James Merritt - The Middle Seat
Two phone calls that I received caused me to do maybe the most difficult, distasteful thing I've ever had to do in my entire ministry, and both of them had to do with people that served on our staff. Both of them had to do with people who were involved in leading worship and both of them had to do with people that had a very loyal following and both of them had to do with sexual immorality. In the first case, this particular staff person was involved in an affair with two different ladies that were singing in the church, and in the second case, the staff person was sleeping with several young ladies. In the first case, all the parties were married, and in the second case, all the parties were single.
The problem was still the same. I had a leader in the church who was living in unrepentant, unconfessed sin. And even though my heart was broken and my spirit was grieved, I knew what I had to do. Without going into all the details, I'll be honest, I followed this book to the T. Both parties were confronted privately, and yet, both parties were rebuked publicly. The sin was brought before the church because leadership was involved. Both were publicly forgiven. Both were offered a process of restoration and forgiveness, which, by the way, both rejected at the end of the day. And parenthetically, the person involved in the first instance eventually left his wife for another woman. And even though both of these instances happened years and years ago, the blowback I got from people, I mean, was red hot. Here was a sample. Have you ever heard of grace? Where's your sense of mercy? What about forgiveness?
And of course, you know, the all-time favorite, right? Who are you to judge? You know, get the rocks out of your hand. Well, I wanna tell you something very interesting. Some of the very people that called, that wrote, and even came in to see me that were so livid that I would confront anyone over sin in the church, particularly a leader, were the very same people who would clap and cheer and applaud when I would preach against their favorite boogeyman, like Hollywood or abortion or sexual sin of another type. In other words, when it came to people outside the church, they wanted judgment. But when it came to people inside the church, they wanted mercy. And what we're gonna learn today from God's Word is that's completely backwards.
And one of the reasons why we have so little influence, frankly, with those outside the church is because we've become experts at condemning those who are on the outside while cutting slack for those who are on the inside. Well, there was one of the disciples of Jesus, probably the most famous one of all, his name was Peter. Peter wrote a book in the New Testament, and in that book, he makes a very interesting statement. Here's what he said. It is time for judgment to begin with, not the world, not with that Hollywood crowd, not with the liberal crowd, not with the people who don't care about church. He said it's time for judgment to begin with God's household, with the church.
You know, we expect to come to church and hear the pastor deal with divorce, immorality, pornography, materialism, greed, selfishness, and apathy outside the church with judgment. But then when it comes to all those things inside the church, here's what I hear. Well where's your mercy? Where's your grace? Where's your forgiveness? Who are you to judge? And the truth of the matter is we have lost the ability to judge sin outside the church because we refuse to judge sin inside the church. And when people outside the church see people inside the church living like people outside the church while the church condemns those people outside the church and they cut slack for those inside the church, it's no wonder they don't have any use for the church. And it's no wonder that our light has become a flicker and our salt has lost its flavor.
So today, we're gonna deal with baggage that the church as a whole needs to lose, and maybe some of you listening right now and some of you sitting here watching me right now need to lose. It's a hard seat that I'm gonna sit in today because, frankly, I'm in the middle seat. Now I fly quite a bit, and if you fly, you know what I'm about to talk about. The definition of hell is in three words, the middle seat. There's one place you do not wanna sit in an airplane, and I don't mean the front or the back. You do not want to sit in the middle seat. It is the most uncomfortable seat. Well, whenever we talk about judging sin and judging sinners, we're always in the middle seat because, frankly, there are two kinds of sinners, right? There are sinners who are outside the church. And here's the weird thing. We oughta expect them to live like sinners because they are outside the church.
But then there are sinners inside the church who we should expect not to be living in a continuously sinful lifestyle because they know God, they have a relationship with God. Well, in a very interesting chapter in the Bible, I Corinthians 5, there's a problem I want to describe to you. Here's what was going on. There was a member of the church in a city called Corinth. He professed to be a believer in Christ. He said he was a follower, a genuine follower of Jesus. But he was living with a woman he wasn't even married to.
As a matter of fact, worse than this, he was actually living with his stepmother. And even, by the way, worse than this, he was open about it. He was bragging about it. He didn't care who knew it. He was flaunting his sin before the church and the community. Well, as bad as that problem was, there was a greater problem. There was a problem with a person named Everybody and a person named Nobody. You say, "What do you mean"? Well, simply put, the problem was everybody knew about this problem, but nobody was doing anything about it. And what was the result? What do you think? The character of the church was compromised, the witness of the church was weakened, everybody was kinda ridiculing the Christian faith, and somebody needed to lose some baggage, namely the church.
So, when a church is in that situation, what do you do? Well, three lessons for all of us today. First of all, we lovingly correct the sinner. And those words are important. We lovingly correct the sinner. Now without question, the most fascinating church in the New Testament was the church at Corinth. Let me tell you about this church. It was reality TV 50 A.D. That's exactly what it was. I mean, it was warts and all. They were kind of a combination of Mad Men and Desperate Housewives. The Kardashians would've been right at home in this church. And so, this was a dysfunctional church and it was in a dysfunctional situation. You got a man that is sleeping with his stepmother.
Here's the problem. It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you. You think? Of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father's wife. Now, if you don't know what Paul was saying was, let me just put it in plain English. This is just gross. I mean, this is just something that pagans just don't do. Now we don't know whether the father died or he had found out about this incestuous relationship and just, you know, left. But now you've got a son sleeping in his father's bed with a woman who was his father's wife. Now, not only does the Old Testament clearly condemn this kind of relationship, but Paul said back in the day, look, even pagans don't do this. Atheists don't do this. Reprobates don't do this. And what makes it even worse is the stepmother was most likely not a Christian. She wasn't even a member of the church because Paul doesn't even deal with her.
So here you've not only got a man who claims to be a part of the family of God who is living in sin, but he's living in sin with an unbeliever, which magnifies the problem of a believer who's living with an unbeliever and now he's living just like an unbeliever. And the ripples of the sin are far more reaching because the reason Paul knew about this to begin with, he says it's been actually reported. Now that word, actually, is a very strong Greek word that literally means commonly. So here was the problem. It wasn't just that the deacons knew about it or the pastors knew about it or even the people in the church knew about it. The whole community knew about it. The city knew about it. The county knew about it. Everybody knew about it.
If that wasn't bad enough, now listen to how the church was reacting to it. Watch this. And you are proud! You're proud! Shouldn't you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? In other words, here was the problem. The church was so focused on how good they looked on the outside, they didn't want to focus on the cancer that was on the inside. Now, some of you, unfortunately, can relate to this. You know, when you find out you have cancer, I see this happen all the time, arrogance ought to go out the window. You don't brag about your bank account anymore. You don't brag about the car you drive anymore. You don't brag about the house you live in anymore. That's all irrelevant.
When you have cancer, you've got only one issue at the forefront of your life. You're asking only one question: How can I get this out? How can I get this removed? How can I get this cancer that will kill me if I don't deal with it, how can I get it taken out of my body? Well, Paul is saying, when there is sin in the church, the church should not have a big head, it oughta have a broken heart. He said you're proud. Shouldn't you rather mourn? And that word, mourn, is a word that refers to mourning over a dead person. What Paul was saying was this. You've got a man living in sin, a man who claims to be a part of God's body, a man who is a member of your church. And instead of being proud, instead of wearing white like you're going to a party, you oughta be wearing black like you're going to a funeral. You ought to be in mourning. And what Paul says is so strong, but it's so true because, just like cancer, here's what he says. You need to put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this.
Now I know that sounds hard and that sounds harsh and you say, "Oh, but where's the grace and where is the forgiveness"? Well you don't say that about a cancer in your body. When you've got a cancerous tumor, you don't just pat it on the head and say, "Well, that's just the way cancer acts. I need to be kind of merciful to the cancer". No, you don't ignore it, you don't joke about it, you don't put up with it, you cut it out. Let me tell you why. Why do you cut cancer out of your body? Because that's the most loving thing you can do for the body. You got it?
When you've got a cancer in the body, the most loving thing you can do for the body is to cut the cancer out of the body. Matter of fact, when it comes to cancer, it's the job of the doctor to cut it out. Why? Because the health of the body is at stake. When you go to a doctor, he should have one concern, the health of your body. As a pastor, I've got one major concern, the health of the body. And when it comes to sin in the church, the job of the church is to judge the sin and the sinner. So those of you who love that quote, judge not that you be not judged, I said what I said, I meant what I said, and I said what I meant because listen again to Paul's words.
For my part, even though I'm not physically present, I'm with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I've already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. Paul said I don't need to be there. I don't need to see this man face-to-face. I'm already gonna do what you should've already done. I am passing judgment on this man. Why? Because when it comes to sin in the life of people who claim to love the Christ that died for their sins, we don't just have a right to judge that sin; we have a responsibility to confront that sin. We don't just have the right to confront that sin; we've got a responsibility to confront that sin.
So what Paul said in effect to this church was I'm not waiting on you. It's never too early to do the right thing. I have examined the evidence, I've rendered the verdict, and I have passed the sentence. Now, if that shocks your sensibilities and you say, "Man, I don't even like where this is going," well then you better buckle your seatbelt because I want you to listen to what Paul now orders this church to do in carrying out this sentence. So when you are assembled, that's when you come together, and I'm with you in spirit, so you pretend I'm sitting in the room, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, so remember Jesus is always there, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
Now I'm gonna be very honest. I've studied that passage and I've talked about it with other people, and when he says hand this man over to Satan for, you know, the destruction of the flesh, I'll be honest with you, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I'm sure of one thing, that's bad. I mean, that's just bad, okay. You just don't want that. And so they were to go to this professing brother. They were to go to this active church member who was actively, openly, publicly, proudly living in unrepentant, rebellious sin, and they were to say to him, "You know what we're gonna do? We're gonna hand you and your flesh and your body and your life over to Satan. Satan, he's yours. By the way, have a nice day".
Now, practically speaking, what they did was they excommunicated him from the church. They basically said to him, "You know what we're gonna do? We're revoking your membership. You are no longer in good standing with us. We're no longer gonna fellowship with you until you come to your senses, get your heart right, and get right with God". Now keep in mind, this is important, this is not an unbeliever. It's not an unbeliever. This is a family member, part of the household, part of the body who had a family that cared enough to confront him with sin that was destroying him and hurting the body. So, I want you to understand, do you see the real problem here? Yeah, Paul was concerned about this man's sin, but what really grieved Paul, what really shattered Paul, what really broke Paul's heart more than this man's sin was the church's indifference to this sin.
If you don't hear anything else I say in this message, I want you to listen to this. When there is sin in the church and the church does not deal with that sin, the sin in the church becomes the sin of the church. See, there's nothing unbiblical about calling sin sin. There's nothing unbiblical about confronting a church member, a professing Christian, with his sin and saying, "Look, man, you need to repent". Now listen, it needs to be done in the right way with the right spirit with the right motive. I get that. The purpose is always restoration and reconciliation, not revenge or recrimination. In fact, if the church doesn't judge sin, God will judge the church. Hear that.
So Paul goes on to give a reason why we must lovingly confront the sinner. Why should we do that? Because when you lovingly confront the sinner, you spiritually protect the church. When you lovingly confront the sinner, you spiritually protect the church. Now here's the problem. When a church allows sin to fester and flourish in the fellowship, Paul says, okay, here's your problem. Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast so that you may be a new unleavened batch, as you really are. Now, is that so difficult? I mean, the point here is very plain and simple. Sin in the church is like cancer in the body. It spreads. It contaminates. You know, like the old saying, you may have heard this. One bad apple spoils the whole barrel. Good apples do not make bad apples good, but bad apples make good apples bad. It just does. Bad company corrupts good morals. And it doesn't take a whole lot of a bad thing to ruin a good thing.
You know, every time I eat pizza, with fail, it reminds me of the very first argument Teresa and I ever had. We'd been married maybe a week, not even a week I don't think it was, and we had moved into our new apartment there in Atlanta. You know, by the way, Teresa and I, we've been married 43 years. We don't have arguments. We just have discussions you can hear all over the neighborhood, but we don't really have arguments. Well, we'd only been married, like I say, maybe about a week, and Teresa was still learning how to cook. Well one night, she decided she's gonna fix pizza. And I've never been a big pizza fan to begin with, but you know, it was quick and it was easy and I was hungry and so I was game. Well, for some reason, Teresa got this crazy idea to put garlic salt all over that pizza. She thought that would add flavor to it.
Well, to be honest, what she did was ruin a perfectly good pizza. Now, all you husbands out there, what I'm about to say is not a lesson on how to handle conflict with a newlywed or even with an oldie-wed, okay, but here's what happened, I'm just telling you. I took one bite out of that pizza and I literally did this. I looked at her and I said, "That is terrible and if you think I'm gonna eat this, you're just wrong. I'm not eating another bite". Well, she hadn't even taken a bite of hers yet and she said, "It does not". I said, "Lemme tell you something, I'm sorry," I said, "A dog wouldn't eat that". I literally said it. Now again, strike that phrase from your vocabulary, guys. You don't say that, right. She says, "Well I'll eat it". Well she took one bit of it, and even though she wouldn't admit it, I could tell by the look on her face, it was terrible. Well I got up and I said, "I'm gonna get a hamburger," and I left.
Now, that only made the problem worse because it wasn't that I got up to go get a hamburger. Here's what made it worse. A, I didn't invite her to go with me, and B, I didn't bring her a hamburger. Again, not the way to handle conflict. When I got back, at first, I couldn't find her. Literally, it's a small apartment, I couldn't find her. So I go back to the bedroom and she's in the bedroom closet packing a suitcase. True story, I said, "Where you going"? She said, "I'm going home". And as what you would've done, I said the first thing that came to my mind, but in this case, it really turned out to be profound. When I said to her, "Where are you going?" and she said, "I'm going home," I said, "You are home". And with that, we laughed, we kissed, we made up, and I've eaten her pizza ever since, and praise God, she never put garlic salt on it. But here's the point. A little bit of a bad thing can ruin a good thing. And it is the job of a church to deal with sin lovingly but firmly whenever we find it.
Now, we don't have a problem with that in other areas. If you like to plant flowers, you weed out the garden because you know, otherwise, weeds will kill the flowers. Again, you have a cancerous tumor, you want it to come out because you know the tumor will kill, sicken, if not at least, kill the body. And so remember, sin that nobody deals with, listen, sin that nobody deals with becomes sin that eventually everybody has to deal with. I think the greatest problem people have today with what I'm talking about is because we have forgotten what a church is. So let me get this, please hear this. A church is not a spiritual country club. A church is a body of believers and we are all parts of a body and we're connected to one another.
Now if there's a tumor on the pancreas, the liver doesn't say, "Well who am I to judge the pancreas"? If the pancreas is not dealt with, guess what? Soon, it will get to the liver. And when it gets to the liver, it'll get to the lungs, and then it goes everywhere, and soon, the entire body is sick. Now, you may be sitting there right now saying, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let's get something straight. My sin is none of your business. My sin's none of your business". Let me correct you. If you are a member of the church and you're a part of my family and a part of a body of which I'm a part of, your sin is my business and your sin is the business of every brother and sister in that body, in that fellowship. Because when one part of the body hurts, the entire body hurts.
So understand, I am not talking about the church becoming a policeman. The last thing a pastor wants to do is to be anybody's policeman, and so I promise you, nobody's gonna be following you if you drive down the road, go one mile over the speed limit, and call me and say, "Pastor, we gotta deal with this guy. He is a problem". We're not gonna do that. I'm talking about the sin that Paul details in just a moment that can become destructive and harmful to the body of the church. What do you do? Number one, we lovingly confront the sinner. Brother, you need to get this right. And then, if they refuse, regardless, we are to spiritually protect the church.
Now let me tell you why this is so important. When the church, in the right way, lovingly confronts the sinner, and thereby, spiritually protects the church, here's what happens. Then, we positively affect the world. We positively affect the world. Now listen to what he says in verse nine. He says I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. Evidently, Paul had written a previous letter to the church that we've never seen. He wants to clear up any misunderstanding and he says, look, there're two types of people who sin. He said there are people who sin who we should expect to sin because they don't know God. Of course they sin. They don't know God. They're outside the church. They need mercy. But then there are people who do sin who we should expect not to live in sin. Those are the people inside the church who say they do know God. He says these are the people we have to judge.
And then he goes on to say in verse 10: Not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case, you'd have to leave this world. In other words, he said this. The very people whose company we tend to avoid, we should not avoid. You ought to have friends who are reprobates and atheists and fornicators and adulterers and agnostic. That's who Jesus hung out with most of the time, people outside the church, and yet, aren't those the people we most love to judge? Aren't those the people we most love to condemn? Aren't those the very people we love to isolate ourselves from? But then Paul says this. But now I'm writing to you. You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
I know that sounds hard, but Paul said, when it comes to a church member, a professing believer, someone who says, "I love Jesus and I know Jesus," but they are living in open sin of a serious nature, they refuse to repent, they refuse to get right, even when you confront them in a loving, biblical fashion, Paul says do not associate with them, and that word means don't keep company with them. Now, it doesn't mean you don't speak to them. It doesn't mean that you become cruel or hard or unkind. It just means you don't have fellowship. And again, it's not to hurt the person. That's not the point. It is to help them get back to both God and the church.
And by the way, you notice that Paul refers to this person as someone who bears the name of a brother? Why do you think he said it that way? Because not everybody that calls themselves a Christian is a Christian. Not everybody who is a member of a church is a true follower of Jesus. You can be a member of this church, but not be a part of his body. Now we can't judge the heart, but here's what we can say. You profess to be a follower of Christ, you're a member of this church, but if you keep acting like this, I cannot have fellowship with you. But see, the church then, just like the church now, had it backward. Here's what we do.
If you're lost, you don't know God, you don't know Jesus, you drink, you do drugs, you live in sexual immorality, and we say, "Well we're gonna stay away from you. We're not gonna have any fellowship with you because you don't live like we think you oughta live," then we turn right around and associate with people who aren't living the way that we expect they should live. And so that's why Paul finishes up by saying this. He says, looks, what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you.
So let me close. Look, this has been a hard message and I get it, but the reason why we're to judge sin with those on the inside of the church, listen, why do we do that? Not to reject them, but to restore them. Not to kick them out, but to reel them in. And it's not because we don't love them. It's because we do. It's not our job to judge sinners who we would expect to live like sinners. That's not my job. It is my job to judge a saint, or someone who says they're a saint, but they're living like sinners. And too many churches want to keep sick sinners out and keep sinning saints in, and there's just something wrong with that picture.
So here's the point. Like Jesus said, let's always be willing to take the plank out of our eye for those of us who are inside the church before we attempt to take the speck out of someone else's eyes who are outside the church. If you're listening to me right now and you are a professing Christian and you're living in sin right now and you know you are, I'm just gonna be honest, you need to lose the baggage, you need to get rid of the baggage. And don't be afraid to go to another brother or another sister in the church and confess it and repent of it and get accountability and get right.
On the other hand, if you are an outsider, you don't know God, you're not a part of the church, in fact, that's one reason why you don't even go to church, but you'd like to become a part of the family of God, you'd like to get inside His family and His church, here's the great news. Redemption and forgiveness, 24/7, is always available for you at the cross of Jesus Christ. And the good news is this, and I thank God that I discovered it. At the cross, we can all lose our baggage.