“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Paul has in various other places had some pretty tough words for folks in the church who fall into sin and refuse to get unstuck. They range from giving them tough love to kicking them out of the community entirely until they are truly interested in getting themselves back together.
Here he offers a bit of the other side. If someone in the body of Christ gets caught in sin, we are to restore them with a spirit of gentleness. Now, think about this for a minute. This isn’t someone who from the standpoint of a guilty conscience comes to confess her sin. This is someone who had no intention of leaving the pattern of sin in which he was riding down the road of life, but who has been found out in a way that neither he nor anybody else in the body can deny.
This is a pretty tough situation. It’s a tough situation that usually gets handled badly in one of two ways. On the one hand, the church doesn’t want to deal with the messiness of restoration (either because of a lack of will, or perhaps because they can’t believe the person would really have been into that much sin in the first place) so they simply turn a blind eye to the whole thing. They refuse to condemn and wade into the muck of sorting out who gets blame for what and what kind of restrictions and accountability measures need to be put into place. The fact that this member of the body is engaged in this sin, whatever it happens to be, becomes an open secret that everybody knows, but nobody will talk about.
This creates a disaster for several reasons. First, in refusing to condemn the sin, the congregation tacitly gives it moral approval. This puts them at direct odds with God Himself. He has said sin is not okay for followers of Jesus, and yet they are saying it isn’t bad enough for this one person that something needs to be done about it. Here’s the thing: When the body of Christ stands at odds with Christ, they aren’t really the body of Christ anymore. When a part of your body rebels against the rest of the body, you cut it off and remove it.
Second, it leaves the person caught in the act in a place of sin. This, far from being a loving gesture of tolerance as many might herald it, is an act that is at its core supremely unloving. Sin is what keeps us separated from God. Leaving someone in sin without actively and intentionally calling them from it keeps them separated from Him. How is that loving in any sense of the word?
Third, it sounds the death knell for the church itself. Here’s why: When a church refuses to call sin, sin, they send the message that they aren’t any different from the world around them. And, if the church isn’t really offering anything different from what the culture is in terms of lifestyle and moral expectations, why bother being a part of them? Mainline churches are reaping the bitter fruits of this path right now. Even worse, if the church speaks like an orthodox one, but allows this open secret to remain festering, any newcomer who learns the truth will recognize and be repulsed by the hypocrisy rather quickly.
All of this is to say: Ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it. It paves the way for the creation of several more.
There is still another common approach. This is to jump all over the person, offering heaping spoonfuls of condemnation and rejection. The problems here are fairly obvious. Any church that gains the reputation of being hateful and judgmental toward folks who aren’t perfect is a church that won’t be around for long. When a person has been caught in sin, they know they’re guilty. More probably, they’ve known they’re guilty for a long time and are secretly relieved to not have to carry the burden by themselves any longer. They don’t need extra self-righteous guilt foisted upon them in addition to what they already feel.
What Paul calls for here is something else entirely. He calls for restoration with gentleness. This charts a course right between these other two. Restoration has as its goal the eventual re-inclusion of the offender fully into the life of the body. His sin has been forgiven, atoned for, and affected relationships reconciled to the fullest extent possible. Yet, he is made to face the music. He is not let off the hook with a free pass. But, far from facing a condemnatory firing squad, his handlers are gentle.
If you think this means taking a kid-gloves approach, though, you don’t understand gentleness. Gentleness is using the right measure of strength required by the situation. Some situations require just a little bit of strength, some require a lot. Restoring with gentleness means knowing which to use when and choosing appropriately.
The congregation that can get this balance right, while putting in place measures to make sure those committed to restoration are not tempted into sin themselves, will find itself walking the path of life, transforming its community with the power of the Gospel, and advancing the kingdom of God into every part of its world. This isn’t an easy road, but it will always be good. It will neither leave people in their sin, nor needlessly drive them away from the church–the one place where they can be healed of it. It will stand as a welcome sign to the life that is truly life.