I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
~ 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV)
“YOU CAN’T JUDGE ME!”, proclaims the angry atheist. Utilizing a book they hate, written by a God they swear doesn’t exist, they promptly quote Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” The above passage agrees that we are not to be the judges of outsiders to our faith – the heathens and demon worshippers – because God will be the one to be the judge over them. He will weigh their lives in His perfect balance, where even the slightest sin, whether committed physically or even in their minds, will tip the balance and cast them into hell forever. Now, I could argue that it’s wise to take such a person through the law, creating an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to reveal their own sin to them, then invite them to learn about the reconciliation available through Christ, but today I’m investigating another aspect of judging.
Judgment is not condemnation, but is instead evaluation of a situation, act, or series of events, and making a decision based on what was observed. We, as Christians, are called to judge those within the Christian faith and, with God as our witness and judge, we are to fairly evaluate and act accordingly. How we evaluate and act is outlined for us in Matthew 18:15-17, where, after a period of evaluation and prayer, we are encouraged to seek reconciliation with that person. If they persist, we are to bring another Christian to help and witness the situation. If that continues, you then bring the pastor. If the person continues in that sin, then they are to be put out of the congregation. It is by this method that we are to recognize and deal with sin in the church.
Is expulsion from the church necessary? Think about the term “Christian”: what does it mean? Acts 11:26 records that the term “Christian” was first used in Antioch to describe those who were followers of “the way”. “The Way” was the first name of the gospel – that God has come to earth to suffer and die in the place of sinners to grant them salvation. Literally meaning “follower of Christ”, to call yourself a Christian is to mean that you not only agree with Him, but that you are bound to Jesus and trust in Him alone for your salvation. Jesus promises that to those who love Him and trust in Him for their salvation He will indwell them with His Holy Spirit and that we will be forever changed (Jn 14:26, Eph 1:13). We are one with Him as He is one with us. The world, who hates Jesus, knows this and is constantly watching us to see us act in a manner that’s outside of our professed allegiance. In so doing, they comfort themselves by stating that those who follow Jesus are just as they are and, as a symbol of Christ on the earth, Jesus is just as they are. Therefore, when we live in constant sin, but claim to be a Christian, we are blaspheming the name of Christ.
What, then, is a sin worthy of expulsion from the church? As mentioned above, these are not occasional slips. We are still human and, though forgiven and now free to abstain from sin, we are prone to fulfill our desire to sin. The walk of a Christian is not one of perfection (where we are totally free from sin) but a walk of sanctification where we are transformed year by year into a person who sins less and trusts in God more. You will have seasons of sin where God allows you to become aware of certain sins and He will then lead you to repentance and transformation where we no longer desire those sins. All sin, however, is wicked and evil. While we may not think that it impacts anyone else, it changes our desires from being focused on God and directs them downward to ourselves. Sin is, at its core, self worship. There are some sins that damage a whole community and can drag down a church. Paul, in addressing the Corinthian church, is urging them to remove from their fellowship a habitual offender because of the issues that the sin has produced in their church (pride for keeping a sexually immoral man in the church – sound familiar?) and because it is sullying the name of Christ. He then produces a list of other sins that warrant disfellowship if they are persistent and not met with repentance: idolatry, greed, reviling (which means to be verbally abusive – people who use their words as a weapon against others verbally or in print), drunkards, and swindlers. He then implores them not to even EAT with those people, so long as they are living in rebellion, as it shows the world (and the sinner) that we acknowledge their sin and though we do not approve, we see our continued fellowship as more important than our adherence to the holiness of God.
Doesn’t expulsion from fellowship show that we hate them? Not at all. It reveals to them the depth of their sin against the God and our commitment to God’s holiness. We also are following God’s example as found in Romans 1:18-32, where God allows people to pursue their sin. If they are true Christians, they will reach the end of their sin in one way or another, and God will transform their hearts and bring them back. When He does so, we are to, as 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 states (in reference to the same person expelled from the church) that we are to welcome them back. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who now seek to worship God – if we refuse to bring them in, we are guilty of speaking in the place of God in rejecting them by, through our actions, telling them that they are no longer welcome. There are some cases where this may be wise – sexual assault or adultery within a church body, for example. Stealing from the church may be another case. Ultimately, there should be wisdom and prayer in deciding these scenarios, but once someone is repentant and bearing fruit in keeping with repentance then who are we to stand as God over them and refuse them access to the body of believers? Were you not just as worthy of damnation when God saved you?
Who are we to judge? Christians, or at least anyone who calls themselves a Christian, but we are to do so with the intention of preserving the holiness of God within our community of believers, and to seek restoration of our sinning brethren. No mere man is perfect, but Jesus who is the God-man is perfect and He was willing to sacrifice His glory, power, and ultimately His life for our sake and the sake of the justice of God, that we may be reconciled to Him. We, in keeping with Christ’s example, should be willing to do forego fellowship and replace it with prayer for restoration for those in our own church.