We learn our habits early on and we often don’t see ourselves for what we actually are. We talk about transparency and being honest with one another, but many times we don’t practice this in our innermost selves. It’s easy to compare ourselves to other believers and to come out better. We find ways to justify our own sin. Scripture tells us to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5)—to examine ourselves and stop any attempts our minds might be forming to disobey God. However, it is more pleasant and satisfying to simply overlook what our underlying motives might be.
This can also be true of the Church—the bride of Christ—as a whole, or as particular congregations of believers. A group of people can become so self-righteous and prideful that they do not tolerate certain sin that could tarnish their reputation, while other groups refuse to even name sin as sin, readily allowing it into their midst.
There is a plethora of denominations and non-denominations, as well as a multitude of “how to handle sin and sinning congregants.” We sinners (that would be all of us!) often behave to accommodate how sin is talked about and openly acknowledged within the walls of the particular churches we attend. Our thinking may reflect the tone that our congregation has established concerning sin that arises within it.
“ It’s easy to compare ourselves to other believers and to come out better. We find ways to justify our own sin. ”
So, if we were to find ourselves involved in, say, an unplanned pregnancy, what we do might mirror the atmosphere of our church. Of course, if we have failed to respond in repentance, our first tendency is to hide in shame—to cover up what we have done. If we fear judgement rather than mercy, we might consider changing churches. However, this article is not about what we do, but how our congregation responds to sin in its members. The response of a church to a pregnancy out of wedlock might fall somewhere on a scale of complete acceptance without requiring repentance or accountability to unforgiveness and excommunication.
The truly biblical and gracious response lies somewhere in between, and would do the hard work of meeting the sinner where they’re at, and calling them higher. Displaying God’s love toward the one(s) who has sinned, the church’s goal is for repentance and restoration to take place; but where there is a lack of repentance, excommunication might be necessary.
Church leaders set the course for how church members respond to sinning members. Hypocrisy breeds gossip and rejection; but God Himself mandates compassion, repentance, and forgiveness. The stronger these characteristics are reflected in the church, the stronger members will stand against sinful temptations, and the more likely they will be to quickly confess when they have sinned. Thankfully, the protocol is written for us in scripture, and woe to those who find themselves in churches where answers are not sought there.
“ ...the church’s goal is for repentance and restoration to take place. ”
Some suggest that the church is a hospital for sinners—that none of us are well, so we should not be quick to judge, especially when we can’t see the mote in our own eyes. There is some truth to this sentiment. But scripture does not paint a picture of Christ’s bride as a hospitalized or unhealthy victim. Rather, the church has been ransomed and is full of the glory of God. By His power, the redeemed find their strength and vitality, and will finally be made complete when Jesus returns.
Instead of a hospital, the Bible speaks of believers primarily as a family (John 1:12, Romans 8:29, Galatians 4:6, Revelation 21: 9). Our church family supersedes our biological families, as it oversees our development from spiritual infancy to maturity (Hebrews 5:11-14). Together with our church families, we feed on God’s Word and we fellowship with one another. We care for one another’s needs and we come before our God in worship together. We encourage each other to stay the course. We pray for one another. We love one another. We are quick to forgive, because we are aware of how much we have been forgiven.
There will be times when we get off the path we should be on—times when we indulge our self-interests and our own pleasure rather than fix our eyes on Jesus. We lose focus. We weaken. We make our desires more important than we should. We stumble and fall. All of this is sin. That is why we are warned to examine ourselves constantly.
“ Scripture does not paint a picture of Christ’s bride as a hospitalized or unhealthy victim. Rather, the church has been ransomed and is full of the glory of God. ”
Nevertheless, we all have those “lost” moments. The thing is—we all, every one of us, are prone to wander. Our ministry and service to those who have gone astray is not based on our standards or human mercy, but on a Most Merciful Heart that has forgiven me as I, in turn, must forgive others. “[God] is the spring of all mercy,” Thomas Goodwin once wrote; and Micah 7:18 asks, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity…?” The reason given further on in the verse says, “Because he delights in steadfast love.” The next verse concludes, “He will again have compassion on us.” Again, and again.
In our church families, we must cultivate an atmosphere that easily encourages and allows confession, remembering God’s merciful heart toward each of us. We must be ready to pour out the same mercy on prodigal brothers and sisters who find their way back home.
When I first decided to write about this topic, I thought about The Scarlet Letter, that old novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne set in New England in the early colonial period. The main character becomes pregnant, refuses repentance, and won’t confess who the father is; so, she is made to wear the scarlet letter “A” which reminds all her neighbors that she is an adulteress. A pastor was later revealed to be the father. The book is not written by a believer nor is it an accurate picture of how a Christian community should respond to such an incident. Yet, each of us probably knows or has heard of some pregnant young woman within our communities who has been harshly judged or perhaps ostracized for being in that condition.
“ Our ministry and service to those who have gone astray is not based on our standards or human mercy, but on a Most Merciful Heart that has forgiven me as I, in turn, must forgive others. ”
A resulting pregnancy is easy to see. Falling into other sin might not be so visible, but it does always eventually come to light. We can’t hide any sin for long (Number 32:23). Whatever the issue, the goal of church discipline is always restoration, not judgement. I love that both Stephie and Chad understood this (Living Letters blog, January 1) and recognized that their church leaders acted in love. As Stephie said, “The church first and foremost cared about my relationship with the Lord, and did what they could to take me back to my first Love (Revelation 2:4). I met with church elders on a weekly basis, going through scriptures and reflecting on what they meant to me. They wanted to see my relationship with the Lord grow.”
The attitude of the church elders here is spot on. What every believer should want beyond all else is to see a fellow believer who has given in to temptation get back to a right relationship with the Lord. In the case of an unplanned pregnancy, if both the pregnant woman and the father of her baby are in the church, this applies to both. Godly counsel should be given to both. At some point, the entire Church body needs to hear a heartfelt confession; and immediately after, extend compassion and forgiveness.
Following this, the pregnant woman needs the spiritual, emotional, and material support of her sisters in Christ. The men need to uphold the father of the child, their brother. The whole congregation needs to serve and minister to the couple. Encouragement should be lavish and generous. A baby shower, gifts, baby-sitting after the birth—whatever is needed. If the woman remains single, even more will be necessary. When the new baby arrives, the entire church will be needed to help nurture the child. Accountability is crucial between all members.
“ What every believer should want beyond all else is to see a fellow believer who has given in to temptation get back to a right relationship with the Lord. ”
Remember the story of Hagar in Genesis 16? Hagar was sinned against by Abraham and Sarah. As a pregnant Hagar fled her home, she was met by an angel of the Lord. The words of the angel assured her that God had not forgotten her or thrown her away. He would make good on all the pain she was enduring. She and her son would have justice.
Sometimes, as in the case of rape or sexual abuse, a pregnant woman is the victim. But even if that is not the case, a believing woman in an unplanned pregnancy needs to be made to feel the love of God through the love of her believing brothers and sisters. We must be the angels of the Lord to those among us going through injustice, rejection, and hard places.
We do reap some consequences of our sin. These tough times should build us up in the Lord and are often the best teachers. But ultimately, when we’re in Christ, we never receive what we really deserve. We do not experience God’s wrath; on the contrary, He provides for our needs even as we go through our suffering. Many times these provisions come to us through our fellow believers. The great merciful God, who showed us His mercy through Jesus Christ, gives His children the gift of mercy so that they might reflect His glory on those to whom they are merciful.
“ The great merciful God, who showed us His mercy through Jesus Christ, gives His children the gift of mercy so that they might reflect His glory on those to whom they are merciful. ”
When we repent and turn from our sin, God removes it from us. He comes to us with open arms, mercy, and compassion. He uplifts, and restores. We must do nothing less than view others as He views us. The pregnant woman is given the gift of motherhood. God will use her story in the lives of others, to encourage, to love, to point them to Him.
I have always found it remarkable that after my own unplanned and aborted pregnancy, a failed marriage, and single motherhood—God placed me to work in pregnancy resource centers. To serve Him and others whose stories often sounded personally familiar. Chad finds it remarkable that today he and Stephie are more involved than ever in ministry, especially to married couples.
The world is observing the Church whether we realize it or not. God is working His will through the Church whether we realize it or not. The glory of God is revealed to all through the redeemed and transformed lives of His children. Each of His children has a purpose. We need to always recognize that, appreciate that, and encourage one another to cling to Christ. How? Galatians 5:13 has the answer: “Through love serve one another.”