Jim and Laura were the kind of people you instantly warm up to — kind, hospitable, and real. Their home was always open and full of activity, not the least of which was due to their three active boys. Generally there were guests at their table, especially after Sunday services at their independent and very evangelical church.
Jim was one of several men who had founded the church and had become its elders. He did most of the preaching, and so most people considered him the pastor. Laura was a submissive wife, devoted mother, and gracious hostess.
Their church was full of zealous Christians, mostly young families and single people, who wanted their church to be based solidly on the Bible. Services were very lively and spontaneous, and Jim’s sermons tended to be long and emotionally stimulating, always ending with an “altar call,” both for getting saved and re-dedicating one’s life to Christ. It was during one such service that Jim noticed an attractive young woman who seemed engrossed in his message, never taking her eyes off him. He made a mental note to find out who she was and connect her with one of the leading women in the church. The opportunity came quickly, for she was one of several people who responded to the altar call.
Her name was Ann, and she wanted to re-dedicate her life to Christ. She had been a Christian for years, but had backslidden and needed a fresh start. She also needed a place to live. After praying with her, Jim took her to meet Laura and explained her predicament. Pushing past the signs of concern on his wife’s face, Jim told Ann that she could come home with them.
Perhaps it was something in her husband’s eyes or in his eagerness to invite Ann into their home — whatever it was, Laura was uncomfortable with their new houseguest. She tried to push the anxious thoughts out of her mind. After all, they had had dozens of needy people stay in their home over the past fifteen years of their married life. But try as she might, she could never be comfortable with Ann in her home.
As the weeks went by, Jim gradually wound up spending more time with Ann, who had become his secretary, and less time with his wife. It seemed to Laura that he was becoming disturbingly cold and distant with her and uncomfortably warm with Ann. Others in the church began to be concerned with Jim’s and Ann’s relationship and found discreet opportunities to ask Laura how things were going. At first she tried to assure everyone that all was well, but finally she expressed her fears to Jim’s brother, Rick, also an elder in the church.
Rick gently tried to probe his brother Jim about his relationship with Ann, but Jim brushed off his concerns with the assurance that their ministry demanded a close working relationship. Rick tried to think the best. But then came the day when Laura arrived weeping at his door. She had returned home at an unexpected time, and found her husband together with Ann in her bed. They had not even noticed her as she fled from the house in anguish.
Keeping his composure with great difficulty, Rick confronted Jim with his sin, which he angrily denied. So Rick brought another elder along to confront Jim a second time. Again he denied his sin. Next they called an elders’ meeting and pleaded with Jim to confess his sin and repent, assuring him that healing was still possible for his marriage. Finally the matter was brought before the entire congregation, and Jim and Ann were excommunicated from the church. The elders even went so far as to draft a letter that carefully documented the affair and mail it to every church member and also to friends of Jim and Laura who went to other churches. The letter urged everyone to shun Jim and Ann.
Today Jim helps lead another ’Bible-believing’ evangelical church. Is this a remarkable example of confession, repentance, and restoration? Far from it. Jim and Laura were divorced, their family shattered. Jim and Ann were married. They moved to another town where they were warmly received into another church, enthusiastic to have a new, energetic Christian couple to add to their ministry programs.
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. My wife and I were friends of Jim and Laura (not their real names). We were shocked when we received the letter from their church, but we admired the way the elders had handled the situation, carefully following the Scriptures that relate to such matters. But as time went on and we heard what had become of Jim and Ann we felt a gnawing sense of futility. What was the point of excommunicating them when they could simply move on to another town and go on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened? Had the Body of Christ become so impaired that such a harmful element could not be expelled from it? What happens to a human body which has an immune system so dysfunctional or non-existent?
The ease with which Jim and Ann, supposedly excommunicated from the Body of Christ, were able to find acceptance into the fellowship of another Bible-believing church exposes the dysfunction of Christianity. It can no more be considered the Body of Christ than a morbid collection of human body parts could be called a human being, for there is no connecting tissue, no life-blood flowing between the parts, no immune system to fight infection, no central nervous system to carry the signal from the head to the dismembered parts. The Holy Spirit cannot dwell in division any more than the human spirit can remain in a human body that is cut into pieces.
Paul and the other apostles often had to deal with such problems. In the Corinthian church there was an immoral man, and Paul commanded them to remove the wicked man from among themselves,1 for he had committed a sin unto death and his continued presence in the body was a defiling influence. There was only one church in Corinth, so he could not just go down the street to a church of another denomination. Probably the nearest church at the time was the church in Philippi. What do you suppose would have happened if he had showed up in Philippi? It would be obvious that he was not just an unbeliever off the streets, and he would be obliged to give an account of himself. People did not just travel independently from church to church. They were sent, normally with a letter to the elders of the church indicating the purpose for which they were sent. If someone who claimed to be a disciple arrived without being sent, then he was either a self-proclaimed false apostle spreading a strange teaching or a lawless person seeking to avoid whatever discipline was coming to him in his own church.
They knew that if they did not deal decisively with sin in the camp, then it would destroy the church. The Apostle Paul spoke of such corruption as leaven — comparing sin to the effect of yeast on a lump of dough.2 Yeast (leaven) thrives on sugar, reproduces itself rapidly, and causes the dough to rise by separating the wheat particles with bubbles of carbon dioxide. In the same way, sin thrives on the things that appeal to the flesh; it multiplies and permeates and separates between people and pushes them apart.
Salt kills leaven. That is why our Master said, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”3 He knew that His disciples would need to speak the truth to one another and hold each other accountable in order for them to function together as a body. They could not tolerate sin and continue to be His body, not even just a little sin, for it only takes a little leaven, and a little time, to leaven the whole lump.4
But isn’t that just what the elders of Jim’s church did — deal decisively with his sin? Didn’t they obey the Scriptures and save their church from continued defilement? But what did the apostle Paul mean by the whole lump? Do you think he was referring to a single congregation? Paul’s letters and the letters of the other apostles were circulated among all of the churches, for they were all under apostolic authority, and the apostles stood together, supporting each other’s authority.5 Their concern was for all the churches that together form one body. They knew that the Body of Messiah could only be truly represented as one unleavened loaf.6
Christianity is the whole lump completely leavened. Paul’s warnings to the early churches7 ultimately went unheeded. They tolerated a little leaven and it leavened the whole lump, making it worthless — unfit to represent the Messiah.
How did it happen? They lost their saltiness and were unwilling and unable to drive out the leaven. Our Master said, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”8 He explained to His disciples that He was talking about their teaching and hypocrisy. They taught one thing and did another; they were filled with knowledge, but void of love. Paul echoed our Master’s words in his admonition to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”9
The leaven of the Pharisees entered into the early church and transformed it into what today is known as Christianity, fully leavened, puffed up with Bible knowledge that has only produced division. What began as a covenant community of disciples who shared all things in common, had one mind and one heart and one way, and who loved one another fervently10 became a world-wide religion of millions of independent individuals and thousands of denominations whose interrelationships have run the gamut from sadistic warfare to cold indifference. What was once characterized by the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth became a fully leavened lump of hypocrisy and deceit.11
This transformation is a fact of history. But does this mean that the intended virgin bride became a harlot? Did the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit become a dwelling place of demons, as it says in the Book of Revelation?
And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! And she has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality. (Revelation 18:2-3)