Mailbag

The Mailbag: My “Christian” Family Member Bears Rotten Fruit

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I have a family member, *Fran, who claims to be a Christian, but follows several major false teachers, drinks, habitually lies, is very proud, boastful, and manipulative. She has been shown that these teachers are false but chooses to follow them anyway.

Should I treat her as though she were a sister in Christ by going to her and rebuking her and going through the “disciplinary” steps in hopes of reconciliation? Or should I go about it as if she weren’t a sister in Christ?  I have been praying for her and for wisdom for myself to handle this in a God honoring way.
(*Name changed)

It’s always difficult to watch a loved one choose sin over Christ and false doctrine over sound doctrine. Praying for Fran and for God’s wisdom and guidance are the first and best step.

You’ve asked about “going through the ‘disciplinary’ steps in hopes of reconciliation.” I believe what you’re referring to here is the process described in Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This is the basic outline Christ has given us for disciplining sin in the local church. One thing to notice about that last step is that if the person sinning does not listen to the church, the church is to excommunicate (remove, or disfellowship) him from membership and regard him as someone who is lost and in need of the gospel. This brings us to the question of whether Fran is a member of your church or another church. A church obviously can’t excommunicate someone who isn’t a member of that church. This helps us to see that each local body is responsible for disciplining its own members.

If Fran is a member of your church, then, yes, the steps in the Matthew 18 passage should be applied. The wisest course of action, especially if you’ve never done something like this before, is to seek the counsel of your pastor or an elder as to the best way to approach Fran and handle the meeting. Set aside some one on one time to talk to Fran, and be sure you listen to her as well. Part of that one on one meeting is for you– to make sure you are correctly assessing the situation, not, for example, reacting to a rumor you heard, a misunderstanding of an incident, etc. Lovingly and humbly point her to the Scriptures she has transgressed. Pray with her if she is willing.

After that initial meeting, give her some time to consider what you’ve said and to respond to the Holy Spirit’s work in her heart. Check back in with her at a later date and find out if she has repented. If not, prayerfully gather two or three others Fran likes and respects and repeat the process. If she still doesn’t repent, take those two or three people, meet with your pastor or the appropriate elder, and seek his guidance on the next step to take.

You didn’t specify in your e-mail, but it sounded as though Fran is not a member of your church. In this case, you really don’t have any ecclesiological redress (i.e. excommunication) to back you up. What you have is a family member who appears to be a false convert because she is bearing the fruit of someone who is unsaved rather than the fruit of someone who is saved.

I would again encourage you to meet with your pastor, an elder, or a godly, older, spiritually mature woman at your church for counsel as to the best way to proceed. It might be possible to carry out the first two steps of the process simply as an act of love and concern, considering what steps you would take in your personal relationship with Fran if she refuses to repent. First Corinthians 5:9-13 is a good passage to study as you consider this situation:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

This passage is also written to the church body regarding church discipline, but we can glean from it, as well as from the Matthew 18 passage, that there is to be some noticeable degree of separation between Christians and individuals who call themselves Christians yet unrepentantly persist in sin.

As you mentioned, the whole point of lovingly confronting someone you care for about her sin is to – for the good of her own soul – point her back to Christ so that she may first be reconciled with Him through repentance and forgiveness, and then be reconciled with her church family and others. Two good Scriptures to remember and take to heart when we have no other choice but to approach a sinning sister are:

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:31

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2

It can be difficult, painful, and embarrassing to hear someone tell you you’re in sin. Put yourself in that sister’s shoes. Treat her as kindly and mercifully as you would want someone to treat you. We never confront another in her sin with the motive of shaming, punishing, seeking revenge, or proving her wrong and ourselves right. That is not the gospel. It is not how Christ treats us when we sin. If she repents when you approach her, forgive and rejoice with her in the good work Christ has done in her heart.

Additional Resources:

What is Excommunication in the Bible? at Got Questions

What does the Bible say about church discipline? at Got Questions

A Church Discipline Primer at 9 Marks

In Order that You May Know at Grace to You


If you have a question about: a well known Christian author/leader, a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

8 thoughts on “The Mailbag: My “Christian” Family Member Bears Rotten Fruit”

  1. Thank you– this is incredibly helpful.
    The last paragraph really struck a chord within me, — the mercy and grace we must show is not to prove we are right–but to help our sister. I’ve heard of some very painful stories-and you know, I need to examine myself and my life as well –how many times have I messed up or addressed someone else to point out a “sin” and hurt someone either intentionally or unintentionally. Even the the best of intentions can be skewed.
    This is indeed helping me–to look at things in a more grace filled way (and convicting–which is good as well!).

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  2. Pray first, then pray some more and continue to pray. If we are not praying in earnest for a person and praying for our actions to fulfill God’s glory first of all I don’t believe we have a spiritual responsibility of discipline. Do you disagree, Michelle? Where does our human pride not become an issue if we are not fulfilling these basic requirements?

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  3. This article was very timely for me(coincidence?). A lady in my Bible study who is not a member was criticizing the pastor on more than one occasion and the study leader went to the pastor. He did not do Matthew 18. No one met with my friend. The matter was brought before the board. My friend got a letter from the pastor telling her she had one more chance(according to Titus 3:10Needless to say, I felt the matter was not handled with love. Very sad…

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    1. It’s discouraging when things like that aren’t handled properly and biblically, isn’t it? Leslie – for new believers who are reading this and might need an example of how things should be handled – would you mind giving a very brief explanation of the steps you think should have been taken in your situation according to the Matthew 18 passage (keeping private details private, of course). Sometimes a “real life” example can be so helpful.

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