The story of the fall of Jericho and the sin of Achan is well-known to most Christians (Judges 6-7). When Achan stole some of the treasure from Jericho, Israel was defeated in their battle against Ai and 36 men of war died. There are indications that the sin of Achan was known to others. In Judges 7:1, God said, “Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things.” And in 7:25, Achan’s sons and daughters were included in the death penalty. In a previous incident, Korah’s sons were not included in his death because they were not involved in the rebellion (Num. 26:11-12; 27:3). In Deuteronomy 13:6-11, God warned that even if “your brother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend entices you secretly…your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him…”
The easy conclusion is that God does not tolerate “sin in the camp.” But the greater issue is, God will not dwell in our midst when sin is among us. And when God is not in our midst we do not have fellowship with God nor will God bless our efforts. When we understand that we need God for our forgiveness and that God has given us a great work to do in filling the earth with his knowledge (Isa. 11:9), we dare not risk losing his presence. When Joshua complained to God for their failure at Ai, God’s answer was that their sin meant that, “I will be with you no more” (Judges 7:12).
Sin within the Local Church
Just as with the Achan incident the local church has similar challenges. It is not uncommon for some to coverup or enable a fellow Christian who is in sin. This is especially true for family members who do not want to feel what seems to them an embarrassment or to have to endure the repercussions of an angry exposed sinner. This pressure can go all the way to the elders who may be threatened by the family if they do not join the coverup. While these are sensitive and trying circumstances, the longterm damage to the sinner and the church will far exceed any short term pain. Every Christian caught in a transgression deserves the opportunity to be restored by those who are “spiritual” (Gal. 6:1).
Keys to Leadership in Saving or Removing the Sinner
The first priority in saving a soul is to follow a proactive plan prior to the sinful behavior. Real world shepherds are always aware of the condition of their sheep. They are intimately connected so that each lamb trusts the shepherd. Shepherds in a church, along with shepherd-like members, should have a list of the typical “15%” who are more vulnerable than others. These people are usually fairly obvious: new Christians (5 years or less), singles, 18-30 year olds, and those who do not attend regularly or have few connections in the church. We should also be aware of Christians whose lifestyles change to the extent that it raises concerns. By nurturing healthy friendships and close ties with those who have a higher vulnerability, we create a trusting relationship that enables us to rescue a Christian who is falling. A distant, CEO type elder lacks “pocket change” when he visits a sinner with whom he has no meaningful relationship. It will be like the cops showing up at his door. Further, a vulnerable Christian’s relationship with an older, mature member carries its own preventative medicine.
This is where mature members have often failed. There is a tendency to simply connect with other mature members and to assume younger, more vulnerable Christians can fend for themselves. This does huge damage to a local church and the cause of the kingdom. For one, a large percentage of our younger Christians are falling away at an alarming rate because we who are older have not invested ourselves in their spiritual lives. And please, do not think because they have listened to sermons that they have been inoculated from the pressures of our postmodern culture. Further, by not equipping our younger families, we lose some of the best and brightest workers in the church.
Consider the hypocrisy of withdrawing from a sinful member when a shepherding relationship has not first been established. That attitude is identical to the practice of the Pharisees who thought it shameful to company with tax collectors and sinners. They were both unmerciful and lazy (Matt. 9:10-13). How dare us withdraw when we have not first “drawn.” The primary point of withdrawing is that the “punishment by the majority” will cause sorrow and repentance (2 Cor. 2:5-7). If a body of believers has little social interaction with vulnerable Christians, how can they withdraw the social connections they never established (1 Cor. 5:9-11)?
Second, when sin does occur, urgency in needed in restoration. The longer we humans remain in sin, the more calloused we become. When sin first begins there is a debate that goes on in our minds on whether we ought to continue. On one side the sin has given us a temporary “thrill” that the flesh does not want to give up. On the other side, our conscience and the knowledge of being out of fellowship with God, brethren, and our family troubles us. But as time passes, we become less concerned by what we might lose and more filled with attraction for our sin. If “those who are spiritual” do not take advantage of this temporary ambivalence, the sin usually will win.
This urgency is more critical when we realize how addictive certain sins are and how quickly these sins deeply darken our hearts. For example, when even a long time Christian falls to one sexual sin, his or her mind and conscience is changed dramatically. Proverbs 9:17 explains: “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he does not know the dead are there.” To illustrate further, the temporary thrill of one act of adultery or the viewing of pornography is a magic carpet ride into fantasyland with which one’s spouse cannot compete. A marriage requires endurance, selflessness, humility, and regular confession and forgiveness. Sexual sins are easy, rooted in selfishness and personal pleasure. This is what grabs the sinner and the reason urgency instead of negligence or a “wait and see” posture is damaging to the sinner and disobedient to God.
Third, withdrawing will be successful and is necessary to saving of the church even if the sinner remains rebellious. I will suggest that most objections to withdrawing have been a result of the above mentioned failures to shepherd. But when we have loved, prayed, wept, and laid our lives down for our brothers and sisters, it will be difficult for them to fall away, but natural for us to step away when they are no longer walking with God. Withdrawing and marking a rebellious brother is a commandment of God. Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians is appropriate: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough…For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything” (2 Cor. 2:6, 9).
When done properly, leaders will guide the church in removing the sin and the sinner from the camp lest a little leaven leavens the lump and God is no longer in our midst.