Sins are like grapes; they come in bunches. Observant people see this, and have to deal with it, but it still has to be kept distinct from any judicial proceeding. Wise pastors see this also, and are able to make connections between apparently disparate sins in the life of someone they are counseling. But providing pastoral counsel is not the same thing as bringing someone up on charges.
This can be a real trouble when someone who should be receiving pastoral help and counsel decides that the best defense is a good offense, and goes after those who could be helping him. When disgruntled church members attack the elders or the pastor, we are rarely dealing with an Athanasius standing up contra mundum. The pastor can see what is being done to him, and understand why, but he is still not be in a position to explain it to the world.
Say that a parishioner has severe problems in his marriage, and treats his wife like dirt. The pastor sees this, and gets into his face about it. At this point, the one rebuked has different choices. First, he can repent, and receive the rebuke. He can seek help. Second, he can receive the rebuke on paper, but not really change. He can pretend to change. Or third, he can just leave the church. Fourth, he can get mad and counterattack. “How dare the pastor try to deal with my sins? Who does he think he is?” The counterattack can take, and frequently does take, the form of personal critiques of the pastor. And if the pastor is the kind of man who preaches and teaches against sin in the congregation, it is likely that the agitator can find some listening ears, others who have been stung as well.
Now this means that the sin being committed againt the pastor is not really the central sin. Often the debate gets sidetracked here. One person says not to slander the pastor, and the other person says it is not slander, every word of it being true. The whole thing gets disscussed in those terms and the diversionary tactic has worked. The subject has been changed. We are no longer talking about the way this man treats his wife. Even if the person defending the pastor does so successfully, we are still not talking about how this guy treats his wife.
The pastor can see all this, and still not be in a position to bring it up. One reason is pastoral confidentiality. While pastoral confidentiality is not an absolute, it is still important to be as discrete as possible about things you discovered about a person’s life while counseling them. It is not the case that if a counselee becomes an adversary that “all bets are off.” Second, the pastor needs to be on guard against possible ungodly motives of his own. Retaliation is the easiest thing in the world, and it would be better to keep things to yourself than to possibly give way to that very carnal impulse. Third, retaliation of this kind would frequently look like (because it would be) an ad hominem attack. Not everything that the pastor knows about someone is necessarily relevant to the dispute.
This is all granted. But pastorally, the relevance usually goes deep. These issues can be logically distinct. Whether this man treats his wife like dirt and whether the pastor voted contrary to his instructions at General Assembly are logically distinct. But in congregational snarls they are often not distinct practically. Because Paul was a shrewd pastor if there ever was one, let’s take a Pauline example.
At the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul is answering objections to his ministry — he was charged with all kinds of stuff. The only reason St. Paul does not hold the record for attack blogs set up against him is that attack blogs hadn’t been invented yet. But his enemies still did all right with the old technology. The apostle Paul was thoroughly slandered by his opponents at Corinth. For just a couple examples, he was attacked for financial misbehavior (2 Cor. 12:16-17), and for writing powerful letters but being a real loser in person (2 Cor. 10:10). Now Paul knew exactly what was going on — he was a real pastor of souls. What did he expect to find in Corinth when he arrived there? “For I fear, when I come, I shall not find your such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults . . . (2 Cor. 12:20).” In short, when Paul overturned the big flat rock, he expected to find every kind of creepy crawly under there. He expected to find, in the church, out in public, this kind of behavior. This is the kind of sin that people are willing to commit in church, and against an apostle. And if against an apostle, why not against a lowly pastor?
But the interesting thing about this is that Paul knew that sins are like grapes; they come in bunches. What did Paul express a concern about in the next verse? What did he think he would find as the root cause of the senseless debating, the acidic envying, the outbursts of anger, the unnecessary strife, the backstabbing, the whispering campaigns, the shameless and swelling self-promotion, and the tumults? All these are obvious sins, and so why not just call for repentance for these sins? Because he knew that these were symptomatic sins. They were the spots on the skin, not the disease.
In the next verse, he says this, “And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed” (v. 21). Paul was expecting many of the saints at Corinth to have unresolved, unrepented sin in their sexual closets, and he saw this as the driving force behind the problems of v. 20.
Even though sins are like grapes, the clear presence of one sin is not sufficient to convict someone of charges of having committed another sin. If all the rules of evidence we have covered in this series mean anything, they mean this. But discipline and love in the church is to be more familial than juridical, and in organic settings, we must understand that sins are like grapes. Parents need to understand this, as should pastors and elders. As God gives opportunity, the clear presence of one calls for sensitive probing — not insensitive broadside accusations. To do that would put you in the category of people that the apostle Paul was worried about. But he still knew that certain things go together. James understood the same principle. “For where envying and stife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (Jas. 3:16). When the envy, and acrimony, and stife is undeniable, Scriptures teach us that these cultivated plants grow in the devil’s hothouse. And the devil always grows other stuff in there also.