Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Saved sinners - and sinful saints

So when you are assembled... hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

What should a church do when one of its members is guilty of a particularly bad sin? Somebody commits a crime, say? Or falls into sexual immorality? Or gets heavily into drugs or alcohol? What about men (it’s usually men) who are exposed as addicted to pornography?

It happens. Let’s not fool ourselves that all Christians live above-reproach lives, only ever guilty of trivial failings. No: in spite of outward appearances, this may very well not be the case, for we learn to be skilled actors.

Churches tend to opt for one of three main responses: turn a blind eye and hope the problem will go away; wag a scolding finger and hope the individual in question will mend their ways; kick the offending person out of the church altogether.

About 300 years after Jesus, a grouping of Christians called Donatists sprang up in North Africa (named after a leader called Donatus Magnus). They were extreme hard-liners - and not only when it came to moral failure. They felt that severe measures were necessary for church members who had buckled under persecution and denied Christ; in particular, church leaders who had done this should only be re-admitted to the church after undergoing humiliating punishment.

To be fair, the persecution the church in North Africa had suffered was grim, so it is understandable that those who had remained faithful to Christ should not look too kindly on those who hadn’t. The dispute between the Donatists and the mainstream church rumbled on for some 400 years before Donatism faded away. But questions of church discipline never go away, even if we tend to meet them mainly at local level.

The basic question is: How “pure” should we expect the church to be? Or, putting it the other way around, to what extent should we accept that it is “mixed”?

When I was a new, teenage Christian there was something of a scandal in the church I belonged to. One of the leaders, a taxi-driver, was found guilty of fiddling his fares. This got into the local paper - just the kind of thing non-Christians love to read about. What should the church do? My recollection (many years on!) is that he was removed from his leadership position, but not thrown out of the church. I suspect this was probably about right, assuming that he expressed sincere repentance.

In my own time as a pastor there was a situation where one of the deacons got into a wrong relationship with the non-Christian husband of a fellow church member. She was quite brazen about this, and the relationship continued.

What should we do? We felt we had to ask her to leave. Did we do right?

Of course the church should be pure. It is, after all, “the body of Christ” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27), and its members are called to be holy.

But, hang on a minute, Christians are sinners as well as saints! - saved sinners, of course, but sinners all the same. I once saw a witty wall-poster in a church hall: “Be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet!” Very good!

The church in Corinth was, in various respects, a total shambles. Just read Paul’s first letter to them and you end up shaking your head - members were taking one another to court on various issues; people were using the communion service to eat and drink to excess; the worship services were often chaotic, with an abuse of the “spiritual gifts”.

So Paul has some severe things to say to them.

But it’s interesting that nowhere does he suggest they should all be thrown out of the church, or even that they aren’t true Christians. No, he seems to accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ, warts and all.

In only one case - the “immoral man” of chapter 5 - does he recommend expulsion. And even here it’s important to notice that he expects the man to be restored as a result - “that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:5).

Repentance is the key word in all this. If somebody who has “gone astray” remains fixed in their sin, then, yes, perhaps (after time spent praying to God and pleading with the individual) they have to go. But our hearts should be filled with pain, and the hope must be that they will come back.

In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to examine our own habits and feelings - and those hidden inner lives we all have. Are we perfect? Are we worthy to belong to the church of Jesus Christ?

Never forget the old saying: If you ever find the perfect church, whatever you do, don’t join it. You’ll only spoil it.

Thank you, Lord God, for the great privilege and joy of belonging to your church, sinner though I am. Help me by your Holy Spirit to strive towards true Christlikeness, and to be a challenge, a help and a comfort to others who fall short. Amen.

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