What do We Do About Error?
One of the most heartbreaking situations we witness as Christians is when a brother or sister in Christ strays from the faith. Any type of sin can lead to this, from sexual immorality to the teaching or practicing of false doctrine. Any sin is like leaven, which spreads quickly and can soon affect a whole congregation. “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
The context of the above passage revolves around the issue of a man taking his father’s wife, an example of sexual immorality that was well known to the church there in Corinth. Rather than fighting against the man’s sin, the congregation had accepted it (vs. 2). Notice what Paul’s command was to the brethren there: “…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (vs. 5). Since Jesus has added Christians to His church, His kingdom, anywhere outside of that kingdom would be a realm of darkness and sin. That worldly realm of darkness has its own master and lord: Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3). Paul’s instructions are clear: the man committing fornication cannot abide in the kingdom of the Lord while continuing in his sin; therefore, as this man’s actions have made him a servant of Satan, the church at Corinth must take disciplinary action against him.
There may have been some there at Corinth who thought such actions were harsh and without love, but Paul is very clear about the desired end result of the discipline: to save the man’s soul. Were the Corinthians to hate and despise their erring member? Should we mistreat those members of the Lord’s church who are in sin today? Not at all…in fact, it was to be just the opposite! “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thes. 3:15); “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
Because we love them, and because their soul is more precious to us than even our friendship with the one in error, we must go to them. We are to be humble in our rebuke, considering our own souls. But being humble does not mean that we let sin slide: the leaven has to be purged.
Even if we refuse to discipline, perhaps thinking that we are doing the erring brother or sister some kind of favor, we must realize something: they are already out of fellowship with God (2 John 9). Any act of discipline we administer according to the Scriptures is simply an outward showing of the separation that has already occurred between God and the one in sin.
Unfortunately, some churches allow sin to continue openly, and they refuse to take any disciplinary action against the erring brother or sister. For the sake of “keeping the peace,” there are some churches that will even tolerate false doctrine in their midst. Did the apostles tolerate such error?
Paul warned that there would be those who fell away from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Peter cautioned that false teachers would come in, even among the people of God, bringing in heresies that would lead to destruction (2 Peter 2). Amazingly, even elders in the Lord’s church would not be immune to such error, “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). God’s word makes it clear that brethren are not to preach a different doctrine or receive others who do so (1 Timothy 3:1; 2 John 9-11).
Something is not acceptable just because many people believe and accept it. Something is right only if God’s word says that it is right. Those who reject God’s word are in error, no matter how popular or well educated they may be. We can know that we are right in our practices if we abide in His teaching: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31).
It is a sad truth that some churches of Christ do not follow the Bible in all of their practices. However, does this frustrating fact mean that we should just throw our hands in the air and quit? Certainly not. Some congregations of the Lord’s church practice error and tolerate sin. This was true of Corinth for a time (1 Corinthians 5). It was true of Pergamos and Thyatira, whom Jesus warned to remove the sin among them and repent or face His wrath against them (Revelation 2:12-29).
Regardless of what others may do or tolerate, our first loyalty must be to the Lord. Let us keep His word with joy and diligence, and be unafraid to discipline according to that word when necessary. In doing so, we glorify Jesus, we please Him, and we invite Him to continually abide with us.