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Sin Must Always Be Dealt With

For the past 30 years it has been my practice when going to preach in a gospel meeting to teach on at least one topic that troubles brethren. In the past I have discussed Divorce and Remarriage; the A.D. 70 doctrine; Institutionalism and other matters regarding the authority of God; the Deity of Jesus Christ; the "days" of Genesis 1; Social drinking; and other moral and doctrinal issues of our day.

I suppose I have preached on the topic of fellowship more than any other. There are a number of reasons for this:

First, it impacts all other issues. Ultimately, when dealing with doctrinal beliefs and moral practices, we must determine whether these issues will impact our fellowship. Should we mark, avoid and discipline those who teach or practice differently? Or should we be tolerant of such differences?

Second, our individual personalities can influence our thinking to the point of causing us to disobey God. For example, someone with a pugnacious personality might be inclined to foment strife among brethren, striving "about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers" (2 Timothy 2:14). Another might be so averse to confrontation that he fails to "contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

Third, in my estimation, this issue is the biggest of this generation. Just as institutionalism drove a wedge between brethren in the 1940's and 1950's, different ideas regarding how to deal with doctrinal differences and sinful practices has led to a de facto division among brethren in the last 25 years.

To put the matter simply, Christians have no authority to fellowship one who God says to reject, nor to reject one who God says to receive. As in all things, His will must be acknowledged and obeyed. Since Paul wrote, "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (Romans 14:1), this one we must receive! Since John wrote, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11), this one we must refuse! Further, since we know these two passages are not contradictory, we must seek to reconcile their meanings - that we might receive those we are supposed to receive, and refuse those we are supposed to refuse.

An axiom that must be acknowledged for us to come to unity on this matter is that sin must always be dealt with! We might have to discuss the best way to deal with sin, or what actually is a sin, but the fact that it must be dealt with is unquestionably so! Consider these truths:

Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-3; Romans 6:23).
Christ's death on the cross was God's means of dealing with sin (Matthew 26:28).
In the judgment, it is sin that will condemn the unrighteous (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
A spiritual person, impelled by love, will seek to restore the sinner (Galatians 6:1).

Since these things are so, it is evident that sin must always be dealt with! Any rationale for maintaining an open ended fellowship with an unrepentant sinner is by definition invalid. Unfortunately, these rationales are plentiful, and embraced by a world tolerant of sin. Even more unfortunately, these rationales have influenced the thinking of Christians.

Some will quote Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged." They twist the words of our Lord, who was not giving a blanket condemnation of judging, but was criticizing evil and hypocritical judging! (vs. 2-5). In fact, in the same context, Jesus called upon his disciples to judge (identify and condemn) false teachers! (vs. 15-20), "Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (vs. 20). In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul gave a direct command to judge the unrepentant sinner in their congregation, "Do you not judge those who are inside?... Therefore 'put away from yourselves the evil person.'" (12-13).

Some will claim that God did not make some things sufficiently clear to make them a test of fellowship. This is an inherently flawed, and subjective argument. God revealed Himself to man for the expressed purpose of saving him. Jesus said, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). To say that God's truth is not sufficiently clear is to either cast aspersion upon God's ability to express Himself, or on His ability to create a creature capable of understanding His will! While it is admitted that some truths are complex and meaty, thus "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16); this does not excuse false teaching or disobedience (2 Peter 3:15-18). Further, who would determine which things are sufficiently "clear," and which are not? Such a rationale makes every man his own standard! "You shall not at all do as we are doing here today — every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes..." (Deuteronomy 12:8).

Some take Paul's instruction in Romans 14:1 out of context, claiming Paul was telling his readers to "receive one" who is teaching error, or practicing sin. The scenarios under consideration in Romans 14 were matters that did not impact a man's standing with God (vs. 3-4; 1 Corinthians 8:8). Paul's readers had the liberty (authority) to eat meat, or observe a day, but it was not commanded (vs. 6; 1 Corinthians 8:9). That sin is not in the context of Paul's call to receive is born out in verse 5 of the text, where Paul wrote, "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind." Paul would never tell one guilty of sin to engage in the activity with a good conscience. He instead, as we all know, would call the sinner to repent! (Acts 17:30-31).

Some contend that we must not judge because we are not apostles, nor do we have their authority. While such an observation is true, (we are not apostles), it does not relieve us of our obligation to show our love for our brethren! "Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). We are certainly to follow the example of Christ and His apostles, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1); because, "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master" (Matthew 10:24-25).

Paul's admonition of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5 demonstrates the truth that sin must always be dealt with. He accused them of arrogance (vs. 2) because they had disregarded his instructions to withdraw their fellowship from the unrepentant sinner in their midst (vs. 9). He gave them two reasons why such action was necessary: First, "that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (vs. 5). Second, because a "little leaven leavens the whole lump" (vs. 6).

Too often brethren confuse sentimentality with the true expression of brotherly love. John wrote, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments" (1 John 5:2). If God says to withdraw our fellowship from the unrepentant, the only way to truly express love for that one is to keep God's command!

If one objects that in his view, the withdrawal of fellowship "will not work," it is important to note the danger of elevating one's own opinion over the revealed counsel of God. It certainly did work in the case of the sexually immoral person who was finally disciplined in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul noted the repentance of that person in his second letter, and counseled the Corinthians to, "forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow" (2 Corinthians 2:7). Regardless, should a sinner refuse to repent despite the censoring of the congregation, at least the brethren are spared the corrupting influence of the sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6). Our views on this matter need to be informed by God's word, not the tolerant culture of our nation and time.

Further, it must be noted that the withdrawal of fellowship is the last in a series of efforts to bring a sinner to repentance. We do not turn away from the sinner immediately. We are called upon to admonish and warn, and we exercise patience as we express our love for their soul (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Our Lord gave instructions in this, noting an escalation of steps (private discussion, inclusion of select witnesses, public admonition) before the final act of withdrawal (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Even if such a step is required, Paul wrote, "And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).

But, we must always deal with the sin. And, no sin is excluded from this requirement. Personal offenses are included (Matthew 18:15-17). Sins of strife are included (Titus 3:10; Romans 16:17-18). Sins of the flesh such as fornication (1 Corinthians 5:9), adultery (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), drunkenness, covetousness, reviling, extortion (1 Corinthians 5:11), idolatry (2 Timothy 3:4-5), lying and idleness (1 Timothy 5:13) are included. The teaching of heresy is included (Romans 16:17-18; 2 John 9-11; Titus 3:9-11).

The words of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3 are helpful. He wrote in verse 6, "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us." The Greek term translated "disorderly" in this text (ataktos) is defined by Thayer in his lexicon, "1) disorderly, out of ranks (often so of soldiers); 2) irregular, inordinate, immoderate pleasures; 3) deviating from the prescribed order or rule." It is an inclusive term including anyone who is impenitent, showing a disposition to continue in sinful practice. For example, the sin of willfully forsaking worship would be included by this term (cf. Hebrews 10:25); as would the practice of teaching something other than the "wholesome words" of the Lord (cf. 1 Timothy 6:2-5).
When sin enters the camp, it must be dealt with. To fail or refuse to do so endangers the soul of the sinner himself, and exposes other Christians to the danger of sin's corrupting influence. Our prayer is always that such a one will come to repentance. Regardless, we must obey God's command, and trust that He who knows all, knows best!

By Stan Cox

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