallmark. Each of us has his own combination of spiritual sicknesses. Thankfully, God has provided a spiritual hospital, His Church, as a place of healing for all of us sick patients.
Editor’s note: The author has no disagreement with New Testament instructions to church pastors on how they are to take disciplinary actions when necessary—for the correction and benefit of the struggler and/or for the protection of the church. 1 Corinthians 5 gives instructions on suspending a member from fellowship. The purpose is two-fold: To bring the sinner to repentance and restoration and to protect the flock from the bad influence. The church should especially make sure that children are kept safe. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 are instructions for dealing with a member who, instead of working, persistently freeloads off of others. (Notice that verse 15 says, “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”)
Matthew 18:15-17 addresses a problematic person who refuses to accept any responsibility in order to reconcile with someone. Romans 16:17-18 is about those who deliberately and repeatedly cause doctrinal division. 1 Timothy 1:18-20 is about false brethren who are blaspheming. 1 Timothy 6:3-5 is about persistent troublemakers who keep causing division. And in the God’s Word translation, Titus 3:10-11 says, “Have nothing to do with people who continue to teach false doctrine after you have warned them once or twice. You know that people like this are corrupt. They are sinners condemned by their own actions.”
But, as you see, these scriptures all refer to present (not past) sins where the sinner is unrepentant, is causing doctrinal division within the congregation, or is being a corrupting influence on others. Ordinarily disciplinary action is taken after other efforts, including teaching, encouragement and warnings, are failing to produce results. And almost all disciplinary action is considered temporary, enforced only long enough to bring the offender to repentance. Once he is repentant, he should be restored to full fellowship (or monitored fellowship and never alone with children in the case of a former sex offender).
Regarding the man described in 1 Corinthians 5 who was suspended from church fellowship, read in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 what Paul wrote after hearing that the man was sincerely sorry and repentant: “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.”
Again, this article is not disagreeing with these biblical disciplines that are occasionally necessary. This article is about what is needed in the Church all the time—how we as church members and ministers can offer help and healing to the members of God’s Church and avoid hurting them spiritually.
What did Jesus do?
Matthew 9:11 shows that Christ ate with tax collectors (whom most people despised) and those with reputations as “sinners.” He spoke with the Samaritan woman when it was common practice to shun Samaritans and women. Christ protected the woman caught in adultery from those who wanted to stone her. His response was, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). He interacted with sinners of all types, especially when He thought He could steer them in a better direction. He met sinners where they were. He reached out to the outcasts and touched the untouchables.
Notice the Bible’s instructions on how we are to respond to most sins and weaknesses. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (English Standard Version). Are you and I willing to do the work needed to restore a sinner? And 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” Determine the best way to help each individual and “be patient with all.”
The apostle James admonishes us, “Confess your trespasses to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Then in verses 19-20, he wrote, “Brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” And Peter wrote, “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).
James and Peter had in mind Proverbs 10:12 ,which says “love covers all sins.” God covers sins by forgiving them (Psalm 32:1-2). We can assist the process by encouraging the sinner to repent and turn to God. In another sense, love doesn’t uncover people’s sins by gossiping about them!
With these scriptures in mind, what can and should we in the Church do and not do when we hear that a fellow church member struggles with a weakness or is battling sins we find disturbing?Following are some key mistakes we must avoid:
We must not gossip
Juicy stories are tantalizing. We all struggle to control the tongue. Shocking sins are often the most difficult to hold in confidence. Even if what you say is true, we are commanded to not gossip (Leviticus 19:16). Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.” More strongly, Romans 1:29 includes gossip among other forms of sin and depravity. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips” (NIV).
Trivial gossip among friends can be harmless but most of what we call “gossip” becomes malicious gossip—“digging up dirt” on people, whether it’s factual or mere rumors. Everyone involved in sharing the poison gets hurt. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a tale-bearer are as self-inflicted wounds, and they have gone down to the inner parts of the heart” (Young’s Literal Translation). The negative impressions left by gossip are damaging and difficult to eradicate.
Gossip can be tempting for various conscious and subconscious reasons. Gossip is sometimes excused, stating a “need for prayer.” But revealing faults of others violates and diminishes the trust we should have among brethren in the body of Christ. Gossip is destructive and divisive, and can be a major cause of a church member’s pain.
God holds His people to the highest standard of controlling our tongues. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”
When the sinner hears that gossip is spreading about him, he is comforted to hear directly from a kind member so he knows someone still cares about him. If you hear that a fellow follower of Christ has stumbled, first go to God in prayer. If you feel you can help your brother in some way (even if it is just to affirm your friendship), speak with him in private about the matter (Proverbs 27:5-6, 9, 17). Humbly tell him that if there is a way you can help, you want to help.
We should not shun repentant members because of their past problems
If a church member has such a serious problem that other members should “avoid” or “not keep company with” him (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:9), that generally should be handled by the pastor suspending the attendance of that member until he is repentant (that removes him temporarily from church fellowship). Or if you recognize that being around a certain person is a bad influence on you, it’s a biblical principle to avoid spending time with him, especially socially. See 1 Corinthians 15:33; Proverbs 1:10-11, 15; 5:1-8; 13:20; 14:7; 22:24-25. We must exercise mature discernment in making such decisions (Hebrews 5:14).
Other than those examples, there are hardly any situations when church members should avoid another member, treating him like a pariah. If we know about a person’s past or present weakness, even one that seems disgusting, that is not a reason to coldly snub and shun him. In fact, that person may be lonely and gaining a friend may be a big boost to his spiritual growth. When a person is feeling down and weak, another rejection can be devastating. He usually needs a helping hand. We are called to a “ministry of reconciliation,” not rejection and exclusion (2 Corinthians 5:18).
For a while, the church at Corinth was quite divided into cliques and Paul spoke out strongly against those divisions in his first epistle. In that same epistle is “the love chapter” (13) where Paul explains that “love suffers long and is kind” (verse 4). Paul also wrote “that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (12:25-26).
In John 10:11, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” He explained that a good shepherd will leave the 99 to go try and rescue one lamb who has gone astray (Matthew 18:12-13). He went on to say, “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (verse 14). We must learn from Jesus’ example to be good shepherds to one another. We are called to be our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9; see also Philippians 2:4; Romans 14:1; 15:1-2; Galatians 6:1-2).
The New Testament repeatedly admonishes us to “greet one another” and, more importantly, to “love one another.” 1 John 3:14 gives us a key indicator of whether or not we’re converted: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.”
When we have an opportunity to interact with a fellow member in a way that will help him to repent and grow, we should be there for him.
It’s fascinating that in Jesus’ day, many people with notorious pasts flocked to hear and speak with Jesus. They somehow sensed that He would not humiliate them or refuse to talk with them. We all should be supremely happy that when we are weak, God doesn’t turn His back on us. We all want a relationship with God because we know He is merciful, forgiving, loving and He can help us. If God said, “I forgive you but I will never again want to be around you,” we would be devastated. If people see that we likewise are merciful, forgiving, loving and helpful, some will want to turn to us for help and support as they strive to overcome and grow.
We must not be prejudiced or partial in counseling.
(“Counseling” is meant in the most general sense of coming from anyone, not just from “counselors.”) Sins and problems often involve more than one person. The human tendency is to be prejudiced in favor of our friends but God teaches us to “not show partiality in judgment” (Deuteronomy 1:17).
We must not be quick to believe what we hear first and favor that person; instead we should wait until all the facts are known (Proverbs 18:17). And we must be careful not to quickly jump to conclusions (verse 13).
We must be good listeners and patient, trying not to oversimplify complex issues into black-and-white dichotomies. When a sin involves more than one person, be careful not to view one as entirely the victim and the other as entirely the perpetrator. That view is usually unrealistic. If that view is not accurate, it will undermine trust. There are usually faults and mistakes on all sides. We must be careful not to go to any extreme, like whitewashing one sin and exaggerating or demonizing another sin.
No one wants to be defined by past sins and present weaknesses. One particular sin is never someone’s total being. So we should never view a brother with a sin as being that sin, pinning a label on him. It may be a ‘big’ sin but it is never the whole person. We all have good traits as well as sins. Sins need to be kept in their true perspective
It’s “natural” (according to human nature) to like some people and dislike others. It is therefore more “natural” to listen to gossip and repeat gossip about those we like less. It is more “natural” to have more compassion for family or friends caught up in some sin than those outside our circle of friends. But we must do better than “doin’ what comes naturally.” Just as we try not to impute bad motives or assume bad things about those we love, let’s also avoid those mistakes with everyone else.
Similarly, we may tend to betoo slow to acknowledge the positive changes in the lives of those who are not our friends. We may neglect to give credit where credit is due. We may let the memory of a scandalous offense dominate our thinking, so we continue to categorize him by his past weakness. Again, we must do better than what is “natural.”
We must not favor punishment over other effective remedies.
Some people forget the old truism, “You can catch more flies with honey that with vinegar.” Some people tend to be authoritarian disciplinarians and like to see strong punitive action even when the transgressor is repentant. (Except they want mercy for the types of problems that they themselves have.) For example, some church members have wished to see a guilty member promptly put out of the Church.
But we are called to be our “brother’s keeper,” not policemen and prosecutors (Genesis 4:9; Philippians 2:4). If someone’s personal problem is ugly and we feel repulsed, we can seek God’s help to overcome that mental block. Ask yourself, “Am I responding to others the way I want God to respond to me?” Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Do I respond to a repentant sinner-coming-home like the merciful father or like the unmerciful brother in that parable?
We are worthy of death but God offers us mercy and forgiveness because of the worthiness of Christ and His sacrifice. But if we want God’s mercy, we must be merciful (Matthew 5:7) If we want God’s forgiveness, we must be forgiving (Matthew 6:12, 14-15). God will judge us the way we judge others (Matthew 7:1-5).
If a sinner is working on overcoming sin, encourage his fight. If you don’t know his efforts or progress, get to know him. We as God’s people must be like kind and caring shepherds.
What should we do?
We in the Church of God can learn lessons from past mistakes as well as past success. Above all, we should learn from God’s Word what to do and what not to do. Hopefully this article helps in that understanding.
Be a loving brother or sister to God’s people. Build bonds and bridges of good relationships. Then when a fellow member needs help or just a shoulder to cry on, he knows you are a trusted friend who is there for him.
When you hear about someone’s sin, pray for that person—for his repentance and restoration. Determine to be someone who does not participate in gossip. Practice confidentiality as the Bible teaches us to do.
If you think you can be of help to him, reach out and offer help. Initially, you may have felt shocked by the person’s weakness, but don’t let that get in the way. Step out of your comfort zone to offer a helping hand and heart.
If you see that the person needs to counsel with a minister, urge him to do so. If he refuses to talk to a minister and you know that, because of the nature of the sin, a minister really needs to know about it, then you must go to a minister and discuss the situation. That is analogous to calling a paramedic when someone is in need of emergency medical help.
If your initial offers to help are appreciated, then follow through. Remain in contact with the struggler, encouraging his progress in the way Christ would. Recognize and honor positive changes he makes. If and when he stumbles, encourage him to bet back up and keep trying.
The Bible has lots of examples of people with terrible sins who, thanks to God’s mercy and help, turned their lives around and ended up walking with God. If God was able and willing to forgive the horrible sins of the evil king Manasseh, we can be confident He will forgive any of our sins when we truly repent (2 Chronicles 33:1-20). The Bible’s examples are “written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Even when such turnarounds seem humanly impossible, remember that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
When you hear that a spiritual brother or sister has committed a serious sin, whether in the past or recently, remember the many biblical principles that should guide our attitudes and actions. And pray for God to guide you as to what to think, what to pray, what to say and not say, and what to do and not do.