Let me recap. God called for the redemption of many things in the Bible, but the chief among these was the redemption of humankind through the saving work of Jesus Christ in His life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. The Church, too, has practiced the redemption of things and humankind from service for the cause of sin to service for the cause of Christ. Furthermore, God provides for and the Church practices the restoration of fallen Christians.
Part II concluded with the following statement, “God welcomes the fallen Christian who immediately repents of his/her sin and restores him/her to fellowship with Christ and standing in the Kingdom of God. But, the Church? . . . Not so much.” Perhaps that was a far too sweeping condemnation of the Church. It is likely more accurate to say that some in the body of Christ are unwelcoming to the fallen Christian who immediately repents. Most of the time this happens informally and generally is not a behavior common to all believers of a community.
In the interest of full disclosure I am among the fallen Christians who repented and was restored to standing with God. I had a mental breakdown so severe that I ended up with legal issues. Also, because of my mental state, I lost my wife to divorce and my ministerial credentials. (More about that in another post) What confounds me is the loss of fellowship I had with some believers. A man in high position in a church organization professed that I was his best friend, but he has not spoken to me in nearly five years and turned away my gesture to him to reconnect. Another, who has literally known me for all his life, totally shuns me despite my repeated confessions of sorrow and attempts to reestablish fellowship. I turned to a former pastor for help. Instead of helping he told me that I did not understand the kind of damage I had done and that those shunning me were justified in their behavior. I walked away stunned. God, who was the most aggrieved, forgave me, but some believers refused to give me their forgiveness.
But, what about church discipline, shunning, and restoration, you may ask. Church discipline is enjoined by God in the scriptures through the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 and Paul in I Corinthians 5:11-13 and Titus 3:9-11. Paul gives a list of egregious sins as an example of what qualifies for church discipline – sexual immorality, covetousness, idolatry, revilers (to verbally attack or abuse someone), drunkards, extortionists (robbers), and divisive people (those who cause dissensions). In each case the prescription for the unrepentant person is ultimately loss of Christian fellowship and standing with the church. Paul goes so far as to say that we are not to have a meal with the unrepentant Christian (a likely reference to the Agape meal).
When discipline is necessary, it is to be done cautiously, purposely, and gently (Galatians 6:1). II Thessalonians 3:15 states we are to admonish the fallen as a “brother.” And, James 5:19-20 clearly defines the goal of discipline as restoration; not punishment, shaming, or shunning.
But, that is for the unrepentant, the one persistent in his/her known and voluntary sin. What of the repentant who are guilty of one of the sins listed above? Are they not to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ? Are they not to be restored to standing with God and fellowship with believers? Far too often this is not the case. There is within some the desire to continue punishing the fallen like a criminal who is released from serving time, but finds that housing, education, career, and employment doors are closed. This has been called “stealth shunning” and is the purposeful disengagement from a person by another.
If this was the policy of God would we have a David after Bathsheba and Uriah? Peter after denying? or Thomas after doubting? This is not to say there are no consequences for sin for the early repenter. David lost children to death and murder and there was intrigue in his kingdom. Peter suffered the convicting memory of Jesus’ words at the crow of the rooster, bitter shame at the meeting of his eyes with Jesus’ eyes, and the temporary loss of confidence in his ability to fulfill the calling of Jesus to be an apostle.
The Roman Catholic Church practiced well the restoration of fellowship and standing with God to priests who had fallen into sexual sin. (I am drawing a distinction here between standing with God as a redeemed child of God and standing with the church as an office holder.) Where they erred was restoring standing with the church without consequences. Some sins disqualify a person from holding an office in the church. An immoral minister should be defrocked, at least for a few years, if not for a lifetime.
A new couple came into our church from another community. They were known to me prior to their coming that Sunday morning. He had moved to the community trying to escape the consequences of his past sin. No one in the congregation knew that he had been fired from two previous jobs for dipping into the till. He was repentant and I told no one. After I accepted the call of another church I held a private meeting with the head elder of the church. For the first time I told another individual in the church about this man and encouraged him to protect this man from what was obviously a besetting sin by never allowing him to handle any church finances or resources. Sin has its consequences and both the church and the repentant Christian need to be saved from harm.
The bottom line is: fellowship ought never to be denied the repentant sinner. Jay Adams states forgiveness must be extended to the fallen Christian who repents. (See Ephesians 4:32) He concludes, “Shunning, as defined as a refusal to speak to someone or a total severing of all ties, goes beyond what the Bible advocates.” Amen!