I have heard it said that “there is no such thing as a private sin.” I believe this statement to be true. Whenever we sin, even in our thought life, our sin negatively impacts other people in some way or the other. And of course it grieves God, from Whom nothing is hidden. Nevertheless, churches need to be careful how they handle and expose private sins. All sin should be dealt with in some way or another, but not all sin should be exposed to the entire church.
Those who have read my blog regularly know that I am a strong believer in accountability and church discipline. There are times when believers need to be rebuked publicly for their sins and there are even cases when they should be expelled from church fellowship. But not all sin needs to be dealt with in this way, or there wouldn’t be anyone left in the church because no one is perfect. Church members need to exercise a lot of mercy and wisdom in reacting to the personal sins of other church members. There are many instances in which it is not good for personal sin to be revealed to the entire congregation. The purpose of this article is to give some rough ideas about when we should exercise restraint in encouraging church attenders to go public with their sins.
Let me begin by touching on the circumstances in which sin should be publicly exposed. The Bible states clearly that when so-called believers knowingly and repeatedly engage in behavior that is fundamentally unchristian, they should be corporately disciplined by the church. In such instances all those who attend the church—and other Christians who are aware of the situation—must break off normal fellowship with them. This situation therefore requires some sort of public exposure of the sin:
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:11-13 NIV)
Note that the Apostle is not advocating church discipline against those who do these sins only once and afterwards repent. Rather, he is urging corporate action in response to continual life-styles of wickedness. He does not, for instance, tell us to expel everyone who has ever committed sexual immorality, but rather, only a person who is currently “sexually immoral.” This implies that their sexual sins are not a onetime occurrence that they repented of, but an ongoing trend. The same things can be said about the other sins that are listed. There is no mandate here to corporately discipline someone who has lost their temper or swindled another Christian and later apologized and made restitution. Rather, the mandate is to expel those who do these things and have never repented, and perhaps have continued to do the same things again and again.
Corporate action should only be taken after church members have attempted to rebuke the sinning brother in private. Jesus Himself explained how this should be done:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’[b] 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17).
So then, expulsion should happen only after the matter has been divulged to the congregation, and the matter should only be divulged to the congregation after a smaller group has tried to lovingly convince the sinning brother to repent. No one should take a disagreement public before he has made a strong effort to get it resolved privately. Nor should he gossip about his brother’s sin and complain about it to others thereby incurring corporate wrath before he has approached him personally about it. Sin must be dealt with privately first.
Sins that are accompanied by repentance do not warrant expulsion from the church. We must not expel church members for single acts of adultery or violence if they ask for forgiveness and never do it again. However, on the other hand, we cannot completely ignore these acts either. These sins are extremely serious and have strong repercussions, thus action often needs to be taken to guard against repeat offenses. Sometimes this means that the offender needs to submit to accountability meetings with one or two other brothers who have the necessary wisdom and/or experience to help him keep this sin under control.
The question I want to discuss is: “should the congregation be made aware of a sin if it is not yet to the point that it warrants expulsion?” This is a question that does not have an easy yes-or-no answer that applies to every possible situation. However, I generally would recommend caution because a public rebuke handled inappropriately or given at the wrong time can do a lot of damage. For instance, let us take the all-too-common case of a man who has committed adultery against his wife. If he does not repent of this sin he must be corporately disciplined. However, if he does repent and takes strong steps to ensure that it will not happen again, a public confession may not be necessary. Such a public confession would be incredibly embarrassing not only to him, but to his wife and children. It may do more damage than good. Therefore a lot of thought and wisdom must go into deciding whether or not he should confess this sin in front of the church. In many cases I would probably counsel him against making a public confession.
We should be cautious about pressuring church members to make public confessions because inappropriate exposure of sin can cause serious damage in a church. It can destroy friendships and encourage gossip in the congregation. Sometimes past sins simply need to be forgotten, as the writer of the Book of Proverbs said:
Whoever would foster love covers over an offense,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends. (Proverbs 17:9 NIV)
So there are times when we need to conceal the sins of our brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than gossip about them to others. Not everybody needs to know about every sin. Forgetting about a past sin and moving on does not necessarily mean we are condoning it. In many cases sin needs to be left in the past and not brought up again.
Now on the other hand there is a verse in the Bible that commands us to “confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16). This verse reminds us that when we fall into sin it is important to tell another believer or believers about our failure so that they can pray for us and perhaps give us godly counsel as well. Facing our sins alone can be dangerous. But this does not mean that we should confess all of our sins to the entire congregation. Once again wisdom is required here in regards to who we tell. If I lust after a sister in Christ I am not going to tell that sister what I was thinking about. Such a “confession” would only encourage more lust between the two of us. If I confess it to anyone it will be my wife, who has more right to know about it than anyone else. I certainly would not broadcast it in front of the entire church.
We need to have a lot of wisdom when deciding whether or not to confess our sins in front of the assembly of believers. Sometimes this is a decision that the offender has to decide for himself, and those around him should give him grace either way. One man who is struggling with an addiction to cigarettes might feel it necessary to get up in front of the congregation and plead for their prayers; another man might not. Sins involving addictions are a particularly sensitive issue, because it is hard to stop doing them, even when the offender genuinely wants to stop. People trapped in addictions might commit the same sin over and over again even though they are sincerely sorry that they committed the sin in the first place. Those who counsel addicts out of addictions need to treat them with grace and love. They need to apply enough pressure to help the addict achieve victory, while at the same time resisting the urge to beat him up for past failures. Just because one church-member was able to quit cigarettes cold-turkey doesn’t mean that he has a right to demand that his brother do the same. Some people are simply incapable of kicking certain habits as quickly as others. The magnitude of the temptation that we face is not always equal from person to person. Those who counsel an addict need to have a lot of wisdom and sensitivity to the temptations that he is facing. If they berate him and call him up in front of the church to confess his addiction before he has victory over it, they may be doing more damage than good. They may make him so bitter and angry that he ends up leaving the church, or they might make him feel so weak that he stops trying to fight the addiction and gives in to it completely.
A believer can do a lot of damage to another believer if he demands to be constantly updated about his brother’s sins. While accountability is a good thing in general, it can do a lot of damage if it is overdone. It is good for an addict to be accountable to a few wise men; but I do not think it is good for him to be directly accountable to everyone in his church. He would be like the football team that has too many coaches. When an individual confesses a sin in front of the entire church it makes him vulnerable to all of them. In some instances this is good, but in other instances it is not. When done wrongly it encourages the congregation to gossip and put their nose in other people’s business eroding Christian liberty. Churches can actually become addicted to public confessions. In such churches there are some who get an emotional high out of publicly confessing their sins—even when they are not sure what sin they have committed—and the rest of the congregation gets a high out of berating them for their supposed failures. This practice could lead both to legalism and hypocrisy; Legalism, because the church becomes used to rebuking sins that aren’t even mentioned in the Bible, and hypocrisy because the church adopts ridiculously high standards of morality that no one in the world could possibly keep.
The important thing to remember is that we always need to treat a sinner with love. This love principle is modeled for us many times in the New Testament. One of my favorite examples is the way that Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery from an angry mob (John 8:1-12). The woman’s sin was real, but Jesus preferred to deal with it privately rather than publicly. First he dispersed the crowd by reminding them that they were all sinners. Then he exhorted her quietly to “go and sin no more.” Similarly Joseph decided to deal with Mary in a sensitive, loving manner when he found out that she was already pregnant before they ever had sex. He knew he could not marry her anymore, but neither did he wish to publicly humiliate her. So instead, “being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly” (Matthew 1:19 NKJV). Joseph could have been driven by anger to publicly denounce her, but instead he chose to treat her tenderly despite her (supposed) sin.
These examples I mentioned above do not give us hard and fast rules about how to deal with sin in the church. In fact, both of these instances took place before the church as we know it now existed. But they do provide a universal principle that still applies: sinners must be treated with love and sensitivity. This is a principle that should never be forgotten, even when it is painfully necessary to discipline church members corporately. Our goal should never be to humiliate or embarrass anyone unnecessarily. Our goal should always be for reconciliation and repentance, which means we must be able to embrace our sinning brother once again after he changes his ways and stops sinning. We must do nothing that will make that reconciliation harder than it needs to be. His sin does not give us an excuse to be cold or harsh towards him. Rather, a sinner needs an extra dose of grace and love. Let us not be among those who trample over our brother in Christ when he stumbles, but let us reach out our hand to him and help left him up. Let us limit our public accusations and help him deal with his sin privately, if possible, the way that Jesus commanded (Matthew 18:15-17). Let us not become gossipers, talebearers, or slanderers.