“When another Christian falls into obvious sin, an admonition is imperative, because God’s Word demands it…Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 83.
Bonhoeffer writes that this begins with close friends – do we have friends close enough to us to speak God’s Word to us, not only when we need edification and encouragement, but when we need to hear God’s Word of judgement and rebuke for sin? Bonhoeffer styles this “a severe mercy” and reminds us that “God alone judges” – we “can never place ourselves above” those we speak to in this manner. Then Bonhoeffer writes (page 84), “God’s Word serves humankind by judging it.”
Sadly we live in a church-world where we usually see two extremes; one is the extreme that says nothing in response to obvious sin, the other is the extreme that focuses on sin-management, conformity, and often substituting the traditions of man for the Word of God. In the latter, even when another person is in obvious sin, when the Word is spoken it is often not really the Word but rather a person or congregation using the Bible to wield ungracious and unfeeling condemnation with an arrogance that places itself above the one to whom the Word is spoken. When we place ourselves above others we place ourselves above the Word of God.
This is a hard thing to negotiate in our society in which people pay lip service to accountability but are quick to criticize it when it is actually practiced. Many congregations will sacrifice obedience to Christ for the sake of harmony, but this is not harmony, it is hypocrisy – everyone is wearing a mask pretending that the congregation is living in obedience to God’s Word.
Those that clearly see a friend in sin must decide just how much they love their friend – do they love him enough to speak the truth with a broken heart? Is the welfare of a brother important enough to risk rejection and misunderstanding and even condemnation by the friend and others?
Then there are those who persist in obvious sin who have refined emotional blackmail. They dare others to judge them. The emotional pain they threaten to inflict on those who dare to speak the truth frightens others away from Biblical obedience, from not speaking the truth. Worse, these emotional blackmailers often enlist others in their cause making the collective threat worse. And woe to that pastor or group of elders who face an extended family that can fracture the church should one of their own, in obvious sin, be corrected with the Word of God.
Earlier in Life Together Bonhoeffer writes that life together entails living together under the Word of God; we submit to God’s Word and we submit to one another. Paul writes that we are to be submitting to one another in the fear of Christ – this is to be an ongoing way of life. Mutual submission to one another, as we live under the Word of God, is necessary for life together.
“…God has put God’s own Word in our mouth. God wants it to be spoken through us. If we hinder God’s Word, the blood of the other who sins will be upon us. If we carry out God’s Word, God wants to save the other through us” (page 84). Bonhoeffer then quotes James 5:20, but I’ll add verse 19 to it:
“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
While we may not fully understand what James writes, that should not preclude us from obeying it – if I waited until I fully understood what I read in the Bible I would obey little of it. What I do understand is that God loves us and that obedience to His Word brings intimate relationship with Him and His people.
Obedience to Jesus Christ and love to our brothers and sisters must be more important than numbers, than offerings, than what others think of us, than what the world thinks – if we are to obey the Bible in terms of obedient accountability to Christ, His Word, and to one another.
How critical is this to Bonhoeffer? On page 84 he writes, “We serve them…even when in obedience to God we must break off community with them.” Bonhoeffer is fighting for the soul of the church, for the preservation of the church, and through the church for the preservation of the world. Paul teaches that one of the reasons we are to speak the correcting Word of God is so that “others may fear”. People must see by our actions that holiness matters, that obedience matters, that sin matters. Our brothers and sisters must see that temptation must be resisted; we must learn to help one another on this pilgrimage – we are all (as far as I know) frail, we all have blind spots, we all need help. When we collectively fear sin, and abhor deliberate persistent sin, we will flee to our Lord Jesus when the wolf approaches and we will help one another.
When we speak the Word to one another we open a door of repentance, we invite our brothers, our sisters, our friends, to turnaround, to come back. This is not about pushing people away, this is about redemption. This is not about shoving others off the boat, this is about throwing a lifeline.
We ought to keep in mind that the longer a person persists in obvious sin that the harder his heart becomes – the sooner the Word is spoken the better, while hopefully the heart is still tender. The more entrenched a person is in rebellion the more he will fortify his position, the greater his self-justification will be – and the more damage he may do to family and others around him. We ought to remember than Christians persisting in obvious sin cannot see clearly, they have lost their equilibrium, they have spatial disorientation, they do not know down from up – they need help – they need our help and we need each other’s help. Our mission must always be redemption, we must speak God’s Word and trust the Holy Spirit to do His work, we cannot control others, we should not try to control others…we can, however, be lovingly obedient.
Many of us have seen ugliness in the church when it comes to “corrective” words and we are right to be leery of entering these waters, for they can be fraught with danger and a stupid captain can sink a ship. However, slow and careful obedience can be good in that it fosters dependence on the Holy Spirit and reminds us that we are children on our best days. Only a fool prances around with TNT oblivious to danger. Since we have seen ugliness, let us wrestle with beauty and obedience – let us humbly ask our kind heavenly Father and Lord Jesus to give us the courage and trust to obey, to hold each other accountable, to navigate these difficult waters.
Would we not implore our friend to leave a house on fire? Not to drive drunk? To see a physician if he had cancer? To wait for the light to turn green before driving through an intersection? If we would try to save our friend’s body from harm – how much more his soul? How much more the soul of the church?
May God give us gracious wisdom in an age descending into the abyss.