Friday, February 21, 2014

Cornerstone Questions: Should We Shun Sinning Christians?

From time to time, I have taken the opportunity to answer questions that I receive from people in my church. I just finished a series on the topic of Church Discipline, which raised a couple questions I thought I would like to address here on my blog as well as our church blog. I'm sure there were more than what were given to me. If there are, I'd sure love the opportunity to address them as well. But today and tomorrow, I will simply answer the ones I have been given.

Question: Does this mean we, as Christians or the church, "Shun" the man that is continuing in sin? If so, what does that look like?

Good question. Because of where I live, I am surprised that there were not more questions in connection with shunning. I have previously written about this topic (Excommunication is NOT Shunning), but will attempt to articulate it a bit more in depth this time around.

I know this question came after my sermon on 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul tells the church "let him who has done this be removed from among you" (vs. 4) and "Purge the evil person from among you" (vs. 13). These both sound very serious. And so the question becomes, how should the Christian respond to the one who claims to be a Christian but has resisted repentance when confronted with their sin?

What Is Church Discipline?
The primary purpose of Church Discipline is to restore the individual. The church is never called to discipline the person who claims to be an unbeliever. You discipline the one who claims to be in a relationship with God but is acting like he isn't. It is meant to be a plan of helping people walk with God.

Jesus gives us the pattern to follow in Matthew 18:15-20. Step on is to go alone and if they respond to the confrontation, the matter is over. If they repent, the situation is done. If they refuse to repent, then you shed more light on their sin by taking one or two with you. If they continue to refuse to repent, you tell it to the church. And if they still refuse to repent, Jesus tells us to treat them as a Gentile or Tax Collector. His point is that we treat them as they are no longer part of the covenant community. This is excommunication.

How Should We Treat The Excommunicated?
When they are no longer part of the covenant community, then how should we treat them? This is the real issue. Once someone has gone through the four steps and Jesus tells us to treat them as a Gentile or Tax Collector, how should we respond to them? Let me offer several practical steps.

First, Continue To Pray For Them. Never stop praying for the one that has been removed. This will be one of the ways in which we see the church continuing to pursue the individual. As the church has taken the steps outlined by Jesus, they have the authority of Jesus. But they don't have the power to change the person. And so we continue to cry out to the one who has the power. Unfortunately, my experience has been that once someone is taken to step four, the church seems to forget about the individual. This is a shame. And I believe the church has failed and shows that it might not care for them as much as they said they do.

Second, Be Intentional & Don't Avoid Them. There is a difference between Jesus' words in Matthew 18 of treating them like a Gentile or Tax Collector and doing everything you can to avoid the person. Even Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 5 to not associate with them certainly doesn't mean that we avoid a particular store because we see them walk into that store. If I were to summarize how we should treat them, it would be intentional, but not social. If the relationship was social before, there probably needs to be a change so the person feels a difference. But the difference should never be avoidance.

In Robert Cheong's wonderful book, God Redeeming His Bride, he quotes Pastor Steve Viars who talked about what he (and their church) does when he comes in contact with someone who has been excommunicated from their church.
"We cannot go out to dinner, we cannot go out to the store without running into someone that's been disciplined by this church. That's the value of an ongoing pastoral ministry. Again, we would treat them just like we would an unbeliever. We're going to befriend them. We're not going to walk down the other aisle in the grocery store. We're going to greet them. We're going to love on them. But if that conversation goes beyond a sentence or two my arm is going to be around that person and I'm going to be telling them we love them and are praying for their repentance and we would be so glad to receive them back into our membership and treat them like a person who knows Christ as soon as they repent. I have those kinds of conversations all the time and we train our church members to do the exact same thing so if they continue to be friends with the person who's been disciplined, and many times they do, part of that friendship is regular encouragements to repent" (283).
Third, Help In Times Of Need. Some of the best advice I have read comes from Cheong's book. He makes the case that when a person under discipline goes through a rough time in life, such as an illness, loss of job, poverty issue, or so on, it might just be the hand of God seeking to humble that person. And maybe during that time, it would be helpful for the church to step in and serve as long as they do not help them continue in their sin. He says,
"Such mercy during times of need reflects the kindness of our redeeming God and can soften hardened hearts and lead to repentance" (285). 
Fourth, If They Are Family, Shine The Light Of The Gospel. Some of my friends and I have been talking about this. What do you do when it is one of your family members who were excommunicated? What then? How would someone not socialize with someone that still lives in their home? Cheong offers these helpful thoughts:
"Family members have the most interaction with those disciplined if they still live in the same house. Whether they live in the same house or not, family members should reflect Christ when they relate to those who have rejected Christ. God instructs a wife whose husband is disobedient to the Word of God to place her hope in Christ and live out the gospel before her husband sot hat she may be a redemptive influence on her rebellious spouse. God knows and addresses the sinful realities of marriages" (284). 
Conclusion
It seems to me that excommunication is different from the Amish version of Shunning. While the Christian may not intentionally socialize with the person who is under discipline, they should not be avoided. And they certainly should not be forgotten. May God use us as we pursue those who have walked away from the Lord. And if necessary, may God use the pain of loneliness to change their hearts toward Him. All to His glory and our good.

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