Confronting a fellow believer’s sin

If not handled with great sensitivity, this is one issue that can damage not just the individual but an entire church

Almost 10 years later, John still remembers the humiliation he suffered at the hands of his bishop after his fiancée got pregnant. Instead of talking to him as a father would to a son, the bishop chose to confront him in the presence of his deacons one Sunday morning in church.

“John, how could you make Esther (not her real name) pregnant? You mean even with all the messages and prayers I offer here you could still engage in fornication?” he said before walking away without giving John a chance to speak.

That day, John did not sit as usual in the place reserved for the praise and worship team. Instead, he sat at the back of the church and watched the team sing without him. He even thought of leaving before the service ended but eventually decided against it, not knowing there was worse still to come.

When it was time for the sermon, the bishop walked to the pulpit and, after the normal salutations, announced: “From today henceforth, John is no longer a member of the praise and worship team. What he did is shameful. I do not condone sin in this church. If you cannot live right, then look for another church.”

It was a long morning for John After the one-and-a-half hour sermon, whose content he doesn’t remember, he stealthily walked out, never to return.

John and his fiancée eventually got married, though not in church. And although he owned up to his sin and made things right with God, he has never forgotten the indignity he experienced that Sunday.

“Yes, I regret falling into sin but the public disgrace was more degrading. Imagine every eye fastened on you after that announcement! He didn’t care that I was a soul. And it is a pity that since I left the church that day, neither the bishop nor any of his leaders has bothered to reach out to ask how I’m doing or where I fellowship. They all saw me as a scum of the earth,” he says.

On the other hand, I know of a Christian brother who gathered the courage on a Sunday morning to apologise in front of church leaders and members for his sexual sin.

He said: “I know I have sinned and that is why I am asking you – bishop, pastors and all leaders and members – to forgive me. I can no longer be a youth leader and therefore I resign although I will still come to church. And I thank my bishop and some leaders for their support in my low moments.”

Many in the congregation were shocked but the lead pastor accepted the resignation and commended the man’s boldness. Many of the congregants also empathised with him and embraced him.

Same sin, same body of Christ but two very different reactions. When it comes to confronting the sins of believers in a church context, which is the right way to go?

In his Question and Answer column in desiringGod.org, author and Bible teacher John Piper was once asked: “When you see sin or damaging behaviour in someone’s life, how do you know when to keep quiet and when to speak with them?

In his reply, Piper said the first task is to take out your own log then you’ll see clearly as Jesus said: “That is when you become a successful eye surgeon of the sin speck in your brother’s eye. Sin is everywhere and we don’t go to every person to confront those sins. We are not called to spend 18 hours a day telling people not to smoke, drink alcohol, fornicate, commit adultery or beat their wives.”

The criteria, he said, was to ascertain how serious the sin is and its implication(s) and how spiritually strong you are to talk to the doer.

“Once you have made up your mind to approach such a person, at first speak in a way that is not condemning to get him listen to you. Then get tougher about the dangers of what they are doing or have committed and the negative consequences to generate repentance and change of attitude. In all, create a bubble of grace in which they feel some hope that even though this is sin, they are loved and accepted,” he said.

Piper also said relationship with the person may matter. “Have you been communicating freely with the person before? If you are a stranger, get others who are mature and are closer. If I saw somebody in your small group doing something and you are the leader of that little group, I should ask you to get concerned first,” he advised.

And before you confront the sin of another believer, you should have spiritual discernment and wisdom to know whether that is a helpful time to talk, or whether another angle would be better.

When it comes to pastors confronting the sins of their members, Pastor John MacArthur says some may be bold enough to talk using whatever way they deem fit, but others dread the possible fall-out.

He tells of one mega church pastor who once told him: “If you discipline church members, they’ll never stand for it, and you’ll empty the place. You can’t run around sticking your nose into everyone’s sin.”

And in an article in The Gospel Coalition, Aaron Weiss writes some pastors often fall into the temptation of appearing “holier-than-thou” when dealing with a wounded believer who left another church for the one he is pastoring.

Weiss says it is easy to tell such a person: “I’m sorry you had such a lousy church experience before, but be rest assured, you won’t experience that here.” Such a response, he says, is prideful and will likely harm you, the individual and the church because it is a promise you cannot keep.

He says binding up the broken-hearted includes resetting the broken pieces, which is another painful experience: “Repentance can feel like re-breaking an already broken heart.”

That is why Weiss believes in the plurality of elders within the local church: “A church with one physician (pastor) susceptible to the same illnesses as its people is woefully ineffective and dangerously understaffed.”

Importance of an accountability partner

After falling into sin, many believers loathe the idea of being corrected, rebuked or confronted. The same applies to spiritual leaders who often appear above reproach but who are just as vulnerable.

That is why writer J.B. Cachila, in his article featured by The Gospel Coalition, advises every Christian to have an accountability partner. He says these are people committed to hearing out what is happening in your life to know if you need encouragement, rebuke, correction or prayer.

“These people are very crucial if we want to grow in Christian faith, because they act both as policemen who check if we’re doing things contrary to what God wants, or as medical workers who check if we are spiritually healthy, and bombard us with prayers and encouragements,” he writes.

He observes that people often have a problem judging themselves correctly: “Admit it, when you try to evaluate yourself, are you strong and harsh against your mistakes or perhaps even consoling yourself when you do wrong? These accountability partners would be more objective in dealing with you, and would likely line your life up against God’s standards if you’re not faring well.”

Cachila says another benefit of accountability partners is that they help us stay away from sin through many ways. For some, he says, having someone to share a burden helps lessen the urge to do wrong. For others, having an accountability partner makes them fear sinning, because these sins, no matter how tightly hidden, could be discovered by their accountability partner.

He says an accountability partner should be primarily of the same sex. But if one is married to a spouse who fears the Lord, it is even better if you make your spouse your accountability partner.

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