bad apples in the church


To quote a line from the Jackson 5 ‘one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl’…but it’s not a true statement.  We know where the picture comes from.  I’m sure that most of us have had a bag of apples or potatoes or some sort of produce…and one of them is bad.  If you don’t get rid of the bad one quickly, it can have a rotting effect on the others in the container.

About four years ago I dug deep into a pretty thick book with a really long title: ‘The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline’.  Which reminds me that we don’t need bumper stickers and blogs we need books for weighty topics…but I’ll give it a go anyway.

The title of the book emphasizes the fact that church discipline has gone the way of the dodo bird in many of our North American churches and it has not had a positive effect.  Many times the lifestyle of believing church members doesn’t look a whole lot different than our unbelieving neighbours.  Church discipline can change that.    

When a member is involved in sinful behaviour and it’s not dealt with it can be seen as acceptable.  When a member is not an ethical business owner, word gets around.  At one time it may have been reason for concern and a conversation but over time if it’s not addressed, it becomes a normal practice.  New people who are discerning are good at seeing blind spots but over time people can see bad behaviour as expected.  Sometimes we’ll observe sinful behaviour but the attitude will be ‘that’s just Frederick” or “that’s just Gertrude.’  That was true at the church in Corinth.  The dude was up to his eyeballs in sin and the gang thought they were loving by ignoring it.  (1 Corinthians 5)  One bad apple was spoiling the whole bunch.

We have been looking at nine marks that are key in moving a church toward health.  I have used Mark Dever’s book as a springboard but he put discipline at seven and discipleship at eight.  I have reversed the order because I believe that if we are doing discipleship well then we are less in need of discipline.  Scripture shows that church discipline is the final stages of discipleship.  (Matthew 18:15-20)

There are a lot of good reasons to discipline.  It helps the person see the need to repent…to turn back to God.  It is good for the person’s soul and it brings joy back.  It is for the benefit of other believers to see sin for what it is.  It benefits the body as a whole.  I used the apple illustration but Paul talks about something else:

…Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [7] Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. [8] Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)

Paul tells them that the Lamb (Christ) has been sacrificed and that the church was the unleavened bread.  They were not to have leaven in them.  The church was to be an acceptable sacrifice.  When church sin went public but wasn’t addressed, it could take a two-by-four to the congregation as a whole over time.  The sickness would spread to the rest of the body.  When you sweep sin under the carpet, at some time or another, some will end up tripping over it. As God’s church, we’re to reflect His glory and that’s a key reason for mark eight…as a body, we’re to make Him look good to an unbelieving world.  

In Acts the judgement on Annanias and Sapphira was quick when they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3).  God hit the couple and they were stone cold dead in less than a nano-second.  The response by God’s people is worth noting.  

[11] And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.  (Acts 5:11 ESV)

When sin is judged supernaturally by God or within the church by God’s authority (Matthew 18:18-20) there should be a healthy fear of God in response.  I believe that when sin in the church is addressed it shouldn’t cause us to puff out our chest in pride and to look down on our wayward sibling.  It should cause us to look at sin in the mirror a little more deeply and confess it and forsake it before a holy, holy, holy God.  God wants His church purified and sometimes severe steps are taken by His mighty hand or by His authority through qualified governing elders.  

Too often we consider the consequences of our actions to determine what is right but we are to obey God’s Word, regardless.  Was it not Jesus who promised that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18)?  We may be fearful to discipline a brother or a sister at our church because it may have what we consider a negative effect.  People may abandon ship.  People may padlock their wallets.  People may challenge the decision.  But could it be that we are to obey God in upholding church discipline regardless of the consequences because the Bible tells us so? Your church may decrease in numbers but in light of the discipline it may grow in depth and health and love…and over time the numbers may increase.  I’m not making any promises but if we follow in obedience in this area it shows us exercising faith and leaving the result of numbers with Him.  When God tells us to do something like church discipline in His Word, He puts a period, not a question mark.



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