Being a Church that Trains in Godliness
One of the exciting parts of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is becoming more and more the person he longs you to be. This character change (godliness as it is called in the bible) is not something that God intends us to do on our own. One of the key resources alongside His word and His Spirit to help us grow is His people. However, one of the dangers of our individualistic age is that we often try to pursue personal change on our own and so we are missing out on a key way that God wants to work. Appropriate honesty with other Christians about our weaknesses and battles, praying together, mutual encouragement and accountability are all vital ways for us to grow (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Our godliness is also a matter for the gospel community we are part of (our local church) because that’s the way a community works. Jesus teaches that “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal 5:9) because any sin of mine will inevitably end up impacting on the wider community - no person is an island. If we are serious about becoming the people and church Jesus wants us to be then it may be a challenge to individualism but it will also bring great blessing.
Ways to help each other change
There are many ways that we can help each other grow to become more like Jesus Christ. Praying for one another, reading the bible with one another, encouraging one another, and comforting one another to mention just a few. Equally though, sometimes in a gospel community we will sin and it may hurt another person or it may be that they notice something we are blind to. On such occasions the person may need to speak to us directly. In this context it is vital that we remember that helping others to change is done with love and great care. Jesus’ parable on noticing the plank in your own eye before you seek to remove the speck in another’s (Luke 6:41-42) is an important reminder of the need for a humble awareness of our own faults and a prayerful care whenever someone speaks to another to help them change. What follows is the bible’s pattern for how we help one another change in this context.
1. Speaking to someone 1 on 1
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus teaches that if someone sins against us we are to go and tell them their fault ‘between you and him/her alone’ (Mt 18:15). That way if they listen then the relationship is restored and they have been helped to change. Notice a few key things about this:
- Jesus sees personal change as so important that he commands us to speak to people 1 on 1. Most of us will find this intimidating but it is a key way that God wants to help each other to change.
- It is not a blank cheque to grind an axe. The aim is to restore a relationship and to help foster change, ‘If he listens to you, you have gained your brother or sister’.
- It’s not an occasion to gossip. Most of us when we’ve been wronged seem to not be able to help ourselves from talking to others about it. Jesus is clear it is ‘between you and him/her alone’. Generally speaking don’t talk to others about it unless for some reason you really need to, just go and speak directly to the person, that way the person is protected from gossip and the community is protected from unnecessary division.
2. What if they don’t listen?
If the person doesn’t listen and it is sufficiently important then the next step is to take along another person with you (Mt 18:16). Again this has to be done prayerfully and in love. The reason for taking another person is so that they can serve as an informal arbiter ‘that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses’. This sounds more formal than it needs to be, and it is not saying that the other person must have seen the initial act/offence but rather that they can say whether the other person really has done something wrong or are you perhaps just getting yourself unnecessarily wound up. Given our Inspire group structure, then a good person to involve at this stage would probably be the Inspire group leader. They may on reflection think that it is a misunderstanding in which case they will be a ‘peace-maker’ and help you and the other person to settle the problem. But if there is a real problem there then they will go with you to try and help reconciliation and change.
3. The last resort
In the case that after the second meeting the person still doesn’t acknowledge fault and listen to what is being said, and if the Inspire group leader thinks it appropriate then it will be important to raise it with someone in a position of pastoral care and authority in the church. Most probably this will be either of the two pastors Pete or Mark. Please note that this should be rare and only when: a. The person is stubbornly refusing to listen and you prayerfully feel it needs be escalated b. Or the initial offence is public enough or serious enough that it is appropriate to involve them straight away.
The general principle from Matthew 18 seems to be that such involvement needs to be ‘as private as it can be and as public as it needs to be’. It is ‘as private as it can be’ so that (as stated before) the person’s reputation is not needlessly damaged and unnecessary division in the church family does not happen. It is ‘as public as it needs to be’ so that the church is not a place where sin and wrongdoing is just swept under the carpet. Again the motive is never to be heavy-handed or to publicly shame someone, but to restore them. We want them to see the seriousness of sin and to help them to acknowledge the fault and seek to change, and after all that is one of the big things church is about!
It may be that as you are reading this you find this feels ‘a bit over the top’. ‘Shouldn’t the church be a community of love and acceptance?’ you may ask. A few comments:
- Point 3 is very much a ‘last resort’ (hence the heading!). If we have got there then please notice that careful and prayerful steps that must have happened beforehand.
- Love does not mean anything goes and God’s acceptance does not mean ignoring sin. God’s love and acceptance is shown in seeing sin for what it is, offensive to Him and destructive to His world, and seeking to bring people to the point of forgiveness and change. That’s the motive for this teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18. (But it is his clear teaching and therefore not something we can just ‘opt out’ of).
- Growth does sometimes involve discipline and ‘no discipline feels pleasant at the time but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (Hebrews 12:11). Just as a gardener who is not prepared to prune will not get the best out of the garden or a coach who is not prepared to correct will not get the best of his team, so the church that wants to grow must be prepared to prayerfully and graciously challenge sin. The way this is done will be key, and for that we must look to Jesus: gracious but truthful, patient but firm, accepting the person but never condoning the sin.