When a Church Member Sins

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If you have been a follower of Jesus Christ for any length of time, chances are that you also attend a church of other believers.  We are called to assemble to exhort (Heb. 10:25) and encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes. 5:11).  All the members of the church should be on track to becoming more and more like Jesus.  But, not every Christian is on the same level of spiritual maturity.

Some still follow the same sinful practices that the devil taught them before they made the good confession.  They still sin against their brethren.  And so, Jesus tells us to love them and forgive them, pray for them, and seek to be reconciled to them.  You may not have ever been taught how to do this.  Let me offer you a three-step guide below, preceding them with cautions.

CAUTION: If you see the offense or you have accurate knowledge of the sin(s), please note:

  • Be sure it is an offense calling for discipline and not merely a pet peeve. God’s Word must be our criterion.
  • Remember how we too have sinned in the past and heed Galatians 6:1.
  • Bring the matter before the Lord in prayer before the confrontation (1 Sam. 8:6).
  • Don’t procrastinate. The longer the delay, the more difficult the condition can become.
  • Don’t gossip or even talk to others in the church parking lot.  Instead, we must guard and protect the person and the flock from rumors and a slanderous tongue (Prov. 6:19b; 10:19; 11:13; 18:8, 21; 20:19).

Step 1 – Be Discreet.  First, seek private correction and/or reconciliation with the offender (Matt. 18:15). In Matthew 18:15, many manuscripts have “and if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private.”

Whether the words “against you” were in the original text or not, Galatians 6:1 teaches that believers have a responsibility to confront sin in general in the life of other believers and not just when it is an offense against one’s person.  It would seem, then, that there is a two-fold application:

  1. When the problem involves one believer sinning against another, there are two problems that need to be taken care of: reconciliation and restoration (Matt. 5:23 24).
  2. When the problem involves a believer overcome by or involved in sin, as was the case in Galatians 6:1, the need is restoration.

Matthew 18:16-17 should not be limited to the problem of one believer sinning against another in view of Galatians 6:1.  So, the one offended or who recognizes the offense or sin is to go privately and try to rectify the problem.  Please note the following guidelines:

  1. Begin by expressing your genuine appreciation for the person and their good qualities to show you are genuinely concerned about their welfare.  Then, and only then, bring up the matter of concern.
  2. In some situations the sin is apparent and there is no question, but we must allow for the possibility that we have misjudged or have wrong information. We must listen to the other person’s side of the story and seek the facts in the interest of truth and fairness.

If the person fails to respond after you have followed this step, warn them that, according to the instructions of Scripture (Matt. 18:16), you will have to get others as witnesses and return with them to deal with the problem.

Step 2 – Get Help from Church Leadership.  If the first step fails, take witnesses to strengthen the effect of the discipline, preferably spiritual leaders – the Pastor, an Elder or Deacons, so that if it has to be brought before the whole church it can be firmly proven and established (Matt. 18:16-17; 1 Tim. 5:19).  The aid of church leadership should be sought if the problem involves an offense that is against the whole body or if it is a threat to the unity of the body.

These initial contacts, private and with witnesses, provide opportunity for loving admonition, correction, and forgiveness.  On the other hand, if these first steps do not produce results, it constitutes a warning that further action will be taken and provides occasion for serious rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Thes. 5:12-13; Titus 2:15; 3:10).

Step 3 – Get Help from the Congregation.  If the second step fails, seek reconciliation and restoration through the whole body.  If further action is necessary, it is to be taken before the whole church (2 Thes. 3:14-15; Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20).

This action appears to fall into two stages when we combine 2 Thes. 3:14 and 1 Cor. 5:9-13 with Matt. 18:17.

  1. The body is to exercise group disapproval by way of social ostracism (refusal to have intimate fellowship).
  2. If this doesn’t work, the local body of believers is to exercise excommunication: removal from church membership, loss of voting privileges, and continuation of the loss of intimate fellowship. This must be approved of and done by the entire congregation (2 Cor. 2:6).

This is, in essence, the Lord carrying out discipline through the action of the entire body under the leadership of the elders or the spiritually mature (1 Cor. 5:4).  Similar heavenly authority is seen in the ratification of this disciplinary action as spelled out in Matthew 18:18-19.

I hope this blog has given you some tools if a church member sins.  Be blessed. – AL

For more complete studies on this subject, see (1) A Guide to Church Discipline, by Carl Laney (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985), and (2) Healing the Wounded, The Costly Love of Church Discipline, by John White and Ken Blue, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985).