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Distinguishing Public From Private Sin

The Bible makes a distinction we must not miss. When it comes to sin in the camp, what the church should do depends on whether the Christian is sinning on an individual basis or is taking others with him through teaching error.

Biblical Distinction: Wayward versus False Teacher

Please consider the very different, even divergent, ways of dealing with a sinning Christian in the two verses below:

“Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:15)

“Many walk…as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Philippians 3:18)

Just looking at these two verses side by side, it’s clear they cannot be talking about the same person. Unless Paul is contradicting himself, the person called an “…enemy of the cross…” at Philippi cannot be the same person we are “…not to regard as an enemy…” at Thessalonica.

The Bible does not contradict itself, and Paul said in another place that he teaches the same thing everywhere and in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17). We have to conclude that there is a distinction to be made between the brethren described in 2 Thessalonians 3:15 and the brethren described in Philippians 3:18.

Consider the context. The passage in 2 Thessalonians 3 is the instruction for how to discipline wayward members, while the passage in Philippians 3 is a dire warning against false teachers.

Regarding the Thessalonians, recall that Paul had written to them a short time earlier, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). In his second letter to them, patience has run out: some have persisted in sin rather than repenting. Those who are sinning are to be withdrawn from, though the church must still warn them of their sin (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14).

What’s the difference between being wayward and being a false teacher? There’s a big difference, brethren.

It’s the difference between drinking beer yourself and teaching others that it’s not a sin to drink beer. The beer drinker is sinning for sure, but he sins without directly involving another person in his sin. It’s possible he may even admit that he’s sinning and should quit. The false teacher, on the other hand, defends the drinker in his sin and causes other Christians to drink or to approve of drinking (Romans 1:32). He cunningly places drinking inside the confines of Romans 14 as though it were a mere matter of conscience and makes others think it is love to allow the drinker to continue on his way to a devil’s hell in the sin of drinking! (2 Peter 2:20)

And it is not the wayward brother but the false teacher who is “…causing divisions and hindrances contrary to the doctrine we have learned” (Romans 16:17). By his teaching, the false teacher is accusing the faithful of passing judgment on their brethren (there’s old Romans 14 again!) and closing their hearts to the needs of the lowly. He introduces a discouragement and trap for those who are inexperienced in the faith as he, “…by smooth talk and flattery deceives the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18).

Let’s look in this first installment at what the Bible teaches about dealing with false teachers. Our next article will examine the proper actions towards our wayward brethren.

False Teachers and Divisive Brethren

Self-Serving and Contrary to Christ

Romans 16:17-18 has some specifics in common with Philippians 3:18-19.

“Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own belly.” (Romans 16:18)

“Enemies of the cross of Christ…their god is their belly.” (Philippians 3:18-19)

These are parallel passages describing the divisive person and the false teacher. We’re told plainly that they don’t really serve our Lord, though they claim to (Matthew 7:21).

Recall that under Moses God prescribed Aaron’s sons for priesthood and Korah argued that, “…all the congregation are holy–every one of them.” (Numbers 16:3) Jude draws a comparison between modern false teachers and Korah’s contradiction of God’s word.

“…They’ve perished in the contradiction of Korah…” (Jude 11)

“…causing divisions and hindrances contrary to the doctrine…” (Romans 16:18)

And again:

“…casting up the foam of their own shame…” (Jude 13)

“…they glory in their shame…” (Philippians 3:19)

The one who contradicts (KJV, “gainsayer”) is mentioned in Paul’s letter to Titus, where he says an elder “…must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Paul’s letter to Titus also contains instructions for Titus himself to follow regarding the divisive.

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)

The Bible says plainly you can know that a person who causes division is warped. Something is seriously, fundamentally wrong. There is nothing you can do but to have nothing more to do with that person. Indeed, to do anything else is to disobey Paul’s instructions!

Harming Others

Let’s add to the list of things these passages have in common. We’ve seen that the passages treat the false teacher and the divisive, characterizing them as contrary to Christ and self-serving.

Now we add that false teachers and divisive Christians impact other Christians directly.

“By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:18)

“They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” (Titus 1:11)

“But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene…. They are upsetting the faith of some.” (2 Timothy 2:16-18)

Unlike those who have simply lost their own way, these have become leaders of others into destruction–”blind leaders of the blind.” Going back to our illustration about alcohol, this is not someone who is himself overtaken in the sin of drinking. This is someone who is teaching that drinking is no sin, thus encouraging others to go along with him.

Of course, in order for drinking not to be a sin when the Bible plainly teaches that it is, we will have to change our way of interpreting and understanding Scripture. And that’s just what these false teachers and divisive brethren want us to do. They want us to believe that we have been oppressed too long by the heart-judging, cold-hearted methods of direct command, approved example, and necessary inference! They want us to believe that we are too straight and narrow, and a loving God would not treat sin or sinners as severely as we think. Sound familiar? It should: the serpent said to Eve, “You shall not surely die!”

To Be Avoided

Now, in every case we are told to avoid them, protecting the innocent. This has always been God’s way.

God told Israel of old by the mouth of Moses how to protect themselves from the contradiction of Korah:

“Say to the congregation, ‘Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram….’ So [these men] and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol…, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (Numbers 16:24, 33)

Moses observes this pattern as he speaks to the second generation from Egypt:

“The LORD your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today.” (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

The same pattern can be observed in the New Testament passages we have already seen regarding false teachers and divisive brethren today:

The congregation is told to “…turn from them” (Romans 16:17).

The preacher is told to “…have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10).

The elder is told to “…stop their mouths….” (Titus 1:11).

God does not regard lightly false teachers and those who “…sow discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:19). We shouldn’t either. We are not stronger than He.

We owe it to our brethren who are still young in the faith to protect them from error. Why should the evildoer who destroys souls be spared while the innocent and inexperienced perish? Why should we give more time to someone who should already know better, and meanwhile the inexperienced Christians among us suffer spiritual death at their hands?

When the people of Israel complained about the Lord destroying Korah and company, the plague started among them and felled 14,700 of them. 14,700 children of God died not because they rebelled against God by serving as priests, but because they defended someone who did! (Numbers 16:49)

Remember that Aaron stood between the living and the dead when he stopped the plague with atoning incense (Numbers 16:48). Time is of the essence, and lives are hanging in the balance.

-Luis Zamora