While Christians have the responsibility to share the gospel to lost souls, we also have a responsibility to the erring brother or sister in Christ. The scripture tells us that “if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, he should know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). It is not God’s desire that any one perish. He wants everyone to be saved and live eternally with Him. And judgement will begin first with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), so we must make every effort to get to heaven and bring our sisters and brothers with us.
The Lord knew that we would have temptation to sin (1 Peter 5:8) and that sometimes there would be some among the flock to go astray. So he made provisions for restoring those who err from the truth. In Matthew 18, we have instruction to let the brother or sister, who refuses to repent of sin after being rebuked, “be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you” (vs. 15-17).
In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul gave the command through the Holy Spirit to the church at Corinth “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a reviler, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person” (v. 11) and to “put away the evil person from among yourselves” (v. 13). Apparently, there was at least one problem in the church where a member was engaged in sexual immorality with his father’s wife – his stepmother. Paul instructed the church how to deal with the erring member and others. So we have an example of what we are to do today for unrepentant sinners in the church.
I believe that the church discipline that the Lord commands is two-fold. One: it’s for the sake of the body. If one part of the body hurts or sins, it affects the whole body; we are all members of one body (1 Corinthians 12:1-26). Two: it’s a strong motivator for the erring member to return to right living. Think about it: the entire body of Christ decides to no longer eat with you, to no longer talk to you, to no longer associate with you – to completely remove you from among them. That’s devastating to even consider. The closest people in this world to me are my family in Christ. If that were me, I would pretty much have no one left, and it really would be me and God against the world.
I imagine that was a powerful motivator for the brother in 1 Corinthians 5 who was caught up in sexual immorality with his father’s wife. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote “If anyone has caused pain, he has not caused pain to me, but in some degree – not to exaggerate – to all of you. The punishment by the majority is sufficient for such a person” (2 Cor. 2:5-6). There is strong reason to believe that the person Paul is referencing in second Corinthians is the brother from 1 Corinthians 5, who had apparently since repented. The punishment of the majority was the church putting him away from them.
Paul admonished the church, “So now you should forgive and comfort him instead; otherwise, this one may be overwhelmed with excessive grief. Therefore I urge you to confirm your love to him” (2 Cor. 2:7-8). After the erring brother had repented, he probably was deeply saddened and hurt by his own sin and the consequences it had brought on the church. I imagine some in the church were probably angry, disappointed, hurt, and even discouraged by his sin and all the problems it caused. As the brother returned to the fold, he probably could feel the eyes of other Christians boring holes into him because they all knew what he had done.
Though, after he’d repented, he was forgiven by God, he very well could have felt from the members of the church that they hadn’t forgiven and wouldn’t forgive him. I picture in my mind some of the members turning their heads away when they passed by him, refusing to speak to him, making negative comments as he walked among the congregation, or even pulling other members away from him as he attempted to fellowship with them. They were upset – understandably so – and they had trouble welcoming him back home. It reminds me of Paul opposing Peter – Peter who walked with Jesus, who walked on water with Jesus, who preached the first gospel sermon on Pentecost – for mistreating the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). And it was Paul – Paul who once persecuted the church and almost destroyed it – who rebuked him (Galatians 1:13).
Paul, through the Holy Spirit, knew that the church needed to know that if they didn’t forgive him, also, and comfort him, that the brother might be overwhelmed by the sorrow of what he’d done and how the church was hurt because of it. He told the church to make sure that the brother knows that you love him. So, we have an example and commands of how to treat the repentant brother or sister who once erred from the way of the Lord.
As with anyone who sins against us, it can be difficult to forgive – especially when the wound has cut deep. Forgiveness really is a two-way street. God wants us to forgive others the way that He forgives us. And when he forgives, He casts our transgressions into the sea, throwing the sin behind His back – never to see it again (Isaiah 38:17, Micah 7:19). “Brothers, if someone is caught in wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted also” (Galatians 6:1). The Lord wants us to forgive the penitent sister or brother who strayed into the world. He rejoices over their return, and so should we.
Recall the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son of Luke chapter 15. Repeatedly Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don’t need repentance” (Luke 15:7). And again he said, “There is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). When the son, who had asked for his inheritance from his father who was still alive, squandered away his living, surely he’d brought disgrace to his father, his family, and himself. But when he finally returned home, the father was unconcerned with those things. He wanted to celebrate his return, and he wanted his other son to celebrate, too.
Instead, he was angry at his brother and complained about how his father was treating him so well after he’d done so much wrong. He may have thought that his brother wasn’t serious, that he had just returned temporarily but would soon leave again to wander back into the world, or that he needed to be punished for what he’d done.
Sometimes we have to stop and ask ourselves, “Am I the angry brother (or sister)?” It was the father who said to the brother – just as God says to us – “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32). We never know in what situation we might end up being, but God has made clear how we are to discipline, restore, and forgive the erring brother or sister in Christ. May brotherly (and sisterly) love always continue.