Problems inevitably arise among brethren in the church and between the church and unbelievers. Problems among brethren can always be resolved if all parties desire the Lord’s will more than their own and if they follow several simple scriptural solutions. Problems involving a Christian and unbelievers must be addressed according to Scripture by the saint alone.
Once. The first problem involves believers as they evangelize the lost. Believers recognize that unless the Holy Spirit draws a man, he cannot be saved. Clearly, some men are not going to be saved. While the believer has the privilege and responsibility of broadcasting the Word indiscriminately, simply scattering the seed, he has no authority nor ability to insist that someone believe the gospel. It is our responsibility to deliver the gracious message of salvation. If it is accepted, we should rejoice. But if the message is rejected, we are under no obligation to badger or harass a person to believe. The principle is illustrated in the Lord’s message to the seventy He sent out: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you” (Lk. 10:5, 6). The saving of souls is in the “hands” of the Holy Spirit. Scripture, of course, does not prohibit intercessory prayer that the Spirit might open a door for further witness and call that lost soul to salvation, but it does bar what would amount to badgering in the face of overt rejection of the gospel.
Twice. The unbeliever who rejects the truth is to be admonished once (unless the Holy Spirit opens the door again). There is, however, one who is to be exhorted twice: “Reject a factious [i.e., divisive, contentious] man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10, 11). Do you know who the factious man we are to reject is? He is not necessarily someone who denies the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, nor, for that matter, any other cardinal doctrine. He is a “schismatic,” someone whose doctrine is contrary to Scripture or whose attitude breeds factions. Anyone who promotes divisions among brethren on those bases is to be warned twice, then rejected [“shunned”] if he will not heed the admonition.
Thrice. Scripture sets forth three steps to follow in the case of a Christian who sins. (1) “Go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:15). If I become aware of a sin in a brother, I am not to gossip to my wife or friend. I am to go directly to the person and explain to him his sin with meekness and charity. If he hears and repents, peace and fellowship will be restored. “But if he does not listen to you,” then (2) “take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (v. 16). The additional witnesses serve the purpose of confirming both the reality of the sin and the fact that the accused has been admonished scripturally. “If he refuses to listen to them,” (3) “tell it to the church” (v. 17a). The holy weight of the entire assembly is to be brought to bear upon the conscience of the sinner in hopes that he will turn from his sin. For open, unrepented sin will act like a poison on the life of the entire church. Should he refuse to listen to the collective exhortation of the congregation, he is to be segregated from the congregation: “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17b).
490 Times. On the other hand, should a brother repent and wish to be reconciled to me, I should forgive him 490 times; that is, a fellow Christian who sins against me—regardless of how egregious the error—should be forgiven repeatedly. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter asks (Matt. 18:21b). “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven,” the Lord responds (v. 22b). As seven is the number of divine perfection and ten the number or ordinal completeness, the Lord was stressing the fact that believers should forgive offenders fully and without end as the Lord forgives us.
If we follow the Lord’s directions concerning church order, all relationships will be as the Lord intended them to be, and we will have peace and unity in our worship and service together. This is not an impossible task. Paul said: “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?” (I Cor. 6:2, 3). The Lord’s way is so simple and his grace in our hearts so powerful that saints are able scripturally and successfully to handle conflicts—if we will. Let us not be defeated in these things.
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