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12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Take a Stand

Will I confront sin?
12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Take a Stand
Image: Photographer Kris Krüg / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: If you have missed any articles in this series, be sure to check out the Introduction article, where you can find all of the articles that have been released.

If we want to do ministry well, we will have to learn how to tell time. Wise pastors give attention to the succession of time; they discern that any blip of chronos holds the possibility of being kairos, a moment “pregnant with possibility.”

We must learn how to live within both of these modes, duration and fullness of time. It’s critical to give particular attention to the latter. Mundane events can suddenly take on holy significance.

We’ve looked at five such moments. The sixth may be the most unnerving—the one we do tend to avoid. Pastor a church for any length of time, and one faces issues of sin. God will summon us to confront them, especially the kind of behaviors that left unaddressed will set a church on a course of self-destruction.

Our Hesitation

Tackling sin has its risks. There are costs, but Scripture does not give us a pass. When Adam and Eve chose to usurp God’s authority, God confronted their behavior and expelled them from the Garden. Following Israel’s unbelief, God consigned his people to the wilderness where they were often corrected.

It's not because God is peevish and vindictive, a God quick to fly off the handle. A careful reading of the biblical narrative, and it is clear God gives more grace than people deserve. He is a God of infinite love. Still, he warns and convicts and disciplines when we choose to go our own selfish, stubborn way. He disciplines those he loves (Prov. 3:12). When there is the absence of correction, it indicates his rejection.

Jesus invested himself in the work of reconciliation and restoration, but he could be severe when his disciples failed to seize the power that is theirs in Christ (Matt. 17:17). Paul did not neglect to call out sin. He confronted Peter for his misjudgment and prejudice, singled out those in Philippi who were disrupting the unity of the church, rebuked the Corinthians for putting up with sexual sin, dressed down Timothy for cowardice, and exhorted Titus to step up and deal with divisive people.

It is difficult to miss that, in the context of divine grace, exhortation and correction were interwoven into the church’s daily existence. The tendency to misbehave is deep in our makeup. Hence, church discipline was recognized early on as one of the marks of the church attesting to its authenticity. Still, we are uneasy about this pastoral function. What explains this?

Confronting Sin Often Leads to Abuse

Our age is particularly sensitive to any scent of judgmentalism and admonishment that lead to shame. Given historic practice, church discipline has taken on a negative connotation. Correction has often led to excessive self-mortification, harsh civil penalties, and corporal discipline for misbehavior. The practice has become more punitive than restorative.

We see some of these same patterns of maltreatment and excessive authority in churches and denominations today. Bully pulpits and clergy abuse remain. Most of us want to distance ourselves and avoid any suspicion that this is part of our practice.

Confronting Sin Is Complicated

Which sins call for admonition, and which call for corrective action? Some issues seem obvious: theft in the church, blasphemy, fraud, heresy, and adultery. But what about lesser sins? Is it okay to ignore the sin of avarice? What about materialism, gossip, coarse language, or gluttony? Where do we begin—or stop?

Confronting Sin Is Time Consuming

If we invest the time to challenge misbehavior, it may not have a good return. Church discipline feels like a good way to shrink a church and ensure a sub-par rating in next year’s review. It feels like a lose-lose and those aren’t the odds most pastors are looking for.

Confronting Sin Is Risky

Close relationships might end. Lawsuits might be served. Do we have the institutional right to challenge a non-member? A member? If established procedures are followed, are we protected?

It's little wonder there has been a long history of uneasiness. Most pastors have been hesitant to rebuke and admonish errant behaviors. Puritan pastor Richard Baxter complained that correction in the church is only talked about. Catherine of Siena observed that many pastors pretend they cannot see the evil in their churches.

There are exceptions. English preacher Charles Spurgeon did not hesitate to admonish and call out sin, both in one-on-one conversations as well as from the pulpit. Though severe at times, his aim was to help people find a way out of bad choices.

On more than one occasion, his corrective words were unplanned. In the middle of a sermon, he would suddenly find himself denouncing a person’s misbehavior, someone he may have never met. In this divine and defining moment, he realized God was giving him a “word of knowledge” about someone he did not even know.

In other pastoral memoirs, however, addressing sin seems to be a missing subject. Something avoided, or secondary at best. Peruse a theological library for books about corrective ecclesial action, and there are not many.

Our Warning

Here are some costs when we fail to confront:

Ignoring Sin Is Unbiblical

Those called to ministry are exhorted to reprove, correct, and even ostracize those who threaten the church’s integrity (2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 3:10). To do any less is, to use theologian Donald Bloesch’s words, “very much to be deplored.”

Ignoring Sin Allows Sin to Morph

Failure to treat sin only increases the momentum of evil. Cornelius Plantinga, in his book on sin, likens it to a plague that spreads by contagion, a polluted river that keeps branching and rebranching into tributaries.

It may be a divisive elder or a small group leader who is drawing people away from the church. It might be a church gossiper, whose need to receive attention is leading to relational hurts, or an embezzler whose greed has led to deceit. Unchecked, such misbehavior spreads deeper into the bloodstream of the church.

Ignoring Sin Is a Failure to Love

We sometimes justify our decision to avoid exercising church discipline because it appears to contradict our call to be a caring community. But does it? The truth is that discipline due, but discipline ignored, is not love but sentimentality. And this is love’s counterfeit.

The Moment to Respond

Times will come when sin must be addressed. God will summon us to speak into lives, expose sin, and call for course correction.

One pastor I know has faced a core of deeply divisive congregants. It has been their mission to drive a wedge in the church and drive him out. In a defining moment, he has sensed God’s summons to hold firm and oppose the ring leaders. It’s become life or death for him. As he puts it, “Once or twice in the life of a pastor, there will be a struggle for the soul of a church.” This is his present fight. Tomorrow, it may be ours.

I have faced my own experiences with difficult members. Just months after my call to my first church, there came a similar kairos moment. Circumstances (and God!) forced me to confront my predecessor for his deception and his wounding of a family in our congregation. In another moment, I was beckoned to deal with an unrepentant man who was committing spousal abuse.

There are more stories, each one a defining moment, a moment God says—it is time to act. In each case, the tenure of my ministry and the health of the church have depended upon my response to God.

What does God summon us to do? What are the steps?

Prepare for the Moment

Long before we are summoned to deal with a particular sin, God calls us on day one to create a culture of order (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 1 Tim. 4:7-10). We are commissioned to make disciples, a word that has a direct relationship to discipline. This involves two core things at the leadership and congregational levels.

Create a culture of admonition and accountability at the leadership level. If living a disciplined life is to be part of the spiritual ecosystem of the church, it requires that pastors carry out the work of oversight. A church leader is called to stand guard over the church (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7).

This begins with leaders overseeing themselves and one another (Acts 20:28). Those of us on top and well-fixed, as Will Willimon warns, “easily become sanguine about sin.” A constant discipline of one’s soul, and a mutual commitment of elders and pastors to hold one another accountable, is prerequisite to any ministry of congregational correction.

Vigilance includes watching over the whole church. Evil loves to hide among the good. Churches can become full of inconsistencies and sins. The world, the flesh, and the devil gang up to attack (Eph. 6:10-20; 1 Pet. 5:8).

Pastors must keep watch for people will consciously, and unconsciously, yield and shift to other gods to worship. Self-focused narcissism will lead to strained relationships and hard feelings within the congregation. All these misbehaviors are ultimately aimed at undermining the reputation of the church and tempting pastors to forsake their calling.

Part of the protective work begins with the ministry of ongoing admonition. It is intrinsic to the homiletical task and inherent in the revelation of God. Second Timothy 3:16 tells us Scripture is useful for “rebuking and correcting.” Are we looking to give a few helpful applications, or are we allowing the Spirit to take his Word and call out sin? Where texts warn of sin, we must reprove and correct (1 Tim. 4:2).

Create a culture of admonition and accountability at the congregational level. It is not only the responsibility of leaders; all in Christ share in the work of warning, binding up, and healing the wounds caused by sin. Only then will correction become an accepted part of church leadership practice. As John White puts it, “remedial action requires a soil to take root in and a climate to foster its growth.”

To admonish one another is a corporate practice of warning one another of sin’s dangers, penetrating sin’s deceptions, and reproving misbehaviors in a timely way. This includes a commitment to live out the one-anothers of Scripture—love, bear with, confess, provoke, and admonish one another. This is what admonishment looks like—

  • You’re not pulling your weight—step up!
  • You’re overly anxious—start trusting!
  • Your speech is coarse—replace it with kindness!

Accountability is more difficult in a large setting. Small groups can play a lead role, providing the context for true koinonia. Here, nurture, growth, answerability, confession, and correction are not only possible—they are essential.

It sounds radical, but maybe we need to adopt the small group practices of John Wesley’s day. Each time they gathered, members shared their spiritual advances and setbacks. They asked one another searching questions, including—

  • What is the state of your soul?
  • What known sins have you committed since we last met?
  • What temptations are you dealing with?

It is believed by some that Wesley’s commitment to such an infrastructure of discipline prompted some of the greatest evangelical revivals in Europe.

What if the church’s failure to admonish and confront one another, to be iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17), is the principal reason so many churches are dull? Could it be the reason we do not see such awakenings?

A culture of admonition is not a call to become resident fault finders. It must always be about inspiring and encouraging one another to pursue the right course, yet ever mindful of our tendency to self-deceit and rebellion. Nonetheless, when admonition is ignored, it necessitates the next step.

Exercise Corrective Discipline

When misbehavior continues, a pastor will need to respond to God’s leading and take corrective action. Passages like Matthew 18:15-17 serve as a guide. If we fail to follow its wisdom, we abandon errant congregants to their sin, which is sin’s goal. As Bonhoeffer put it, “sin demands to have a man by himself.”

The text in Matthew underscores that the involvement of people should be kept to a minimum. Restoration must always be the goal. One on one must be the first step. It’s here we need to clarify the offense, correct any misperceptions, and get to the root of the problem.

If things cannot be resolved by private conversation, it may be necessary to bring one or two witnesses. If there is no resolution, a broader group may need to be called upon to confront, correct, and seek reconciliation and restoration. If there remains a refusal on the part of the offender to acknowledge, repent, and renounce sin, it may ultimately require action on the part of the whole body. The offender may be required to leave.

We see this in the writings of Paul. When an offender refused to change, Paul called for expulsion (Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Cor. 5:2; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; Titus 3:10). Harsh as it is, ostracization can have a purifying effect. Like moldy dough, evil ruins the lump (1 Cor. 5:6; cf. Prov. 22:10).

This is our mandate as overseers—to protect the purity and integrity of the body (2 Cor. 11:1-2). If churches are embassies of Christ’s kingdom, they must reflect its character.

At every stage of correction, grace must lead—not follow. We are obligated to do everything in love; undue severity can be just as dangerous as undo leniency. At the heart of pastoral care, our mission is to bring people into peace with themselves, with each other, and with God (Rom. 15:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Thess. 5:13-15).

In his book, Rebuilding Your Broken Worlds, Gordon MacDonald shares his own story of sinful misbehavior, the work of correction, the moment of repentance, and the power of restorative grace. The emphasis is on the latter. He writes, “Without restorative grace, broken worlds cannot be rebuilt according to God’s standards.”

Be Willing to Pay the Costs

In Corinth, Paul faced the need to discipline a church for strife, jealousy, anger, disputes, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disturbances. His words grieved the church, and this in turn grieved Paul.

Sometimes we too must wound for there to be healing. It too will come with a cost to our souls. Sometimes, the greatest cost is in realizing that all the hours of investment have led to no evident change. Paul feared this. He worried that things might only get worse, that his labor would be as something suffered rather than something accomplished (2 Cor. 12:19-21).


One day we will be held to account for the souls we have watched over (Heb. 13:17). This prospect prompted early pastors to flee from their calling. But we must not. We must respond to the divine moment and carry out this pastoral task. John Stott’s warning must hang over our ministry: “So long as the church tolerates sin in itself and does not judge itself . . . and fails to manifest visibly the power of Jesus Christ to save from sin, it will never attract the world to Christ.”

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.

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