I cannot imagine a less popular topic than “sin in the church.” I told a friend of more than 25 years, a very mature Christian, that I had been asked to write an article on the subject. He said, “So what’s new?” I asked an author with more than 50 books to his credit what he thought. He replied, “How are you going to deal with that?” That was my question also!
Is the church as an institution–made up of individuals who sin–willing to face up to failures and sins that weaken its effectiveness and negate its witness to the world?
Failures and scandals will always receive more attention than the unreported good that Christians do. Hypocrisy detracts from sincere efforts to honor Christ. Time does heal, but those who oppose the Gospel delight in and even gloat over the failures of Christians, dodging the claims of Christ with the excuse of the spiritual duplicity of Christ-followers.
Obvious sins are easy to spot and denounce, such as sins of murder, stealing and adultery. But God looks on the heart, Jesus said, and beyond the obvious sins are ones that, while less noticeable, are no less harmful. Churches suffer because of the tolerated presence of sins such as gossip, envy, pride, hate, coveting and the lust of the imagination. But whether obvious or hidden, any sin injures the church. The Bible teaches that the church is the Body of Christ, and when one part suffers, the whole Body suffers. So the effect of sin goes far beyond the individual who commits it. No wonder our churches today are so often weak and ineffective!
Church is a glorious word. Our Lord Jesus used it first when He said He would build His church on Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16-18, NIV). “Called out” is the true meaning of the word church. The true Church–the Body and Bride of Christ–is known by God alone, without regard to the limitations of geography, theology or human distinctions. How gracious of God to allow His Name to be borne by human beings so prone to be unlike Him! The Scriptures describe believers as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God”
(1 Peter 2:9, NIV). They are known for their faith and fellowship in the Gospel, described as new creations, motivated by love and compelled to live not for themselves but for Him who died for them and rose again (Philippians 1:5, 27; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
But above all, Christians are called to keep the words of Christ and obey His commandments–to walk, or live, as Jesus did (1 John 2:3-6). Christians are called to a distinctive, separated life of purity from the obsessions of physical pleasure, which the Bible calls the lusts and worldly alliances that contradict spiritual fellowship. “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common?”
(2 Corinthians 6:14, NIV). “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17, NIV). “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God”
(2 Corinthians 7:1, NIV). Do these commands seem contrary to contemporary Christian culture?
Jesus warned that the wheat and the tares, the true and the false, would grow together even in good soil. When there is no distinction between the Christian and the world, the appeal of the Gospel is lost and the impact of the Christian’s life diminishes. This intermingling of the lost and the saved, the sheep and the goats, will become more prevalent so that at the return of Christ He alone “will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42, NIV).
This gives a frightful insight into the danger of blurring the distinctiveness of the church. Any adaptation by the church and individual Christians to the world will bring confusion to the witness of the Gospel and will make a mockery of the call to repentance and the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord.
The final words of the risen Lord recorded in Scripture were spoken to the historic churches at the end of the first century, but His warning to the church in Ephesus certainly includes every church since then until the close of the age. He said, “Repent, or the light will be removed” (Cf. Revelation 2:5).
Sin is so seductive. At its core it is the deception of the heart. The fall in the garden for Eve was the power of suggestion and a lie. For Adam it was direct disobedience–taking the fruit of the tree had already been identified as sin. What was the cause? It was pride, ego. Adam disregarded the Word of God to satisfy his own desire. Pride always precedes the fall.
Likewise, the source of sin in the church is pride. Pride is behind shameful, sinful indulgence of any kind. Pride convinces us that the pleasure is worth the risk. It isn’t. If we consistently give in to temptation, spiritual blindness follows, with horrifying repercussions: Sins committed against the body result in loss of health, disease and illusive happiness. Sins against the spirit bring guilt and a deep, aching sadness. Sins against the truth bring the endless search for reality and the lack of intellectual resolution. “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked’” (Isaiah 48:22, NIV).
Sin in the first-century churches was identified and dealt with. The Bible tells how a married couple sold some property and brought an offering to the church, passing it off as the entire amount they had received but in reality holding back a portion. The Apostle Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit, and both were struck dead (Acts 5:1-10).
The Apostle Paul identified sexual sin and the tolerance of it in the church at Corinth. He directed, “Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5, NIV). And where there was doctrinal error or divisiveness, Paul instructed the church to have nothing to do with those members (1 Timothy 4:7, Titus 3:10).
Likewise today, we must not disregard sin, whether in our churches or in our own lives. Our motivation should not be to shame and punish but to restore our brothers and sisters to a right relationship with God. We would do well to follow the directive of Paul to the church in Galatia: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1, NIV).
Remember that sin must be confessed and repented of–only then can there be forgiveness and restoration. The holiness of God remains forever. But at the same time, the substitution of the sinless Son of God for the sinner, and for His Church, redeems and reconciles forever.