Galatians 4:19 …..my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
The reason our church is patient with sinners is easy to answer. God has been long suffering with us. The Apostle Paul made it clear that we are to be “patient with them all.” (1 Thes. 5:14). Paul also made it clear in the way that he deals with sinful, erring churches in his letters, that this was his normal practice.
Even when the Galatian church was veering toward heresy, Paul was not willing to abandon them. He called them brothers and addressed them as his children. He said that he was “again” in the anguish of childbirth for them. He was committed to them until Christ was formed in them. This means he was willing to do all that it took to see them knowing and living in the truth and freedom of Christ.
The fact that Paul is patient doesn’t mean that he does not confront sin in the Galatian churches. Paul’s more loving and relational appeal to them doesn’t come until the fourth chapter of his letter after he had already comprehensively made it clear that the Galatians were going down a very dangerous road. They were being led from the gospel of justification through faith in Christ for the additions of works of the law. They were being tempted to turns their backs on the complete and final satisfaction of Christ’s work of redemption. The reality is that while Paul is quick to recognize error and point out this sinful trend, he is also patient to first explain it from every angle so that this church understands and actually sees what they are doing. He is intentional about telling them that, even through this letter, he is laboring for them that they might not lose the freedom they have been given in the cross.
One other very noticeable inference that Paul makes is that he truly believes that these Christians have come into salvation and have received the Spirit. In Galatians 3:3 he actually reminds them that they have begun by the Spirit (not by their own works) and have no reason to put their confidence in the flesh. The very fact that he says this means that Paul’s confidence in them is in the indwelling presence of God in their lives through Christ. They may be toying with dangerous and heretical ideas from Jewish false teachers, but Paul’s first reaction is not to question their salvation but to question the doctrine that is distracting them. He calls them to reject what is wrong. It would seem that Paul considers them able to be corrected and returned to what is wholly true. Paul’s confidence for this surely must be based on the Christ they claim and the Spirit who indwells them.
When I see Paul’s patience with these professing believers and his willingness to labor in anguish over them multiple times, I am often left wondering how that looks in our church when someone sins or is led astray by false ideas. Most of us are very aware of the Matthew 18 disciplinary process for churches. We all see that the Scriptures do not give us any space for tolerance of sin. We all surely agree that there are instances of immediate action required in circumstances of high-handed grievous sin in our midst. Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for not decisively dealing with the overt sexual sin of a man with his stepmother (1 Cor 5). Even when taking immediate action as required, surely the ongoing ramifications of sin and error in the hearts of Christians require patient discipling. We need instruction and biblical appeal, encouragement and guidance in repentance, and a desire for restoration through the gospel and the application of God’s truth. We need to work with receptive sinners relying on the Spirit to work in their lives.
While there are undoubtedly three identifiable steps in the Matthew 18 disciplinary process, Paul gives us an idea about the kind of patience and relational discipleship that happens between those steps. We are not a quick three-step church. We are a patient, appealing, instructing, and discipling three-step church. Our first step is not to say, “you are not a Christian,” but to warn and expect that through discipleship a Christian brother or sister will repent and abide in Christ.