Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—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. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.

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