“Private Sins” and “Quitting the Church”
Is adultery a “private sin?” Can we “quit the church?”
John Divito points out a case in Dallas in his post here, in which a church member involved in an adulterous relationship sought to avoid Matthew 18 church discipline by “quitting the church” so that the church could not appropriately confront him over his “private sins.” The man and mistress in question have sued the church. His case has been dismissed twice and is currently on appeal. Go over to John’s and read the articles, especially the church’s release on the matter.
But I want to ask a pertinent question or two. Is adultery a “private sin?”
Now, I have to be very careful what I say here. There are people who read this blog who can potentially be hurt or even insulted by what I discuss in the following paragraphs. But we must not pretend even for a minute that adultery can be glossed over, and as such I submit that adultery is not a “private sin.”
The very fact that there are people who would take offense at the above paragraph should be evidence that there is nothing private about adultery. Someone completely disinterested in or ignorant of their situation, such as me in this post, can affect the emotions, attitudes, and behaviors of an adulterer with a post such as this. Further, adultery affects more than just the people involved, it affects the entire community. Secrets are kept that damage the relationship between the person keeping the secrets and the community. When one keeps secrets, an unhealthy attitude is taken in the relationship, and perhaps even resentment and bitterness creeps in because the one keeping secrets knows the community may disapprove. If the secrets are revealed, the relationship is actively damaged, because fellowship is broken. Either way, the relationship between the person and the community has been changed unalterably. The effects of adultery, as I have briefly stated here, go far beyond one’s immediate family.
So, adultery is not a “private sin.” I’d also argue that there is no such thing as a “private sin;” every sin, no matter how sheltered, affects others around us in some way, shape, or form. And I haven’t even mentioned that “private sin” drastically affects our relationship with God.
That brings us to a second question: can a person “quit the church?”
I’d say that if a person is a believer, he or she cannot leave without incurring sin on his or her part. This is not a knock against people who leave a church for various reasons such as a church falling into heresy, moving to a new community, God calling a person to join another church, or what have you. This is about a person leaving a church for the express purpose of avoiding the consequences of sin. I would expand this issue to also include those who “quit the church” in order to “punish” a pastor or church who they perceive to have offended them.
On this one, I am unmerciful. Scripture is clear on the matter. The book of Hebrews tells us that we are not to forsake church attendance, and by extension we are not to forsake church membership. The consequences of the situation described in John’s post are dire. Matthew 18 is very clear that the person attempting to avoid church discipline — whether through ignoring it, flaunting it, or actively seeking to avoid it — is to be treated as if they were not a Christian. These people are unbelievers doomed to Hell. And as believers, it is our duty to admonish those professing faith but living unrepentantly.
The same goes for those who have “quit the church” for other reasons “less” sinful or not sinful at all, who are unrepentant of not returning to church. Who are they really “punishing” by leaving and refusing to return to fellowship? They are only hurting themselves, because the gathering of believers is the place where they will learn and grow in the faith. It is the only place where they can be discipled effectively. The church will move on without them, while they wallow in their bitterness like pigs in the mud.
The sad thing about the situation with the adulterous man is that all along he is being called to Christ, yet by his refusal he is rejecting the very Savior whom he claims has saved him. What a radical perspective on those who are false teachers among us who “bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction (2 Peter 2:1).” And to claim that a Christian is not subject to church discipline is surely a destructive heresy.