I want to follow up my last post on this topic with two somewhat different points, heading in somewhat different directions, but which are related to the central principles already laid out. I’ll post part 2 today and then part 3 in a few days.
First, I take it for granted that when Paul exhorts Christians to avoid certain brothers in error, as he does several times (e.g. 2 Thess. 3:14-15, 2 Tim. 3:1-5, Tit. 3:9-11), Paul is not giving a one-size-fits-all exhaustive how-to manual to respond to every scenario. He is laying down principles which must be applied with wisdom to particular situations. In some places, Paul is very specific: that guy who is sleeping with his step-mom, you need to put him out of the church and not associate with him in that way (1 Cor. 5:1ff). Elsewhere, Paul names names but doesn’t give specific instructions: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Tim. 4:10) or “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message…” (2 Tim. 4:14-15). What should Timothy do with that information? Would that information effect how Timothy and the church of Ephesus interacted with Demas or Alexander the coppersmith if they came into town all chirpy and wanting to jump into the church community? Presumably it would effect how they received those men. What if you were old friends with Demas and you notice that he’s been tweeting up a storm about the problems with Paul’s ministry? Then he shows up for church the following Sunday. What do you do? What if Alexander’s wife wants to join the Ephesian Women’s Fellowship? Paul’s comments do not necessarily mean that these guys would have been excommunicated on the spot. But if they showed up to church smiling and shaking hands, it would be important for people to know that things were not right between those guys and the apostle Paul. The point isn’t gossip, the point isn’t hatred or exclusion, the point is honesty and love. Maybe Demas repented. Maybe Alexander wanted to appeal his case. Any number of things might have happened. And depending on the details, different responses would be appropriate. Not one-size-fits-all. But given what Paul said, you couldn’t just pretend everything was fine.
So, there are many particulars that must be weighed and considered when applying the principles of admonishing, correcting, and avoiding brothers in error. Paul is not saying that if your erring brother is stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire, you should drive by without smiling “that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). Neither is he requiring that conscientious Christians scream and run the other way if they see the woman coming down the sidewalk who has just been acting out on Facebook. No, the point that Paul is making is that friendship and fellowship and truthfulness all matter. You don’t have to run away screaming, but maybe if the Lord puts him/her in your path, He intends for you to raise your concerns. And if you can’t do that, then don’t pretend everything’s fine. My point here is that this task is difficult, challenging, and at points awkward, and so consider this an exhortation to think about it, pray about it, and talk with your wife, your husband, or another trusted friend or pastor about it. It isn’t easy, but it’s part of growing up into wisdom and maturity in Christ.
In some cases, you may have a relationship with someone who is acting out, and when you bring it up, you have an opening for a good discussion. They might not change or repent on the spot, but love and patience would continue to pursue that relationship. The challenge comes with judging whether you are making progress with them, or are they making progress with you? Are you leading them to greater faithfulness or are you being led away? Related to all of this are the other people around you. Are you helping others to think carefully about these matters or are you causing confusion? And often a lot rides on how people hold their errors; are they evangelists and missionaries on a crusade or are they severely misinformed, hurt, and confused — and often it’s a little of everything. The point here isn’t one of contamination, as though associating with sinners is bad for you in itself. Jesus associated with prostitutes and sinners, and compassionate, sympathetic love reaches out to all the hurting and broken, despite the fact that some may think it looks unseemly. But if you had followed Jesus around for a bit, you would have found Jesus challenging and confronting sin and brokenness, not just paling around and watching the women taking their next clients into the backroom, saying, “No, it’s OK, I’ll wait out here while you take care of that.”
And since we are called to love those around us, we want to imitate this kind of love and wisdom. For example, your friends and children ought to know the difference between the kind of fellowship you share with brothers and sisters where there is strong trust and mutual edification (and honest accountability) and reaching out to brothers and sisters who are hurt and in need or in error. Sometimes that’s manifest and there really isn’t any confusion about what’s going on, sometimes it’s very ambiguous. What does a “like” on Facebook mean? Does it mean, “All the rest of your posts are horrible and mean-spirited, but this one wasn’t”? Does it mean, “Right on, sister! I love everything you say and do!”? On the one hand, there’s no need to turn Facebook “likes” into some kind of informal gestapo. It’s just Facebook, people. But on the other hand, Facebook isn’t meaningless either. Patterns emerge. Impressions are made. Are you thinking about what those patterns are? Are you thinking about what impressions are being made? Are you pursuing wisdom?
A couple other examples: maybe your neighbors are nice Christians but you find out that their children watch cable television without any noticeable parental supervision. Rated R movies are a regular thing in their home. Now you would certainly look for an opportunity to ask them about it. Hey, did you know your kids were watching Chainsaw Babes 3 last night? But in the meantime, you’d (hopefully) exercise a great deal of care over how much time your kids spend with the neighbor kids, what they’re doing, what they’re talking about, etc. Without completely shutting them out, there would still be a good deal of careful “avoidance” of certain things for the good and protection of your family.
Or what if Protestant family members convert to Eastern Orthodoxy? Do they all turn and face the icons at dinner time to say their prayers? Do they insist on crossing themselves after every prayer? Are they aggressive in their “evangelism” of you or your children? Or are they respectful and highly deferential to their Protestant family members? Do they admit and recognize the severity of joining a denomination that requires them to cease taking communion with their former Protestant church family? Or do they downplay it, explain it away, and wonder what the big deal is? A whole lot rides on how much you trust the relatives, how they respond to your questions and concerns, how they hold their new convictions, etc. Openness, honesty, and deference is a whole lot different than underhandedness, duplicity, and defensiveness. Different situations would call for a range of faithful responses, none of which would pretend that everything is fine. For example, you might still do some family birthdays together but you might decline other invitations.
Again, the point here is the principle that sometimes we will be in some form of community with Christians who are in some kind of error, theological, liturgical, or just being divisive and troublesome. The instructions Paul gives us by direct command and example is to note those people, know who they are, and then carefully, thoughtfully figure out how to communicate clearly what the problems and concerns are and not go along pretending everything is just fine. This is part of loving one another.
Love is patient and kind, but love is also honest.