One of the great things about moving to a new church is that we are totally ignorant of the politics of the place.
All churches have politics, and not all of it is good.
The church we went to in Sydney is currently discussing whether to extend the building or not - which is a process that will cost in the millions.
While I am confident that they will reach a reasonable decision, the whole process showed that church politics are alive and well.
So it's actually quite nice to come here without knowing any of the issues, without having to take sides with different groups or individuals
- although I'm sure that the longer we are here, the more we will get to know.
I felt that mentioning this was an important place to start today because the Bible passage I will be looking at is a very serious one.
It is basically about how the church should respond to members who sin, and about how those sinful people should act towards those they have sinned against.
In that sense, it is great that I am ignorant of the politics and the history of this place because it allows me to approach this subject without appearing to take sides, or without reference to any particular event or person.
Like any church, everyone here is sinful.
And even though we have been forgiven and have a new heart, people here still sin.
I am absolutely certain that the Bible passage we will examine today will make some people more uncomfortable than others.
But just letting you know - I'm ignorant of the issues, so don't think I'm aiming at you specifically.
I think the best thing for me to do is to read the passage out section by section.
To read out the whole chapter can sometimes be long and people might find it hard to concentrate.
So let me read out to Matthew 18.1-14.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven”?
He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
The first point I want to make is that we need childlike faith.
It always fascinates me that Jesus' disciples seem so intent on trying to work out who is the greatest.
I think at this point, however, they are asking a legitimate question - they are asking, what does it take to become great?
Jesus' answer is surprising.
He says that they need to change and to become like a little child.
He is not saying that we should be childish or immature, but he is saying that we need to have humility and a basic trust in God.
It is important to note here that Jesus is using the child as an example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
The child is an example of what it means to be a Christian.
This passage is not talking about children - it's talking about faith.
Many times in the New Testament Christians are referred to as children.
So the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who become like children
- who trust implicitly in God and who are humble.
But there is one thing about children that is universally recognised -
they can be easily led astray.
You can pour some petrol into a glass and convince a child that it is medicine and they should drink it.
Jesus says that if anyone welcomes such a person welcomes him.
But if anyone leads such a person into sin, it would be better for him to have a millstone around his neck and thrown into the ocean.
Notice here the very strong language Jesus uses.
This is not kids stuff, leading a Christian into sin is basically leading them away from God.
We're talking here about people whose faith is destroyed because they were led into sin by another person.
Which is why Jesus uses such harsh language.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!
It's better to go through life without a hand than to be perfectly okay and to be thrown into hell.
If you are sinning in such a way as to lead other Christians away from God, then do something about it
- otherwise you prove yourself to be an unbeliever, and are heading to hell.
God is very concerned about people.
If one of his children falls away, he will do his utmost to get him back.
Just like the shepherd who leaves his 99 safe sheep to rescue the one that has been lost.
Our Father in heaven is not willing that any of his little ones get lost.
He does not want any of us to have our faith destroyed.
What these verses describe to us is a very unpleasant situation.
A situation where Christians - who are described as children - are led away from God.
Jesus says that anyone who welcomes such people welcomes him.
But those who lead them astray are therefore rejecting Christ.
Why is Jesus telling us this?
Why is he warning us not to lead people astray?
He is telling us this because it can happen within the bounds of the church.
Sad as it may seem, there are people who call themselves Christians, who are actively or passively leading other Christians away from God.
There are churches around where church members are regularly committing adultery with one another.
There are churches where some members are active homosexuals, or even paedophiles.
And there are churches around that are Bible based, reformed, evangelical and who have practicing adulterers and paedophiles and homosexuals.
So what are we to do?
What do we do when there is sin in our midst
- sin that is so serious that it leads people away from God?
The church has, in the past, made two mistakes.
The first is that sin should simply be ignored.
After all, God is a loving God and who are we to judge?
Besides, it would be far better if the whole thing were simply forgotten.
That sort of attitude hid the sin, and did nothing at all for the victims - those whose faith had been destroyed.
The second mistake is that sin is taken so seriously that the church becomes litigious and strict.
It is a church involved in witch hunts.
Sins are never forgiven and never forgotten.
Strict rules are set up that are impossible to follow.
That sort of attitude makes it impossible for forgiveness and reconciliation to occur.
So what should we do?
The rest of the chapter deals with these issues well.
Which moves on to my second point - what should we do when people refuse to repent?
Let me read to you 18.15-20.
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
“Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.”
Jesus gives us a very wise process to follow here.
It allows the sinful person to repent and to stop their behaviour before anyone else finds out.
One of the problems with exposing sin in a church is that it can become public before it needs to, which can lead to all sorts of hurt.
By starting with just the two parties involved, Jesus gives the sinner a chance to repent before anything worse happens.
But if the person refuses to repent, then it should be taken to a small gathering - two or three people who together ask the sinner to repent.
Again, this is kept private with the sinner still considered part of the church.
I take it that the two or three people would naturally be mature Christians, such as elders or ministers or other Christian leaders.
But if the person still refuses to repent, then the matter becomes public.
The church is notified of the situation.
Again, this gives the person a chance to repent
- except this time, everybody knows what is going on.
And if he refuses to repent even then, then the person is expelled from the church.
By treating him as a pagan or a tax collector, he is effectively treated as an unbeliever.
And if the person is considered to be an unbeliever, then obviously he still has the opportunity to repent.
When the person has been shown the door, there is nothing else that can be done.
If he continues to sin, then the church has nothing left to do
- instead, we leave it up to God.
One thing that is assumed throughout this process is that the church itself is committed to serving God and is obedient to his law.
If the church is not honouring God, then this whole process can easily be mismanaged
- or worse, used to expel innocent people it doesn't like.
If that is occurring then it is a whole different matter entirely.
So for this process to work, we need a church that honours God,
that loves God and people dearly
and which desires to both live a holy life and be prepared to forgive.
So we obviously need to be careful.
But what happens if the sinful person repents?
What responsibility do we have?
Let me read 18.21-35.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything’. The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘be patient with me, and I will pay you back’.
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant’, he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus is saying here that people are important.
A person who repents from his sin has been forgiven by God, so we should forgive them too.
If we choose not to forgive, then we are just like the servant in this parable
- forgiven, and yet not willing to forgive.
In the end, we are expelled from God’s presence.
If we are true believers, we have been commanded to forgive.
Notice that forgiveness is not tolerance.
We’ve already seen that sin needs to be dealt with.
Forgiveness is not tolerance of sin, or just simply putting it under the carpet.
Forgiveness is when you truly forgive someone who has hurt you - but someone who has repented.
On the one hand, Jesus is commanding us to not tolerate sin in our midst,
but on the other hand, he is commanding us to forgive people.
Obviously this teaching raises questions.
What happens if a person repents but then sins again?
It seems that Jesus is saying to Peter that you should tolerate it when he says “forgive them 77 times” (which basically means all the time).
If we’re talking about serious sin here
- sin that leads others away from God
- then we can assume that if they repent but continue to sin, then they have not really repented at all.
In that case, you simply go back to the verses beforehand and take that person to the next higher gathering of people,
and eventually expel them if need be.
What Jesus is saying to Peter is that we must be prepared to always forgive our brother or sister in Christ.
We have to, because Jesus forgives them.
Yes, we have to treat sin seriously, but we also have to treat forgiveness seriously.
But another issue arises here.
What happens if the sin is so serious that it breaks the law set down by the government?
For example, what happens if someone is found to be a paedophile?
And more than that, what happens if the person truly and honestly repents?
Do we simply let them back into church, let them play with our kids and keep it away from the police?
If a person’s sin is also against the law, then they have to be punished according to that law - even if they have truly repented.
As Christians, we must obey the law set down by the government, and we are not honouring God if we choose not to notify them.
The integrity of the church generally has been destroyed by keeping things under wraps.
Look at how people view the Catholic church these days.
Serious sins, like child abuse or domestic violence are unacceptable - both within the church and within society.
Even though we are called to forgive those who honestly repent, we must honour God by obeying the law and bringing these people to justice.
Doing so does not mean we are not forgiving them.
We can, after all, continue to pray for them and fellowship with them in prison.
We are not rejecting them, but we are honouring God by bringing it to the relevant authorities.
So how should all this work in practice?
I’m not arrogant enough to suggest exactly how things should be done,
but I am confident that God’s word here gives us the right guidelines to follow.
But there are a few things I need to say at this point.
The first is that we need to be intolerant of sin.
If we are tolerant of minor sins, then it is much easier to be tolerant of major sins.
I’m not talking here about being legalistic or petty, but we need to ensure that we live pure lives in honour to Christ.
We need to learn to rebuke people for their sin.
We need to have the courage to walk up to a brother or sister in Christ and talk to them about their sin.
More than that, we need to be humble enough to accept the fact that we ourselves sin, and need others to rebuke us.
The second point is that we need to love one another.
Without love, we cannot hope to forgive people.
We need to love God first, and our love for others will follow.
If we truly love God, not only will we be intolerant of sin, but we will be willing to forgive people.
The third point is directed to those here who are seriously sinning.
I’m not talking here about doing 70 in 60 zones or swearing occasionally,
I talking here to people who might be committing serious sins - adultery, homosexuality, child abuse, domestic violence and other sins which cause other Christians to fall away.
If there is anyone here like this, then beware.
You are close to the fires of hell.
You are not living a Christian life.
I urge you to turn from your sin and repent.
Jesus said that it is better to cut off your hand or gouge out your eye in this circumstance
- do whatever it takes to ensure that you have eternal life.
The fourth point is directed to people here have seriously sinned in the past, but have repented.
Know that you are forgiven.
Know that, despite your sin, that you stand before God now clean.
Jesus has taken away your stain.
No matter how depraved your sin may have been, if you trust in Jesus as your saviour and your Lord, your sins have been taken away.
The fifth point is directed to people who have been sinned against by other Christians.
What has happened to you is wrong - God knows this.
But he wants you to forgive.
He commands you to forgive.
If you do not forgive, then you are in danger of rejecting God’s forgiveness.
But you must also remain intolerant of sin.
If you have been sinned against by another Christian, then you must show him his fault.
If he refuses to repent, discuss it with some Christian leaders who will approach him about it.
Follow Jesus’ instructions, even if it means expelling the person from the church.
You need to be both intolerant of the sin that has been committed against you, and be ready and willing to forgive the person involved.
The final point I want to make is that sinning and leading Christians away from God is morally wrong, but it doesn’t always have to be sexual sins.
It can also be theological sins.
Teaching believers that Jesus wasn’t really God is far more damaging to people than an adulterous relationship.
Teaching that you can’t really trust the Bible, or that other religions can lead to God, leads people into hell without them realising it.
God hates anything, any sin, that leads his people away from him,
and that includes bad theology.
So who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
It is someone who trusts in God like a child.
Someone who implicitly trusts in God as their Father and in Jesus as their Lord and saviour.
God, as our gracious heavenly father, cares for us and loves us so much, that he will do anything to keep us.
And he warns anyone who leads his children away that their punishment will be deserved.
But God is willing to forgive, and he commands us all to forgive those who sin against us, because he himself has forgiven us.
Let me pray.
Change us and make us more into your children. Give us both an intolerance towards sin, and a heart of love for you that is willing to forgive. We pray that you give us the strength to rebuke others and to be humble enough to be rebuked. We thank you that, even though the sin of the world has tainted our relationships, that you have given us your Son as the ultimate sacrifice. We thank you that through faith in him we have forgiveness. AMEN
From the Kerygmatic Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.