“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. Matthew 18:15-18(NLT)
I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. Even though I am not with you in person, I am with you in the Spirit. And as though I were there, I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns. Your boasting about this is terrible. Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth. When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” 1 Corinthians 5:1-13(NLT)
It may seem a little strange to start off a series on The Jesus Church with a passage like this – all about the church at Corinth, steeped in rampant sexual sins, naming even the detestable couple – a stepson and stepmother living together as a married couple; it’s not quite incest, but too close to ignore!
Now, before you begin squirming, I do not know of a single situation in this church where the sin is that kind of gross and blatantly public.
On the other hand, it is better to know how to deal with sin when it arrives (not “if” it arrives), than to deal with the consequences in a clean-up operation. Knowing God’s Word helps us prepare for what the world throws our way; it helps us function as the church, and not a social club.
Admittedly, this is a difficult passage of scripture. It is tempting to say: This is too hard to deal with – besides, it’s hot outside – so let’s just do a passage like ‘God is love’ or something not quite so, uh…icky.
That would be easier for today, and it would also be death to the soul of any church or Christian in the long run. So, let’s deal with the hard issue.
In the first two verses we find that Paul has received some reports that sexual immorality is being tolerated like it is today. Paul is horrified, even disgusted, that it is so blatant, even the pagans outside the church don’t act that badly.
We need to remember that sexual immorality among Christians isn’t cute or good gossip – it is sin.
Note the flow of God’s wonderful plan for restoring brothers and sisters in Christ, when they have “blown it”:
One of the most important aspects of true church discipline is that every box (step) represented above flows in the direction of restoration of relationships. Contrary to the “witch-hunt” stories about kicking people out of church – this is designed to facilitate the growth of the church.
Which brings me down to the title of this message – Note:
In the church for which Jesus died, there is not a war between having a healthy church OR a growing church; healthy churches will grow.
If a church isn’t growing, it is either dormant, awaiting a ‘growing season’ – or it is unhealthy, sick, undernourished and in danger of dying. In such cases, the gardener has no choice; survival is at stake. The gardener must then be the doctor!
And doctors do not put Band-Aids on cancer spots – they go to the root of the disease and do surgery.
That was Paul’s approach:
Paul pulled from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament instructions for the Jewish Passover; Paul reminds us that all leaven (yeast) was to be removed from a house. Leaven, or yeast, is what makes the bread rise. It only takes a little yeast to make the bread rise. Without yeast our bread would be quite different.
However, in Scripture, leaven, or yeast, represents sin.
In the 1950’s comedy classic “I Love Lucy,” one episode dealt with Lucy’s lack of cooking skills. She had no clue how much yeast to use. She kept dumping it in…one box, two, three. She left the bread in the refrigerator for a while as she talked on the phone. When she returned the kitchen was filled with bread!
That is Paul’s picture of sin – if you don’t deal with it, watch it closely, purge it from the church it will evict you!
This morning I want to share four scenarios…three from reliable sources, and one from my personal experience as a pastor.
The first scene is from Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family:
“Dear Dr. Dobson, the letter began. Things have always been rocky in my marriage, but a more serious problem arose a few years ago. My husband, Paul, began to get interested in a beautiful divorcee who works as his bookkeeper. At first it seemed innocent, as he helped her in various ways. But I began to notice our relationship was deteriorating. As he spent more and more time at her house, I began to nag and complain. That just made him more determined to be with her. Gradually, they fell in love with each other and I didn't know what to do about it.
I bought a book about this time in which the author promised that God wouldn't allow any wrong to happen so long as I was submissive to my husband. In my panic, I thought I would lose him forever, and I agreed to let the other woman come into our bedroom with us. I thought it would make Paul love me more, but it just made him fall deeper in love with her.
Now he is confused and doesn't know which one of us he wants. He says he still loves me and our three kids, but he can't give her up, either. I love Paul so dearly and I have begged him to turn our problem over to the Lord. But what do I do now? Please help me. I'm on the bottom looking up. Linda”
Dan Erickson, a Baptist pastor, shares the second scenario:
Fifteen years ago, next week, I was called to become the pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church, Wentworth, Wisconsin. As I began my first full-time ministry position, my rookie season, I found myself facing a couple of situations which were probably as difficult as any that I have dealt with the last fifteen years. The second Sunday I was there, a fellow named Bob was sitting in the front row. The next Sunday a woman named Linda was sitting beside him. After a few weeks, I learned that Bob and Linda had recently been expelled from a nearby Covenant Church, where they both had been members. Bob had abandoned his wife and moved in with Linda. He rejected the admonition of the Covenant Church leaders to return to his spouse.
We had a number of discussions at our deacon board meetings as to how our church should respond to the situation, but we never came up with an answer. A few months later, Bob and Linda got married and they attended Lakeside Church for a few years, but never became members.
The second situation involved a man who, until one year before my arrival, had been the chairman of the church at Lakeside. It came out that he had been having sexual affairs with two women in the congregation. He was asked to resign his position in the church which he grudgingly did, but he expressed no remorse for his actions. He quit attending worship services, but the church never rescinded his membership. Some folks in the congregation continued to be his close friends, while others said they would stop associating with him until there was some evidence that he had repented from his sin.
The third scenario is from an Assembly of God pastor, Rick Roberts:
Now, I believe the key to a sermon is the application. The application to this one is harsh, but necessary. There are at least two couple[s] in this body living in a sinful state - unmarried but living together. There may be others living in other sins, but these are very obvious. I will not call their names. Most of you know who they are. They may get angry with me. That's okay. They may be embarrassed. They should be.
They have been turned down for membership and other benefits because of their sin. They are as welcome to come to this church as much as any other sinner needed Jesus. But here is the thing - these people are not one of us. They are sinners who need to be saved. They may profess Jesus. They may sincerely believe. They may claim him as Savior. But they are bringing open shame to Christ by their lifestyles. They need to repent and change their living conditions in order to get right with God. I do not believe we will see these people in heaven because they proclaim Jesus with their mouths but deny him with their deeds.
I wrote to pastor Roberts asking him to share with me the outcome of that sermon. His email came as I was preparing this message:
That was one of the hardest sermons I have ever had to preach. The couple sat right there and glared at me the whole time - and yes, they did get angry. She was married to someone else and pregnant with his baby. They were living together and his mother, who was also there, was consenting.
This was 2 1/2 years ago. Shortly after, he stopped coming to church. He told me he didn't appreciate me embarrassing him. I told him I didn't appreciate him desecrating the church. A few months later, she tried to leave him and get her life straight, but he threatened her. After almost a year, she did finally break with him and got straight.
The fourth and final scenario is from my own journey as a pastor. It was more than 30 years ago. The search committee was good. The interviews went well. The church seemed friendly and loving. And they cooked well!
The trial sermon was not Billy Graham, but God seemed to be all over the whole process. So, I said “yes” to a strong congregational vote margin; in three weeks we would move to the new church field.
Two weeks and five days later, just before my first Sunday at this new charge, I got a phone call.
“Brother Russell?” asked the voice, timidly.
“This is Lester, from your new church family. We’ve got a little problem.”
There were three other deacons assembled in Lester’s living room when I got there. It was not a little problem. Dennis and Darlene had not attended in over two years, but word had gotten around that they were “coming back” this Sunday.
“What’s the problem?” I wanted to know.
Lester began, “Dennis and Darlene are still members. They used to be married to other people who are members also, but they divorced a year ago, and married each other. Their baby is a little over a year old.”
I settled in for the rest of it with a deep sigh. My mind wandered briefly, and I wondered if the folks at McIntosh Baptist might consider rescinding my resignation.
Dennis and Darlene had been the church’s volunteer youth co-directors. They took the young people to camp, but spent their own free time hiking together. The baby came along nine months later.
“What action was taken,” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Dale, “they just didn’t come once the word got out. Now they’re coming back after the dust has settled.”
As a young pastor, I often did things that seemed right, but ignored the wiser counsel of Scripture. Instead of first having a private meeting, I requested that two of the deacons meet me at Dennis and Darlene’s house the next night (Saturday). (In short, I skipped step one of Mt 18, and went right to #2).
We were received cautiously. The couple told us they did intend to come to worship the next day. They wanted to get right with the Lord. I briefly shared with them that I thought that was really good, and then shared with them what that would require.
I laid out the principle for them that a private sin is usually best handled in private, between the sinner and his Savior. However, a public sin, especially one that upended two families, and the entire church family, and brought shame on the name of Christ and the Christian community demanded a public reconciliation. They – if they were sincerely interested in being right with the Lord – had to make it right with the Lord’s church. There should be a public apology and request for forgiveness.
I promised them, on the authority of God’s word, that if they asked, we would forgive, and work through the feelings, relationships, etc.
Dennis and Darlene never showed up – at least in the 6 years I pastored there. Months later we rescinded their membership. We did hear, however, from some of our deacons who visited them, that the reason they never came back was that the preacher said we weren’t welcome there.
Note the four scenarios and their outcomes, and the lessons they teach us about church discipline:
Linda’s mistake, so evident to anyone outside the situation, was to assume that if she just allowed her husband this indulgence, she would be able to “keep” him. Linda failed to see that Paul, in his perversion, wouldn’t be worth keeping!
It is so in the church. Jesus knows we aren’t perfect. He has, however, told us to move to maturity (Mt 5.48). That means being willing to give up our sin, not accommodate it.
Those charter members of Procrastinators Anonymous among us know this feeling well. We can always give some kind of excuse for inaction, but it will always be an excuse, never a reason.
Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. James 4:17 (NLT)
Sin in the house of God is an affront to God. Paul was horrified that the church leadership was doing nothing. Indeed, they were rather proud of all the other things they had going. God is not interested in the things you’re doing as a church, if the people of the church aren’t living as the church.
A pastor has a calling to proclaim God’s word, no matter where the chips may fall; he never has the right to attack people personally in a sermon. It is not only bad manners and poor ethics; it shows a lack of respect for God’s pulpit and people when you destroy people.
On the other hand, the people of God have every right to expect that God’s word – including the painful parts – will be proclaimed faithfully…no matter where the chips may fall.
I knew going in the likelihood of the final outcome – that I would be blamed, or the deacons with me. I reasoned that it would be better for me to have witnesses. The problem was that, in skipping the first private meeting (which would have made me quite vulnerable) I went around Scripture as badly as Dennis and Darlene. I did not trust the Spirit’s power; I was trusting Russell’s reasoning.
Had I had the private meeting first, rather than bringing an entourage, perhaps the couple would not have been so defensive. They might have broken and asked for forgiveness, and experienced healing. My rush past the first step may have cost the kingdom dearly.
Later in Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians 2) we read that the church did respond to Paul’s instructions. They were not happy to get his letter, but they received it, heeded the instructions, and the man in question repented – the fellowship was restored.
Not every situation in life ties up as neatly as did the Corinthian church problem. In fact most don’t. The reasons are probably legion, but mostly it’s because we, the body of Christ, miss God. We are afraid, lazy or too steeped in our own sin to do what God said we must do.
Having the lessons down pat is good. Using the wisdom we gain from our mistakes and the rebuke of the Word is even better.
I said earlier we are not about to embark on any specific discipline problem, and I mean just that. However, I want you to ponder this passage, this aspect of church life, and come to grips with it for this reason:
I believe that the health of our church is more important to God than the size of our church. We cannot ignore gross, blatant, open sin on the part of members of this congregation. It is a stench in the nostrils of God, and a stain on the name of Christ in any community when it is tolerated.
Because of that, I want to offer this as God’s plan for our church to avoid the pitfalls we saw in the scenarios:
#1. Pray daily for each other, and for our spiritual health as a congregation.
Corinth seems a long way from where we are; but it’s not! It is Satan’s job to disrupt our unity and ministry. He is good at it, so pray hard!
#2. Be committed to church discipline, knowing that it is the only loving response a community of believers can make.
When it becomes necessary to enter the process of church discipline, re-read the passages, pray over the process, and support the God-given way of caring for the brother or sister.
#3. Pray especially for the leaders of our congregation.
Every Christian is susceptible to sin, and even gross sin. However, church leaders are vulnerable and visible. The Scripture tells us leaders are held to a stricter accountability. When a church pastor, deacon, Sunday School teacher, or other leader falls, it makes news in a hurry.
· I have lived through some church discipline circumstances. The church was always healthier in the long run, even when the process wasn’t perfect.
· I have lived through my parent’s discipline as a disobedient child. I was always better for it, even though they are not perfect.
· I have lived through my doctor’s discipline. I had my life saved by it, even though he wasn’t perfect.
· I have never liked any of the discipline events – doctor’s medicine, parent’s meddling or the church meetings. But, beloved, it is God’s way of making certain his church gets healthy, and stays that way.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
(In a sermon on SermonCentral.com) James Dobson, Love Must Be Tough, pg 5.
 In a SermonCentral.com sermon, Dan Erickson, Dare To Discipline
 In a SermonCentral.com sermon, Rick Roberts, Cleaning House
 All names are fictitious, the incident is factual.