February 13, 2007

It's all about motive

My grandmother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The Bible version of her good advice is more proactive: “Speak the truth in love.”

At times, speaking the truth is easy. I can ‘preach’ at someone without effort, but instead of changing their lives, words delivered in a dogmatic or even brutal fashion are taken with offense.

At times, speaking in love is easy, but I excuse sin for fear of losing the relationship, thus giving the other person a sense no matter what they do, I don’t care. Practicing love without truth is hypocrisy; I do care.

Love is not sentiment or selfish, and truth is not blunt or without feeling. God combines them both; He hugs and rebukes at the same time. He wants me to be like Him.

This morning I read from Matthew 18 how the church is to deal with a believer who sins. First, one person goes to them about it. If the sinning church member does not confess and repent, then two or three go. If that person still refuses to deal with their sin, the matter is told to the entire congregation. If the sinning member still rejects these attempts at correction, then that person is to be treated the same as an unbeliever.

Some react strongly to this passage saying what right does the church have to mess with the lives of its people? But that is what this passage is about—Jesus gives His church authority to deal with sin in its midst. This is the meaning of verse 18. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Scornful people might resist this, but Jesus says that the censures of the church are confirmed in the court of heaven. No one can appeal to God if His judgment is already been given against them by His representatives on earth. Of course whatever the church does concerning sin, forgiveness and rebuke, it must follow God’s principles. Heaven is in harmony with church decisions only as they are based on the clear instruction in God’s Word.

Rebuke for sin in any congregation is an important part of a healthy, alive church. If one part of my body is dirty, the other parts wash it. While Jesus wants individual parts clean, He also cares that the whole Body is pure. Sometimes we need to help one another, but we must do it in love, not with a wire brush.

This also requires humility. I have no right to take a scrub brush to someone else’s sin if I don’t recognize and deal with my own. Nor do I have any right to speak to sinners as though I have my act together. This is not about sitting on a pedestal and shaking my finger. It is about going to another person and taking their hand, drawing them back into fellowship.

When a church disciplines a member, it is actually examining and disciplining itself. Church discipline is not about a group of ‘Christian policemen’ throwing their weight around. Rather, it means God is exercising His authority in and through His people to restore one of His erring children.

This is why verses 18 to 20 talk about authority, prayer, and fellowship. We cannot discipline others if we ourselves are not disciplined, or if we have not agreed in prayer about the matter. We get our word ‘symphony’ from the Greek word for ‘agree.’ The idea of church discipline is to bring harmony out of discord with a united effort to keep our lives as clean as possible.

That being said, I notice that most Christians, myself included, are much better at rebuking, or at least talking down the sins of outsiders who are not in the church and are not Christians. Sometimes we do it to their face, but mostly not. I’ve done it to make myself appear ‘holier than thou’ and that is in itself a prideful sin.

Matthew 18 is about believers and does not refer to people without Christ. While their sin is damaging to them and others, without Jesus, they have no power to conquer it. They first need to know about His love for them and how He will forgive all their sin. Our message for them is that they can belong to His family, not that they need to be restored to fellowship.

My Gran’s words come back to me. If I cannot bring good news to sinners (believers or otherwise), then I need to be careful that any ‘bad news’ that I share is spoken from a heart filled with love. While I don’t always agree that ‘it is better to be nice than right,’ Jesus clearly challenges me that being right by itself will not be produce the results I’m looking for. Unless I love others, I’d better keep my mouth shut.

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