Friday, December 9, 2011

Correcting Erring Saints, In Canonical Context

 1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. 
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (NIV)
Here in Galatians 6:1-10 Paul explains how to deal with erring saints. They are to be restored with gentleness. How do we square this with his attitude towards the Teachers, as well as his stance in 1 Corinthians 5, or Jesus words on this subject in Matthew 18? What model is to be the primary model for dealing with sin in the community?

We will start with this text. There are three main emphases. Correction is to be restorative, it is to be done gently, and it is to be done humbly. While this text doesn't focus so much on the mechanics, it does provide a framework within which to act. It's not a manual, it's a list of virtues to embody. For those who love virtue ethics, this is the text for you.

Second, we will consider Matthew 18:15-20. This passage is much more like a manual, do this and if it doesn't work then do that, and so on. This is probably the standard text in evangelicalism for how to enact church discipline. And I understand why, because it's clear cut. We like easy to follow rules. The problem is that this text often gets implemented without paying any attention to our current Galatians passage. Yes, go ahead and follow the steps on this list, but make sure it's done with gentleness. Much seems to be done in haste to deal with sin quickly and decisively. Why?

Well probably because of the impact of 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul rips the Corinthians for their failure to deal with a major, open sin issue. It's important to a key point about this text, though. The issue is with the Corinthians because they didn't do anything. It's not that they were slow and careful in dealing with the problem. In fact, they practically encouraged it! And the guy seemed to show no sign of remorse. Paul's concern is that the Corinthians won't do anything about the matter. They won't go through the last step of Matthew 18 and finally remove the unrepentant individual (notice vs. 5 does show some concern for the individual) from the community. 1 Corinthians 5 is not ordering swift and decisive action, as it might appear to be at first glance. It's simply upbraiding pure inaction and the attitude that sin doesn't matter.

So what does a well rounded understanding of correction look like? First it needs to be stressed (because of how commonly we have erred here) that it needs to be done in gentleness and humility. The whole goal of discipline isn't expulsion, it's restoration. Second, sin matters. The community is called to be holy and needs to take that calling seriously. Gentleness isn't the lack of correction, it's the spirit in which correction is to be performed. Finally, there's a clear protocol to follow. Don't expose sin publicly unnecessarily, but deal with it in a discrete and firm manner.

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