Why Does My ‘Private’ Sin Hurt The Church?
‘Whatever people choose to do in the privacy of their own bedroom...’
I wonder if you’ve heard challenges that begin like that. It’s taken as a given, especially in the political realm, that private actions are just that. They need not impact others in any way. As Christians we can fall into a private/public dichotomy too. Perhaps that’s because it can be uncomfortable to consider how my actions (whether private or public) impact upon others.
When answering a difficult question I think it’s helpful to start with positives. After all, the challenge of our question flows from the wonderful truth that, as Christians, we are not isolated. We are connected. Those who follow Jesus are family. We’re one body, sharing one baptism, worshipping one Lord.
Therefore, whatever our personality type, whether we are introverted or extroverted, and whatever our cultural influences (such as individualism), we are connected to others. What we do, therefore, impacts upon others. We will reflect on the challenge of this truth, but we first need to recognise the benefits that flow from our connectedness to one another.
The church is an eclectic mix of people from every tribe and tongue, where all people are to be valued, all are one, and all are to serve each other for the common good. Those who would be considered less in the world’s eyes are honoured in the Church (1 Cor 12:22–23). Scripture claims that everyone has something to offer to the Church family. Paul’s standard expectation is that people arrive at a communal gathering with something to contribute (1 Cor 14:26).
I’ve had to reckon with the challenge that, as a Christian, I should never just think about myself and my own walk with God. I’m called to build up the Church with whatever gifts the Spirit has entrusted to me (Romans 12:6–8). I’m to have an influence. By God’s grace, whatever my role, I’m to be a blessing to others.
Our connectedness is a blessing, but it brings responsibility too. Church leaders, for example, have a responsibility to those under their care (Hebrews 13:17). All Church members have a responsibility to show practical love towards one another (James 2:16). We have a responsibility to follow God’s truth, rather than following our own desires (2 Timothy 4:3). Our responsibility also involves walking in the light and not in darkness (1 John 1:7). To walk in darkness, to sin, can cause us to shirk the responsibility we have to our family (the Church).
Our connectedness to other Christians means that as well as the potential for good, we have the potential to cause harm too.
Scripture is clear regarding the harm sin can cause to others. To establish this point, we can look at an example of public sin in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul challenges the Corinthian Church over their reaction to an egregious sexual sin. It seems clear there was no repentance, and the tense of the verb in verse one (‘a man is sleeping with…’ NIV) indicates this relationship was an ongoing one.
In response to this situation, Paul didn’t just focus on those directly involved. He recognised the communal nature of sin and the connection those involved had to the rest of the Church family. His opening salvo, for example, states, ‘…there is sexual immorality among you’ (1 Cor 5:1). Those who were directly involved were part of the Church; therefore, there was a communal impact to their action. It happened ‘among you.’
Influenced by our individualistic, Western culture, I don’t think it’s natural for us to think in this way. If we fail to recognise the force of Paul’s argument, however, we miss out on the full picture of what it means to be Church. We should not forget that we are connected to other Christians and have a responsibility to one another.
The Apostle goes on (1 Cor 5:6-) to explain why sin impacts the whole Church by using the metaphor of yeast. The metaphor stresses the influential impact that our actions can have. This metaphor is used positively elsewhere in Scripture (Matt 13:33). Here it is used as a negative example of one’s influence on others.
It doesn’t take much yeast to leaven the whole batch of dough. A tainting element, no matter how small, can have a widespread, disastrous impact. Sin influences the entire Church. That’s why Paul urges the Church to distance themselves from those directly involved (1 Cor 5:9 & 13). This is so that the whole Church can live out its identity and remove ‘the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are’ (1 Cor 5:7). The Church is to become who she already is, holy and spotless. Paul’s goal is to encourage repentance for those involved and restore the Corinthian church to health.
Scripture claims that sin impacts the Church. But what about ‘private’ sin?
First, we should recognise that many actions that are considered private do involve others. Take pornography as an example. Watching it not only involves other people but a whole industry. Or, as another example, to lust over someone in our mind still involves objectifying another person. To what extent is that really ‘private’? When we reflect on what we may consider private sin, the public/ private dichotomy may become strained.
Second, if we accept there are private sins, there can still be an indirect impact on the Church. Hypocrisy will naturally weaken our witness to others. In turn, that will naturally undermine our ability to encourage and strengthen the Church. Sin, sowed in private, blossoms in public. Perhaps this happens by causing us to withdraw from others. Or perhaps it will manifest in ways we will never know, such as not knowing how we may have acted towards others (with a purer heart and clearer mind) if we hadn’t engaged in that sin.
Third, of course, our sin impacts our walk with Jesus. He never leaves us, but our sin can cause us to feel distant from Him. The impact of this will manifest itself in our churches too. For example, we will be less equipped to bless and encourage others.
We are connected to others through being the same body. Whether we know it or not, what we do in private will have a communal impact. So, yes, our private sin does harm the Church. This need not lead us to despair, however. Jesus has won the victory for us (Col 2:15). Because of that, we are encouraged to trust in him who is willing and able to forgive our sins (1 John 1:8–9).
We should recognise the blessing of being connected to others, while also accepting the responsibility it brings. I’ve found that knowing my sin impacts the Church gives me more motivation to walk in the light and not in darkness (1 John 1:7). Also, as private sin harms the church, private virtue blesses the Church. Our private prayer that no one sees is used by God to help build up His Church.
After all, it’s not just about me and my own walk with God. What I do in private has a real impact on my church family. Hopefully, this truth encourages us to live out our identity as followers of Jesus, who are part of his body and have a responsibility towards one another.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Spring 2020 edition of Ascend