Monthly Archives: April 2014

Unity: The Civil Magistrate

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

Does a believer who has been unable to find justice in the church courts ever have the right to go to the civil magistrate?  This is a question that has puzzled pietistic evangelicals.  They are quick to quote I Corinthians 6:7 which says, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?”  Based upon this one verse the blanket pronouncement is issued that it is always a sin to go to the civil magistrate.

On the other hand, it is also frequently the case that the church courts are not doing their job and believers immediately run to the civil magistrate in order to resolve conflicts.  Divorce is an excellent example of a type of conflict that is rarely adjudicated in the church courts.  Quite the contrary, the huge number of professing Christians who obtain divorces almost always go directly to the civil magistrate in order to solve their conflict.

I Corinthians 6 gives us the answer to the question of the use of the civil magistrate to resolve conflicts between believers.  Verse 1 establishes this principle, “Does any of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?”  The first principle of the civil magistrate for the Christian is that the church courts must be utilized first.  Without question, it is always a sin to run to the civil magistrate to try and resolve a conflict with a fellow believer before exhausting all options within the church courts.  According to Paul, it is disgraceful that “brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers.”

The problem, of course, is that the church courts are not functioning properly.  The elders are not doing their job of rendering judicial decisions and the members have no choice but to go to the civil magistrate to adjudicate a conflict.  However, the primary duty of the believer who has a conflict with another believer is to first instruct his elders on their responsibility to resolve the conflict in the church court.  I realize that is asking a lot of a member of the church, but it is a necessity.  The problem was the same in Paul’s day.  He says, “Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren…”  Apparently the Corinthians suffered from the same malady that infects evangelicalism in our country.

The purpose of the trial before the elders is to either resolve the conflict or declare one of the parties to the conflict to be an unbeliever (excommunicate).  Once it has been established by the judicial decision of the elders that one of the parties is an unbeliever, the injured party has the right, but not the necessity, to continue his prosecution in the civil arena.  Until one of the parties to the conflict has been declared to be an unbeliever, neither party is permitted to take the matter to the civil courts.  Once that judicial decision has been rendered, the injured party make seek recourse with the civil magistrate.

It often makes sense to continue on to the civil magistrate.  Divorce is a good example.  Assume for the moment that a husband has committed adultery.  The wife prosecutes the case in the church court.  The husband refuses to repent of his sin (he has probably already moved in with the other woman) and the elders excommunicate him and declare him to be an unbeliever.  That is as far as the jurisdiction of the church is generally able to go.  However, there are still many issues to be resolved.  It is highly unlikely that the husband would submit to a property settlement and custody decree that was established by the elders.  Therefore, it becomes necessary to invoke the power of the sword of the State to enforce a divorce decree.  Here the injured wife needs to make her case before the civil magistrate that she is entitled to the property and the children because her husband is an adulterer and should, according to biblical law, be put to death.  The State, of course, will mock her religious beliefs and her husband will threaten to use them against her in the custody hearing.  That is why Paul warns about going to law before the “unrighteous”.  A believer will have to be very wise and use the system the best she can to obtain a just outcome.

In summary, the pietists are in error when they assert that it is always wrong to utilize the civil magistrate.  They are correct that it is always wrong to go to the civil magistrate as long as both parties to the dispute are still considered to be believers.  However, once the church court has rendered the judicial decision that one of the parties to the dispute is an unbeliever, the victimized party is free, but not required, to go to the civil magistrate.  We see that, once again, the failure of elders to do their biblical responsibility has brought tremendous harm and suffering to the church.  It is imperative that elders render judicial decisions so the individual believers can determine a proper course of action with respect to the civil magistrate.

Before moving on to conflicts that are the result of weaker/stronger brother issues it is important to make an application of the principles of church discipline to the family.

Unity: Knowledge vs Will

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

The procedures of discipline that I have outlined above are not difficult to understand.  Furthermore, evangelicals generally agree upon the procedures outlined above as the clear teaching of the Bible on the subject.  Why, then, are they so rarely followed?  There are only two possible answers:  either believers today are far more sanctified than at any other time in Church history and are, therefore, not subject to disciplinary procedures or, elders are failing to do their job.

I reject the assertion that we are more sanctified today than we have been in the past.  If anything, the exact opposite is true for believers in this country (see “Assimilation”).  The only possible conclusion must be that elders today are failing to do the one primary function they have as elders:  render judicial decisions.  The problem is not one of insufficient information about God’s will for the resolution of conflicts that involve sin.  The problem is the stubborn refusal of elders to do precisely what God has called them to do.  The refusal of elders to do their primary job has resulted in the horrible state we find ourselves in today.  Gossip, slander, undefended victims, protected sinners, anger, resentment, keeping long lists of wrongs, and church splits are the fruit of the unwillingness of elders to do their jobs.

Conflicts that involve sin are always properly resolved in only one of two ways.  Either the person who has sinned confesses of the sin and repents, or the person is excommunicated from the church.  In both cases the unity of the church is protected.  When the sinner repents, unity has been restored by means of the restoration of the relationship.  When the sinner is excommunicated, a false professor has been removed from the church and unity has been preserved.  It is not only proper, but it is also necessary that the false professor be removed from the church in order to preserve unity.  In no case is it acceptable for the excommunicated sinner to go to the church down the street and be received as a member in good standing.  Unfortunately this is frequently done in discipline cases today by churches that want to establish a reputation in a community as being “loving” and in order to build the church membership roles.  Often these churches have significant mortgages that need to be paid and any money that can be extracted from those who have been excommunicated from other churches is welcome to aid in that cause.  When pressed to justify the acceptance of an excommunicated person the guilty church will often resort to the argument that the excommunicate had to be separated from his prior church for the sake of unity.  Further, they will argue, he will be given a second chance in this new church.  Undoubtedly they believe he will succeed with them because they conceive of themselves as a far more loving and nurturing church than the one which excommunicated him.  The position of the receiving church is just another form of the sin of factionalism that assumes that a great way to express unity is via division.

Under biblical jurisprudence there are only two classes of doctrine.  When a person is in violation of biblical doctrine (here I use the word ‘doctrine’ as older theologians used to and include both behavior and beliefs) and refuses to repent of that violation he is to be put out of the church and considered an apostate or a heretic.  When he repents he is to be restored.  There is no place for separation of true believers from one another at any time.  This fact is especially important for the church member who believes that he has the right to leave the church and go to another church simply because someone has sinned against him.  This is a very common practice and it needs to be stopped.

Most church members who believe that they have been sinned against are too cowardly to initiate the principles of conflict resolution discussed above.  On the other hand, they also are usually unwilling to allow the matter to drop and speak of it to no one.  Assuming that their gossip about the event does not spread throughout the church like an infection (an extremely generous assumption for most churches), they now find themselves in the position of feeling “hurt” with few, if any, sympathizers.  In the mind of every evangelical I have ever met, that is sufficient cause to leave the church.  In most cases people in this position will ask for an appointment with the pastor and inform him that they are leaving.  During the meeting they will go into great detail about how their “needs haven’t been met” and how they have been subject to much “hurtful” behavior.  Usually the pastor is told that he is not “nurturing” enough.  It is not unusual for the people who are leaving to assert that the time spent at the church was “the worst time of my life”.  The bomb having been dropped, the offended folks march off to find another church that will “love” them as they deserve.  Is this acceptable behavior?

Absolutely not!  The sins being committed by the departing church member include slander and breaking a lawful oath.  Notice what the disgruntled church member is really saying.  Despite the fact that the departing member would strongly insist that he is “judging no one” by leaving, he has actually rendered a judicial decision.  Only, in this case, the judicial decision has been rendered by a person not qualified to make it and without the benefit of a trial for the accused.  By leaving the church because of the alleged sin of another (and let’s assume there was a real sin), and without proceeding through the steps of discipline in Matthew 18, the departing member is making a de facto judicial decision.  He has found the alleged sinner guilty and has decided to leave the church on account of that sin. The informal rendering of a judicial decision without the benefit of a trial by one who is not qualified to do so constitutes the sin of slander.

In addition, it should have been the case that the departing member had sworn an oath of membership to the church.  I recognize that few evangelical churches today understand the nature of a sworn membership oath.  As a result, it is not unusual for people to attend a local church for years without ever becoming a member.  If the oath of membership had been sworn properly, then the departing member is breaking that sworn oath by leaving on account of the sin without confronting the sinner with a rebuke for the sin.  The membership oath recognizes a covenantal link between the individual and the rest of the church.  The priesthood of believers is formally established by means of the sworn membership oath.  Among many other things, those who have sworn the oath have made an implicit promise to treat each other according to the rules of discipline described in Matthew 18.  When one person leaves the church on account of the sin of another without bringing a rebuke for that sin, the oath has been broken and a hateful act has been committed.  The fact that a sin has been committed against an individual is never a reason for separation.

Unity: The Third Command of Sinful Conflict Resolution

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

We have now come to the point where a person has been sinned against.  The offended party has determined that it is in the best interest of the sinner to rebuke him for his sin.  He has come to the sinner, and no one else, and told him precisely what biblical sin he has committed and he has detailed what the sinner has to do to make it right.  What happens if the sinner does not agree?  What if the sinner says that he committed no sin?  What if the sinner says that the person prosecuting the case actually has taken offense when no offense has been given?  What is to be done if the alleged sinner flat out denies having done anything sinful?  Here enters the third principle of the resolution of conflicts due to sin.  Matthew 18: 16-17 says:

But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.

If the alleged sinner denies having committed a sin, then he is to be confronted by other witnesses to his sin.  Jesus clearly establishes this principle in the passage quoted above.  The statement of Jesus is taken directly from the law of witnesses contained in Deuteronomy 19: 15-21.  This passage causes significant problems for evangelical Marcionites because they do not believe that the Old Testament law still applies in this age of grace.  If that is true, then what Jesus said here is irrelevant.  However, Marcionism is just as much a heresy today as it has always been.  When Jesus quoted from the book of Deuteronomy He was quoting from an authoritative book of the Bible that still applies to all believers today.  It has always fascinated me that most all evangelicals admit that Matthew 18 contains the proper procedures for the exercise of church discipline while at the same time they deny that the passage quoted by Jesus still applies in the New Testament era.  I will have more to say on that contradiction and the evangelical heresy of Marcionism in another essay.  For our purposes here we simply need to understand that the next step in the resolution of conflicts due to sin is to produce witnesses who will testify that a sin has actually taken place.

At this point the conflict is no longer strictly a private issue between the sinner and the victim.  The fact that witnesses to the sin exist confirms the reality that the sin was of at least a semi-private nature.  Now this raises an interesting question, what if there are no witnesses to the sin?  I will assume that a sin has really been committed.  What are the options for the victim if he has truly been sinned against but the sinner denies having sinned and there are no witnesses to the sinful behavior?

According to Jesus and Deuteronomy 19:15 there is nothing that the victim can do to further prosecute his case against the sinner.  Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”  Does this mean that there is nothing that the victim can do?  I do not think so.  Although the victim is forbidden from any further prosecution, and he is also forbidden from taking the issue to the public, he is not forbidden from speaking to the elders of the church about what has happened.  The victim always has the option of allowing the offense to drop and thus put it into the providential hands of God.  However, the victim also has the option of informing his elders of the sin.  What is the purpose of informing the elders?

Elders are responsible for the spiritual oversight of their flocks.  They have a right to know what is going on in the interactions of the members of the church.  Informing an elder that you have been sinned against by another member in the church but that there were no witnesses to the sin is not an act of gossip because the elders have a right to that information.  In fact, it may be the case that many other members of the church have also been victims of this person but in each case there were also no witnesses.  The net effect of informing the elders is to give them the ability to pull together numerous witnesses and enable the prosecution to continue.  If the sinner has sinned against others in the same way it is the job of the elders to put the witnesses together so they can go to the sinner and confront him.  (Note: In all my examples I am assuming that elders in different churches would honor the discipline of each other’s churches.  I realize that this would never happen in the real world.  Nevertheless, it is what should be done.)

If the victim informs his elders and there are still no other witnesses to the sin, then nothing can be done.  This is a wise provision in the law of God in that it severely inhibits frivolous prosecutions and eliminates “he said/she said” cases.  It is highly unlikely that a sinner who has sinned one time will not sin again.  Eventually additional witnesses will come up and the case can continue.  In the event that the sinner realizes his error, even without confessing to it, and does not sin again, then at least the goal of stopping his sin has been accomplished.  Note once again that even at this advanced stage of development, this case would be largely private.  Unless a person has actually been a victim of this sinner, nobody would have any knowledge that anything is going on.  How different this system is from the sinful practice in our churches today where a victim would fire up the rumor and gossip mill in order to get back at the sinner for what he has done, despite having no witnesses.  When that happens today the alleged victim must be prosecuted for gossip.

If there is at least one more witness to the sin, then the case may proceed.  The multiple witnesses must go privately to the sinner and confront him with their rebuke.  This confrontation would be just like the earlier private rebuke.  The victims must inform the sinner of his specific biblical sin and precisely describe what the Bible says he must do to make restitution.  If the sinner listens to the victims, then he has been “won” and the case is resolved.  If he does not listen to the victims, then the next step is to take the case to the elders for formal prosecution.

The point where the case goes from the private rebuke of several victims to being presented to the elders of the church is highly significant because that is also the time when the issue goes from the status of being private to being public.  The public nature of the accusation of sin dramatically raises the stakes for all of the parties involved.  If the victims are telling the truth, there will be public shame and humiliation for the sinner.  If the victims are not telling the truth (they were not really victims) and have really been involved in a conspiracy to frame an innocent person, they are also subject to serious censure.  It is at this point that the law of witnesses is vitally important.  Deuteronomy 19: 16-20 describes in detail what is to take place:

If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both  men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days.  And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused  his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother.  Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.  And the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.

This is a beautiful provision in the law of God.  If this one principle of witnesses were applied to the law of the land in which we live today, there would be an instantaneous, massive reduction in lawsuits.  When the case goes public it is necessarily the case that somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose.  Nobody would ever take a case to this level unless they were absolutely certain they were going to win.

Now it is time for the formal, public trial.  The trial should be open to all members of the church and each party has an opportunity to make their case.  It is a terrible injustice when cases have reached this level in our churches today (an event that rarely occurs) and the elders call for “executive session” (which almost always occurs) and close the proceedings to the members of the church.  The Deuteronomy passage quoted above clearly states that this trial is designed to be a public spectacle.  “And the rest shall hear and be afraid” is not just a nice poetic statement.  Proceedings of this sort should put the fear of God into the entire church.  At the end of the trial the elders are to render a judicial decision.  Any man who is unable to perform the task of rendering a judicial decision is unfit for the office of elder.  Sadly, that disqualifies most men who hold that office today.

If the sinner is found guilty and he refuses to confess and repent of his sin then Jesus makes it very clear that the next step is excommunication.  “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”  The sentence of excommunication is more than simply forbidding entrance to the sacrament of communion.  Gentiles and tax-gatherers were shunned.  They were the dregs of society and no decent people would have anything to do with them.  That is how the unrepentant sinner is to be treated.  When an unrepentant sinner is removed from communion, put out of the church, and shunned by all true believers, a very clear statement is being made that he has no hope of salvation.  Jesus confirms that judicial decision by saying, “whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven” (Matt 19:18).  The shunning that takes place in the church is simply a small down-payment on the penalty of hell that the excommunicate is facing if he does not repent.  This procedure will “purge the evil” from among the members of the church and will ensure that others “will never again do such an evil thing”.

Unity: The Second Command of Sinful Conflict Resolution

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

If you have been offended by another person and believe that that person has sinned against you, you have two options.  You may ignore the offense and take it to God in prayer or you may rebuke the person for sin.  If you make the decision to rebuke the person for sin then the second principle for the resolution of conflicts due to sin applies.  The second principle states that if you decide to rebuke the sinner then there are two things you must do.  You must show the sinner the precise biblical sin that he has committed against you and you must describe precisely what he must do to make it right.  If you are not able to do these two things you must remain silent.  There are no exceptions to this rule.

James 5: 19-20 describes this process when he says, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.”  Notice how James puts it when he says, “if any among you strays from the truth”.  His assertion presupposes that there is truth and that somebody knows what truth is.  It is logically impossible to declare that something is false (untrue) without also at least believing to know the truth (it is also possible that what you believe to know is true is not, but that does not change the point).  Also note that James says, “and one turns him back”.  To turn someone back, or cause them to repent, is a description of the proper behavior that is to be done.  Therefore we can conclude from this passage in James that the ministry of rebuke consists of two parts:  the description of the sin (how something departs from the truth) and the description of how to repent of the sin (to turn someone back).  Without these two parts a rebuke should never be offered.

There are very good reasons for requiring that the rebuke be for the commission of a biblically provable sin.  Many people take offense when offense is not given.  In other words, many people like to believe that someone has sinned against them when, in reality, no sin has been committed.  The best example of this phenomena can be seen in the ministry of Jesus.  A good portion of the Pharisees took great offense at just about everything Jesus ever said or did.  Yet we know that Jesus never sinned.  If we were to measure the alleged sinfulness of Jesus by the offense that was taken by the Pharisees we would have to conclude that He was a very sinful person.  On the other hand, if we measure the alleged sinfulness of Jesus by the moral standard of the law of God we discover that He lived a sinless life.

In our society, and in our churches, there is great status in being a victim.  There are true victims of actual sins and there are victims who are only victims in their own minds because they take offense at practically everything that goes on around them.  In many cases even the most obscure action of another person is sufficient for somebody to take offense on account of that action.  I believe that a good portion of the gossip that goes on in our churches is related to this type of offense.  In many cases no real sin has been committed but some highly selfish and insecure person takes offense to something that was not offensive (or sinful) and begins to tell others about it.  Soon the battles lines are drawn and the seeds of the next church split are being sown.

Therefore, it is vitally important that a biblical argument be made about the precise sin that was alleged to have been committed in any rebuke of another believer.  If you find yourself unable to formulate the biblical argument and describe precisely what biblical sin has been committed against you, then the odds are pretty good that you are taking offense when no offense was given.

The second thing that the offended party must do is describe to the sinner what he must do to make his offense right.  This requires a sound awareness of the principles of biblical law; something that does not exist in the Church today.  Few pastors, let alone the individual believers sitting in the pews, have any idea what the Bible has to say about bringing forth the fruits of repentance.  What should a sinner do when he has been rightly rebuked for gossip?  What should a sinner do when he has been rightly rebuked for slander?  What about stealing $20 from the offering plate?  What about borrowing another church members lawnmower and dulling the blade by running over rocks?  What about finding a new digital camera in the church parking lot and later discovering whom it belongs to but not returning it due to the rule of “finders/keepers”?  What about two teenagers in the church who commit fornication?  These, and thousands of real life situations  like them, are situations that require knowledge of biblical law.

Merely responding to a rebuke with an “I’m sorry” is not enough.  The victim has the right to set the terms of the fruits of repentance up to, but not beyond, the terms established in biblical law (All of these principles of biblical jurisprudence have been described by others more qualified than me and I have no intention of arguing for them here.  I suggest reading Gary North’s “Tools of Dominion” for a basic understanding of these principles).  For example, if you stole some of my property I could rightly demand a four-fold restitution of that property.  If I confront you on the sin of theft and you confess to committing the theft then it is up to me to set the terms of your repentance.  I may not demand more than a four-fold restitution of the value of the property.  I am permitted to demand less, or nothing at all if I decide to show mercy.  At any rate, it is my responsibility to tell you what is expected.

It is a depressing reality that today’s Christians are so biblically illiterate that they are unable to even enter into the most basic discussion on restitution for specific sins.  Instead of discussing the biblical requirement for the resolution of our conflict, we instead focus on describing on how all the parties to the conflict feel about it.  But God has an opinion about how the conflict is to be resolved and that opinion is contained in His Word.  The fact that we are ignorant of His opinion and His Word is no excuse.  Elders especially will be judged for this horrible failure and dereliction of duty in the Church.

Up to this point I have been primarily talking about conflicts that are the result of particular behaviors.  The Church, however, is filled with conflicts that are the result of thoughts.  In particular, thoughts about theological points are a frequent source of sinful conflict.  The second commandment of sinful conflict resolution still applies.  In order to rebuke me for a particular theological sin you must first be able to show me where my theological position is sinful (also known as heresy) and you must be able to describe the correct theological position on that particular doctrine.  If you are not able to do both, you are not permitted to speak.  There are no exceptions.

The simple observation that I just made is a basic logical proposition but it is amazing how frequently it is ignored.  It is logically impossible to tell another person that his theological view is in error without also at least believing that your position is correct.  Nevertheless, I have heard the following  statement made against any of a variety of theological positions that I have made over my years of teaching, “I don’t know what is right but I know that you are wrong!”  Even a first year logic student can see that it is impossible to assert that Position A is incorrect when the person making the assertion has no Position B.  In order to assert that Position A is in error it is necessary to know that something else is true (Position B).  What is really being said in these instances has got nothing to do with my argument.  What is really being said is more akin to this, “I do not like what you are saying but I can’t prove it wrong so I will simply disagree with it. After all, it is my right as a consumer of religious ideas  to reject anything from the buffet table of religious ideas that you are presenting that I do not like, for whatever reason.  Now continue to serve me or I will take my body and small offering to the church down the street.”

A rebuke for a theological sin is a rebuke for heresy.  What is being said is that it is impossible to hold that particular doctrine and be a true believer.  As I mentioned earlier, there is tremendous confusion in evangelicalism because we have deified factionalism as a proper response to theological disagreements that are not related to heresy.  Here we are told that it is best for us to separate from one another, yet still acknowledge one another as true believers. The important question that needs to be answered is, is this a case of heresy or not?  If it is a case of heresy, then the heretic is to be excommunicated.  If it is not a case of heresy, the believer is to be accepted.  I will speak of this in more detail later.

Unity: The First Command of Sinful Conflict Resolution

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

The first commandment for the resolution of conflicts due to sin is a simple, yet widely ignored, principle.  If you believe that someone has sinned against you then there are two, and only two, people to whom you may speak.  Those two people are God and the person you believe has sinned against you.  All other conversations with any other person about the alleged infraction against you constitute the sin of gossip and perhaps slander.  There are no exceptions to this rule.

What is the first thing that is generally done when somebody believes that someone has sinned against him?  It is the universal practice of believers today to run as quickly as possible to a third party and inform that third party about how the alleged sinner has victimized the alleged victim.  Billy Joe calls up Jim Bob as soon as he can in order to tell him how Frankie was mean to him down at the grocery store this morning.  Billy Joe goes on and on to Jim Bob about Frankie’s meanness.  He describes in intricate detail how Frankie at first did not even notice him.  Then, after Frankie had noticed him, he did not even say hello.  Then the worst possible rudeness took place.  Billy Joe said “Howdy” to Frankie and Frankie ignored him and looked the other way.  Jim Bob affirms the hurt feelings of Billy Joe and they both agree that Frankie is a first class jerk.  Frankie, of course, has no idea that any of this is going on as he was preoccupied with other thoughts while he was walking around the market and he never saw nor heard Billy Joe.

So now we have factions beginning to form in the church that these three men attend.  Billy Joe and Jim Bob believe that Frankie is guilty of being hateful towards Billy Joe.  Others are told of the alleged infraction and many are quick to take up Billy Joe’s offense and join in the chorus of gossip against Frankie.  Eventually word gets around to Frankie and he discovers for the first time that people have been gossiping about him for weeks.  The story has grown to such immense proportions by this time that it is impossible for Frankie to even figure out how someone could have believed that he was behaving hatefully towards Billy Joe.

The point is this, if you believe somebody has sinned against you then it is an act of gossip to talk to anybody else but the person that you believe has sinned against you.  Cowardice causes most people to run to a third party and tell them of the alleged sinful activity.  Most people are afraid to confront someone directly about a sin that they believe has been committed against them.  There are a variety of reasons for that fear and almost all of them revolve around selfishness and a desire to self-protect.

A desire to have one’s own feelings validated is another strong motivation for a person who believes he has been sinned against to go to another.  It is inevitable that the recounting of the sinful event will be one-sided and will dramatically exaggerate the nature of the offense.  The position of the alleged offending party will be considered to be irrelevant and impossible to know or understand.  It is a sad, but true, fact that in my thirty years of being a believer I have been accused of sinning against others literally hundreds of times.  In only two of those cases did the person who believed that I had sinned against him actually come to me, and me alone, and confront me about my alleged sin.  In the other hundred plus times I allegedly was sinning against another person I only found out about it through the grapevine after a significant period of time had passed.  When I would hear about my alleged infraction I would immediately confront the person who accused me of sinning against him and rebuke him for the sin of gossip.  In all of the times I have rebuked somebody for the sin of gossip, I have never had someone repent of that sin.  On the other hand, I have received hundreds of anger filled responses and ravings against my character for daring to rebuke another person for the sin of gossip.

Matthew 18: 15 says, “And if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”  Jesus could not have made it any more clearer.  Jesus makes no provision for the offended party to go and speak to someone other than the offending party.  Why, then, do evangelicals universally ignore this commandment when they believe that someone has sinned against them?  This principle is the essence of the concept of the “priesthood of believers” that the Bible describes the Church as exemplifying.   We are all priests of God and able to mutually encourage, exhort and rebuke one another.  The ministry of rebuke is completely ignored by all evangelicals today.  Even the concept of rebuking others for sin is foreign to most modern believers.  On the other hand, the concept of gossiping to the rest of the church about how so and so offended us is well ingrained in thought and practice.  What a disgusting state of affairs we find ourselves in.

I began by stating that there are two people that the offended party may speak to.  The first is the offending party.  The second is God via prayer.  Not all sins need to be rebuked.  There are times when the most prudent course of action is to ignore or overlook the offense.  I Peter 4: 8 says, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”  Love (agape) can motivate a person to make the choice to overlook an offense.  In this case the offended party makes the assessment that it is in the best interest of the offending party to overlook the sin and turn to God in prayer for that person instead.  Maybe the offended party believes that he is not going to be able to communicate to the offending party for one reason or another.  Maybe he believes that the nature of the offense is best left at the base of the throne of God.  In all cases it is love that will constrain the true saint.  Love will ask what is in the best interest of the offending party and will then behave accordingly; either rebuking the offending party for the sin or overlooking the offense and going to God in prayer that He might show the offender the error of his ways.

In actual practice I believe it is most wise to put most sins into the category of deciding to ignore the offense.  We all offend and take offense from one another all the time.  The fact that we are generally selfish, petty, vindictive, and  unsanctified people means that there will be a vast multitude of offenses going on all the time.  The sheer logistics of rebuking for every offense would overwhelm most people.  But, the rule of love must constrain.  Sometimes it is in the best interest of the other person that he be confronted about his sin.  The question that always must be asked is, what is in the other persons best interest?

Whether the offended party decides to rebuke or to ignore the offense, there is one thing that should always be the case.  Nobody else should ever be aware of the sin at this point in time.  If anybody else is aware of the alleged offense then it is necessarily the case that the sin of gossip has been committed.  Gossip runs rampant in our churches.  There is scarcely an evangelical church in the country where gossip has not become an art form.  One of my favorites is the “gossip in a prayer request” format.  We have all heard this one.  During a prayer meeting one of the participants will say something like, “Please pray for Joe that he would come to see just how much he hurt me with his words last week.”  Of course, Joe is not there and even if he was there he would most likely have no idea what the person is talking about.

I was walking down an aisle in a small town grocery store a couple of years ago when I heard two people in the next aisle  talking.  The one person said to the other that he planned on attending the prayer meeting at the local community church that evening because it was the most reliable source of juicy gossip in the entire town.  What made this indictment so damning was the fact that he was not speaking in jest.  He was sincerely interested in hearing gossip and he knew enough to know that the local church is usually the best place to get an earful.  Proverbs 11: 12-13 says, “He who despises his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding keeps silent.  He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.”  The evangelical church is desperately wicked when it comes to the sin of gossip.  As a result, conflicts due to sin are rarely, if ever, resolved properly.

Unity: The Source of Sinful Conflicts

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

James 4: 1-3 describes the source of sinful conflicts among men:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?  You lust and do not have; so you commit murder.  And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.  You do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.  You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?

What is the source of sinful conflict?  Our own emotions of lust, envy, and pleasure seeking are the source of our conflicts.  Our own basic presupposition that the way of the world is the correct way to behave brings about conflict.  I will never forget a time when I was working as an apartment painter.  On my way home after work one day I boarded an elevator to take me down to the parking lot.  The landlord was standing on an outside hallway and he was in the process of evicting a person who was well behind on his rent.  As I was standing there waiting for the elevator the man who was being evicted launched into a profanity filled tirade against the landlord.  The landlord, a believer, listened quietly and did not respond.  The elevator door opened and I entered the compartment along with the man who was being evicted and his girlfriend/wife.  As the doors closed and we began to descend he turned to the woman and said, “I just had to express how I feel”.   After all, he was just expressing his feelings.  In his mind, and in the eyes of the world, that justified his verbal abuse of an innocent man.

Objectively, this man was a thief.  He was stealing from the landlord by writing bad checks and obtaining living quarters for free.  It had taken almost two months to go through the process of eviction and the man had never paid a penny in rent.  In essence, he had stolen hundreds of dollars from the landlord.  However, from his emotional perspective, the landlord was a tyrant who was oppressing him.  From his point of view the landlord deserved to be the recipient of a severe verbal attack that was laced with profanity.  His lust, envy and pursuit of personal pleasure had blinded him to objective reality.  That is the essence of a sinful conflict.

Sinful conflict comes into existence when one or both of the parties to the conflict decides to abandon the pursuit of objective reality by rational means and, instead, decides to protect themselves from the possibility that they could be wrong.  Merely admitting that it is possible to be wrong is not usually a threat.  However, for most people who find it impossible to control their emotions, an admission of error is far more than an objective statement.  It is a highly emotionally charged statement that most people are either unwilling or unable to perform.  I John 4: 20 gives some insight into this dynamic when John says, “If some one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

It is not possible to claim to love God (and therefore be a Christian) and hate His people at the same time.  John simply says that the person who claims to do so is a liar.  It is not possible for a person to love a God that he has not seen when  he is unwilling or unable to love a fellow professing believer that he does see.  In other words, genuine love for God will always be demonstrated in genuine love for other professing believers.  If there is no evidence of genuine love for other professing believers, then there is no reason to expect that person is a true believer.

I Corinthians 13 lists several of the qualities of the love that John speaks about.  Among other things love is “patient, kind, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, and endures all things”.  It is not difficult to understand that there is very little love going on in our churches.  As I said before, if you are a member in the “Church of Shallowness” where nobody ever says or does anything that is deep or genuine, then it may appear as if people actually love one another.  But reality will eventually intrude.  Something will come up.  Maybe it will be what color to paint the bathrooms.  Maybe it will be who gets the best parking spot.  Maybe it will be who decides what style the choir robes are going to be.  Maybe it will be who decides what should be put out as a snack around the coffee pot.  When it does, look around to see how much patience, kindness, and care for others is being displayed.

I have witnessed and been involved in hundreds of conflicts between professing believers in my thirty years of being a Christian.  In almost all of those conflicts I have seen precious little patience.  Kindness is almost immediately thrown out the window because the practice of real kindness would not allow the combatants to call each other names.  Self-seeking is the name of the game and the battle lines are drawn between the warring parties.  Schisms form and members are actively recruited to join the different sides as a gesture of their dedication to some particular point or idea.  The idea that “love is not provoked” quickly flies out the window as each side accuses the other of provoking them in one way or another.  Perhaps most disgustingly, each side manages to find long lists of previous “sins” that have been committed against their individual members which are then dragged out and made public.  These lists can be extremely long and go back to alleged offenses that often took place years earlier.  So much for “not taking into account a wrong suffered.”

Sinful conflicts originate from our own sinfulness.  That may sound like a bit of an oxymoron but it is amazing how that truism is ignored or suppressed.  In every sinful conflict, one or both parties to the conflict are in a state of sin.  Sin is not something that can be ignored.  Sin is something that must be resolved.  The standard practice of most people and churches to simply wait and hope that everything will eventually calm down is not enough.  The common practice of finding a scapegoat and blaming him for all that has happened and hoping that he will eventually leave the church does not honor God.  God has given in His Word some specific principles for the resolution of sinful conflicts.  We will examine three of them here.

Unity: Conflicts Defined

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.

Conflicts are an inevitable part of the human experience.  As long as at least two people exist and as long as those two people are not identical, there will be a context for conflict.  I Corinthians 12: 20-21 says, “But now there are many members, but one body.  And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”  The natural tendency for people to believe that their perspective is the right perspective will inexorably bring about conflict.  Indeed, not all conflict is bad.  In the right circumstances, and practiced without animosity, conflict can be a means by which each of the participants is sharpened.  Proverbs 27: 17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  It is hard to conceive of two iron instruments being brought together without lots of noise and sparks.  Nevertheless, when done without sinful motivations, the process brings about the sharpening of each of the participants.

An unfortunate practice among evangelical Christians is the attempt to eliminate all forms of conflict.  These believers, usually pietists, can’t stand the noise and sparks that are associated with the process of forging a stronger piece of metal.  They mistakenly believe that the Christian experience is more akin to harps and clouds.  Therefore, anything that is noisy and boisterous must automatically be incorrect.  Many evangelical churches operate in this fashion.  Members in these churches walk around with plastic smiles formed on their faces so as to give the appearance of being peaceful, content, and highly sanctified.  Everyone greets one another with kind words that mean absolutely nothing.  The desire to eliminate good conflict results in communication that is shallow and without content.  As a result, individual and corporate spiritual growth never happens in these churches, despite the fact that they can seem very sanctified in their behavior.

A conflict, simply understood, is a difference of opinion about a behavior or a belief.  Stated objectively, a conflict appears to be quite innocuous.  However, human beings are subjective creatures and it is the rare individual who is able to maintain objective control over his behaviors and beliefs.  As we saw in the case of elders who are unwilling or unable to suppress their emotions in order to render a judicial decision, so most individual believers are unable or unwilling  to objectively distance themselves from their closely held beliefs.  In fact, most believers become highly emotionally involved with their own beliefs and behaviors to the point that an objective “attack” (a challenge to or disagreement with)  upon them by another person is perceived as a personal “attack” that needs to be personally “counter-attacked”.  The process quickly degenerates from the process of iron sharpening iron to one of two selfish individuals calling each other names and protecting their own emotional turf.

It is vitally important for all believers to maintain emotional self-control.  Since almost nobody is able to do this in our churches today, we are filled with sinful conflicts.  The fact that emotional, rather than theological, expression has been elevated to the highest standard of communication does little to help the situation.  The worldly influence of popular psychology upon the Church has led directly to the presupposition that the expression of our emotions is what leads to spiritual health.  But, the heart is wicked and deceitful above all things.  It is hard to see how giving free reign to a wicked and deceitful part of our lives is going to bring about spiritual unity.  On the contrary, our emotions must be subject to the control of our minds if we are ever going to make progress in spiritual growth and maturity.

Ostensibly, the goal of every believer is to become more like Jesus.  In theory that means conforming more and more to the precepts revealed in His Word.  It is assumed that each believer is somewhere along the pathway of sanctification and that there are still areas in our lives that need to conform to the Word of God.  For the person who is unable to exercise emotional self-control however, it is impossible to make progress because sinful, self-protective emotions quickly surface the moment another person challenges his opinions or behaviors.  Of course, all of this is just a fancy way of pointing out that spiritual pride is the nemesis of spiritual growth.  As long as we are thinking of ourselves, it is impossible that we shall make any progress.  Conflict is the result of selfishness.  When we forget about ourselves we are in a position to make moral progress and entirely eliminate sinful conflict.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best (Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8) when he said, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good–above all, that we are better than someone else–I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.  The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.  It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”  It is not possible to be offended when you are not thinking about yourself.  It is not possible to have a sinful conflict with another person when you are thinking about what is in the best interest of the other person.  It is not possible to become angry with what someone has said about you when your own opinion of yourself  is so low that there is nothing the other person could say that would challenge that opinion!  When we realize that the nasty words coming out of that other person’s mouth really have nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own attempt to self-protect, then we are able to understand the dynamics of conflict.