Tuesday
Nov172009

Bringing Reproach on the Church

I seem to remember the expression from years ago.

Someone would come forward during the invitation song, not to ask to be baptized, but to repent publicly of some sin. Preacher and penitent would sit on the front pew for a moment and talk and then the former would address the congregation in the latter’s behalf.

“Our sister has come forward to confess sin today and that she has brought reproach on the church.” 

The specific sin varied from person to person and sometimes it was apparently either so well-known or so embarrassing that its nature was not even announced, but its infamy was sufficient to give unbelievers and other outsiders occasion to mock the evident hypocrisy of the congregation or of churches of Christ or of all religion.

The congregation’s reputation in the community can be a very tenuous thing. If we are not sufficiently evangelistic, the community will likely not even acknowledge we are there until something scandalous occurs. Sound churches are not throwing parties, holding Boy Scout meetings or serving soup to the homeless, so their profile can shrink if they are not extra busy doing the things that God actually expects from his churches (see Ephesians 4:11-16, First Timothy 3:15).

When sin is suddenly exposed in the camp, however, the scavengers just as suddenly appear, bent on securing carrion and rejoicing that the righteous have fallen. Maybe it is a rogue deacon who has been misappropriating funds or a wicked preacher who has sexually disgraced himself or just any member who is found to be drinking or cursing or being dishonest.

“I have brought reproach on the church.”

Back in the Old Testament, a man named Achan from the tribe of Judah, brought shame on an entire nation. Israel was warned before the battle of Jericho not to covet and steal anything they found there.

 

“But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord” (Joshua 6:18-19).

 

Achan’s greed was too great, however, and he “took some of the devoted things,” causing the anger of the Lord to burn against the people of Israel (7:1). He punished them by allowing their defeat in the very next battle at Ai. An investigation revealed that someone had stolen these items and eventually Achan was exposed. “And Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him with stones” (Joshua 7:25).

Achan had brought shame and punishment upon all the people by his greedy crime. The nation whose fame had caused the hearts of Rahab and her neighbors to melt had been embarrassed at Ai. Their determination to conquer Canaan had been shaken by the actions of just one man. Souls and God’s scheme of salvation were placed at risk because he could not exercise any more self-control. Achan brought shame upon the congregation of Israel – more than that, he threatened its existence and future.

It was what Moses had feared when God pondered wiping Israel out in the wilderness and starting over (Exodus 32:7-14). Where Moses feared the opinion of the Egyptians, Joshua felt the disdain of those in Ai.

Every sin is entirely regrettable, but there are some transgressions that become public enough to cause harm to the reputation and identity of the entire congregation or to the cause itself. Perhaps this was even part of Peter’s anguish when he rejected his savior as Satan sifted him like wheat – that he had not only denied his friend but had done so in the high priest’s courtyard.

Years later, Peter would warn against those sins that embarrassed the church before unbelievers, outsiders and critics. He prepared his readers for the onslaught of persecution, urging them to maintain “a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (First Peter 3:16). He continues, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler” (First Peter 4:14-15).

No sin is harmless, for even the least offense is part of the burden that Christ bore upon the cross for us (First Peter 2:24). Those sins which obtain a measure of infamy, however, have the potential to humiliate those closest to us and to bring the church under the community’s reproach where its future effectiveness is put in doubt. 

Paul even warned the young widows against idleness and gossip, urging them to get busy with good works so that they would “give the adversary no occasion for slander” (First Timothy 5:14). Sin in the camp can do lasting damage and it ought to be our aim to be so busy with righteous deeds that we have no time or inclination to engage in dubious behavior that will cause derision of the church when it is exposed publicly. 

Achan’s punishment was capital – he was stoned to death for his offense. Today, the penitent faces a fate that is far less fatal, but which is still quite foreboding. Not only must the public sin stop, but the guilty must gather the courage to confess it before those who were impacted or aware. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The cure is surely bitterer than simple prevention.