According to Matthew 18:15-20 the first line of defense for the NT church is the congregation itself – the believing members of the local body who live as brothers and sisters in Christ. Contrary to what many seem to think, discipline in the church is not a top-down process, it is very much a grass-roots effort. Each member is to take his brother’s spiritual walk seriously and be willing to take the uncomfortable step of private confrontation rather than resort to gossip or run to the pastors or deacons to address their concerns. That is not to say that church leaders shouldn’t be involved in the process in any way. You might ask your pastor or a deacon to accompany you as a witness if your private attempts to reconcile have failed, and certainly you must involve them if you plan to bring the issue before the entire congregation. But much of the time we could resolve sin issues in the church if we would practice the first step of the process by going to our brother alone, showing him his fault, and appealing with him to repent.
The apostle Paul seems to describe just such a practice in Galatians 6:1 when he says, “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.” Here Paul is speaking to fellow Christians and advising them on the proper procedure for dealing with a sinning brother. Notice that he describes this man as having been overtaken by sin, that is, he is not someone who is following after sin but who is actively trying to escape sin yet finds himself caught from behind. He is a genuine believer who desires righteousness and holiness yet experiences the ongoing presence of sin, not a hypocrite who only claims to be a Christian while still loving his sin. Paul says further that you should restore this sinning brother, which means to return him to health as when a doctor sets a broken bone. Just as in Matthew 18, the goal of this kind of personal confrontation is mending something that has been torn and restoring something that has been lost, namely the Christian fellowship and testimony that exists between us when we are right with God and with each other.
In order to accomplish this task of spiritual restoration, Paul says that this confrontation ought to be undertaken only by those who are spiritual. This term must be understood in light of the context of Galatians 5 where Paul contrasts those who walk in the Spirit with those who walk in the flesh. He says that the flesh and the Spirit are at odds with one another, and that those who walk in the flesh give evidence that they do not even belong to Christ. On the other hand he says, “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So when he says that the sinning brother is to be restored by “you who are spiritual,” he means that there must be consistency in your own life and walk before you can safely and properly help your brother who has fallen. This is basically what Jesus was saying in Matthew 7:1-5
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me remove the speck from your eye,” and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Restoring a fallen brother requires a great deal of self-discipline. You must first examine your own heart and life to see if you are guilty of some unconfessed sin, or you run the risk of becoming a hypocrite by pointing out the speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank that is lodged in your own eye. This is why Paul says in Gal. 6:1 that you must do it in a spirit of gentleness while considering yourself, because you know that you are not immune to temptation and sin. Your attitude toward your sinning brother must be gentle and loving, or instead of restoring him to faith and fellowship you will drive him away and further into sin’s bondage. But you must also be humbly realistic about your own tendency to sin. This will protect you from falling into sin even as you seek to restore your brother, and it will help you to avoid that spirit of judgmentalism which alienates the fallen by pretending that someone who is truly spiritual is beyond the reach of certain temptations.
This practice of going to one another alone to address areas of sin is important. By it you may restore your brother, but it also serves a means of identifying true disciples of Christ. In the context of Paul’s discussion in Galatians 5, those who indulge in sin as a lifestyle give evidence that they do not truly belong to Christ, no matter what they may say, but those who are in Christ will walk in the Spirit and be restored when they are overtaken by sin. So it really is the members of the local church who serve as the first line of defense against the encroachment of sin into the body, but the NT describes others who serve as protectors of the church, and we’ll consider them in the next installment.