Wednesday, 15 November 2017

God can pick up the pieces

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 1 Corinthians 5:1-2

Crisis at Corinth! It sounds like a cheapo paper-back, doesn’t it? Or a headline from a trashy newspaper: Sex Scandal Rocks Corinth Church!

Well, it is a scandal, and Paul is horrified when he hears about it. Never mind the details, let’s just say it was a case of gross sexual immorality – gross enough, it seems, to shock even the non-Christian people of this ancient, far-from-holy, Roman city, never mind God’s holy people.

I hope this is the kind of situation you and your church never have to deal with. For Paul tells his readers that the guilty person should be thrown out of the church (“excommunicated”, if you want the technical term). In verses 4-5 he sets out some kind of solemn ceremony for the Corinth Christians to carry out, in which the man will be “handed over to Satan” – which presumably means something like “expelled from the light of God’s church and thrust back into the darkness of this fallen world”.

Paul’s hope, it’s true, is that this severe treatment will result in the man being restored (verse 5); but whatever, this was obviously a grim and unhappy episode.

Sadly, there are times when churches need to exert discipline on their members. I was still in my teens, just a new-born Christian, when there was a church meeting that had to deal with the wrong-doing of one of the leaders. He was a taxi-driver, and the headlines of the local paper declared one day that he had been found guilty of fiddling his fares. There were strong opinions aired about what, if anything, the church should do – kick him out? turn a blind eye? or somewhere in between?

The decision to discipline a fellow-Christian is especially difficult, of course, because – well, aren’t the rest of us sinners too? Of course! So true humility is vital, not to mention sensitivity and compassion. And the ultimate aim, as here in Corinth, must always be not to crush or destroy the wayward person, but in the long run to bring them back into fellowship.

Paul himself knew this only too well. He offers wise words to his fellow-Christians in Galatia: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…” And then he adds: “But watch yourselves or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

I haven’t the slightest doubt that if the immoral man in Corinth had been truly sorry, Paul would have felt no need to suggest expulsion.

The point, though, is this: there are times when this difficult duty has to be carried out; the alternative is to let sin continue unchecked, and thus the purity of the church (such as it is; of course it’s far from perfect) is jeopardised.

But it’s not easy! Paul says the people in the Corinth church were “proud” of their complacent attitude, suggesting that there were those who were actually on the man’s side, and who presumably wouldn’t like Paul’s advice one little bit. So… Would the church split? Would people leave in protest? Would there be a succession of angry church meetings? Oh dear!

What if, having been expelled the previous week, the man had turned up as usual, bold as brass, the next Sunday? Should there be a heavy brigade of spiritual bouncers guarding the door? And if there were, would they even be expected to resort to violence? Surely not! Again, oh dear!

Well, we can only speculate how events panned out in Corinth.

But I must add that, while my own experience of this kind of tension has, thankfully, been very limited over my many years in ministry, there have been times when things have got a little tricky and uncomfortable. Dark rumours have swirled around: “If such-and-such happens, I’m afraid Fred and Jacky will leave the church…” “If Fred and Jacky leave, I’m told they’ll take half the church with them…”

Things never once turned out remotely as badly as the doom-mongers liked to think, and I trust the same will be true of any awkward church situation you find yourself in.

But my experience has left me with two rock-solid principles that I think can be applied in any tricky area of life, not just church life.

First, never swing into action until you are absolutely sure you are right. If you do, it could lead to untold harm and damage.

And second, if you really are sure action is necessary, just make it your business to do what is right – and let God pick up the pieces.

He can. He will. Trust him.

O God, you hate sin but love sinners. Help me to be the same. And help your church always to get the balance right in such circumstances. Amen.

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