The Bible is clear about God’s desire for us to reflect His holiness (1 Peter 1:15), and it is clear about the need for church discipline to deal with sin in the church. Since one of the jobs of the church is to demonstrate the goodness and holiness of God, a church with a member who persists in sin must take steps to address the state of that person’s soul as well as protect the church body from being corrupted by unchallenged sin in its membership.
Jesus gave us an outline to follow when we must confront another professing Christian: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17). So the first step in handling sin in the church is for someone with knowledge of the situation, often the pastor or an elder, to confront that person in love, expressing concern and explaining the spiritual ramifications if the sin continues.
If the sinning member refuses to repent, a second step must be taken. The one who originally confronted the person needs to take along other godly people and visit the sinning member again. The presence of others may serve to induce the sinner to repent; if not, there are witnesses to all that is said and done, preventing any false claims or denials later. This interview needs to include Scripture-based reproof and opportunities for restoration. Verses such as 1 John 3:3–10, 5:18, Luke 14:25–27, Matthew 7:16–23, and Ephesians 5:3 may be helpful at this time.
If, after the second step, the church member still refuses to repent of the sin, Jesus says to “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17), an action that would bring even more pressure to bear. If that fails, then the offending member is to be removed from the church and considered an unbeliever (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9–13). This process shows the seriousness of sin in the church and the need to strive for reconciliation. The steps that Jesus outlines to protect the purity and reputation of the church should not be sidestepped or ignored.
What kinds of sins should a church confront? Since everyone is a sinner, including the pastor and elders, where do we draw the line between the sins everyone commits and those worthy of confrontation? The answer seems to be the lifestyle sins committed by those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and Galatians 5:19–20; see also Titus 3:10–11). These are public, ongoing sinful choices that are differentiated from those sins we commit in our hearts because we live in the flesh. For example, a Christian struggling with impure thoughts or personal jealousies is not defaming the name of Christ as he wrestles with those sins. They are private and unwanted. They are sins for which the person needs repentance, but they are not lifestyle choices. However, a professing Christian who lives in open, unrepentant adultery, sexual immorality, drunkenness, or any of the other sins on Paul’s lists must be confronted.
Sin in the church must be handled properly, that is, in a biblical manner. Church leaders who choose a sinful path are not exempt from discipline: “Those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20). Unfortunately, many churches today never practice church discipline, even in glaring instances of impropriety and obvious sin. The result is that the ministry of the church is undermined and the legitimacy of its message cast in doubt. If the Bible says that Christians don’t do X, but there are assumed Christians in our church who are doing X, with no consequences, then outsiders are right to wonder whether we take the Bible seriously.
God spoke to Israel words that still echo through the church: “If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sins, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Imagine the healing that would take place in the world if all churches would follow the biblical pattern for handling sin in their midst.