My previous post noted that sometimes the Bible tells us to fight over things—and sometimes it tells us to keep the peace for the sake of unity. Since both of those responses are directly commanded—and since, obviously, we can’t do both at the same time—we need to know which is which.
When do we fight? When must we not fight?
I mentioned in passing that there are actually two different areas in which we must make that decision: beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes we need to give fellow believers freedom to act in the way they choose, and other times we must seek to change their chosen way of acting. And sometimes we need to give them freedom to believe what they choose, and sometimes we must seek to change their chosen way of believing. And in both of those areas, if they will not change when they need to, then we must go to battle.
So it’s really important that we know when to fight, and when not to.
On the behavioral side, the distinction is pretty clear.
If what our brother is doing is sinful, then we are obligated—because the body is one—to intervene and exhort him to stop sinning—to change his behavior. Jesus himself lays out the process for doing that in Matthew 18. It happens in stages, which are probably familiar to most of us. First you go alone and urge the brother to stop the sin. If he won’t listen, you take 2 or 3 witnesses. If he won’t listen to the group, you take it to the whole church.
A few comments about this process are in order.
First, we intervene not out of authoritarianism, but out of love. Whether he realizes it or not, our brother is being harmed by his sin; there’s nothing good down that road, and there’s nothing loving about letting him proceed unimpeded. We put warning signs on highways when there’s danger ahead, and nobody thinks that’s unloving; in fact, it would be unloving not to care enough to put up the signs.
But that’s not the only kind of love involved here. The body of believers can be harmed by his sin as well; sin hurts bystanders, whether by encouraging them to follow him down the road (1Co 5.6) or by damaging their reputation in the community (Rom 2.24). We intervene because we love the rest of the body as well.
Second, the process Jesus lays out is one of grace, not harshness. The steps in the process increase the pressure slowly over time, and each step occurs only if the previous step did not bring repentance. This means that you’re applying the minimum amount of pressure necessary to bring the brother to repentance. You’re not shooting a fly with a cannon; you’re not “lowering the boom” until less forceful measures have been insufficient.
Third, you’re showing grace by keeping the circle of knowledge as narrow as possible. There’s no gossip here. Even bringing in a few witnesses is an act of grace; I know of cases where the witnesses listened to the “defendant’s” story and told the accuser he was out of his mind to initiate the confrontation—that what the brother was doing was something he had a perfect right to do. The witnesses help ensure against overzealous accusers.
So when the issue is behavior, when do we fight? We fight only when the behavior is sinful, and then as graciously and gently as possible to achieve repentance.
We don’t fight when the issue is not sin—for example, when the person is doing something we don’t like but the Word does not condemn. There are all kinds of things that irritate me—clothing styles, hairstyles, popular expressions, lack of situational awareness, slow drivers in the left lane, Yankees fans—but I can’t be in the business of imposing my personal preferences on others. Especially when I know that some things I do irritate them as well. 🙂 By showing grace in those situations, I’m demonstrating love, grace, and peace that must have been given to me by someone else, because it’s certainly not my nature.
Next time—what about beliefs? Here it gets a little more complicated.