We don’t have to look very far in our own lives, or in the lives of others, to see the gripping decay of sin. Our world is full of it, and at times, it can seem impossibly hopeless. But as Christians, we know that there is one man, one God, who took away our sins when He died on the cross: Jesus Christ.
The question is, while sin can frustrate, tear apart and even cause irreparable damage, should it ever be our duty to “punish” it? Well, one Orthodox priest recently decided this was indeed within the realm of his spiritual authority — and he decided to banish one of his clergymen to a remote village.
The priest’s crime? He was married to a rather scantily clad beauty queen. Father Sergei Zotov was told to pack his bags after it was revealed that his wife, Oksana Zotova, took home the “sensuality prize” at a local beauty pageant which not only involved her engaging in public nudity, but also took place during this Lenten season — something the Orthodox Church deemed highly sinful.
According to the BBC, Fr. Zotov was promptly dismissed from his post at Magnitogorsk’s Cathedral of the Ascension of Christ after the inappropriate situation was disclosed to the governing church authorities.
“It is a great sin when the wife of a priest exposes herself for show,” said
Archpriest Feodor Saprykin of the situation, noting that the priest will not be rehabilitated until his wife repents.”
Now, while this is a rather bizarre example, it does raise one key question: should we ever be the ones to punish sin? Here’s why, I believe, the answer should be a resounding “no” (with one clear exception).
Sin Is in God’s jurisdiction
God is exactly that — God. He is above all things, reigns over heaven and Earth, and is the Lord over all things.
Of course, criminal sin is slightly different matter — that is reserved for the courts. But that’s not the type of thing I am talking about here. See, the all-encompassing disease of sin could include simple things such as jealous thoughts, lustful tendencies, lying, outbursts of anger or even gluttony.
All these things only erode and destroy, and God wants us to be free from them so that we might live in all His fullness of joy.
When we do stray, however, God is the one who draws us back to Himself.
The Bible tells us that “the Lord disciplines those He loves.” He is the one who issues the spiritual rebukes, He is the one who softens hearts and He is the one who delivers ultimate justice where it is due.
But can He also issue rebuke and correct through His people? Of course. But if we are out of step with God, and are issuing disciplinary action of punishment not in keeping with His instruction, we have lost our way as followers of Jesus.
The Bible issues strong warnings against judging others
We all know the verse about the log in your eye, right?
“First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye,” Jesus said.
What Christ was saying here was this: do not attempt to root out someone else’s sin, let alone punish it, until you’ve taken a long, hard look at yourself.
Of course, those who are tasked with the teaching of the Bible — pastors and priests — are going to have a slightly tricky time with this one, as they are going to be addressing issues of sin in the lives of others while battling things in their own lives (Romans 3:23).
With that being said, the point Jesus is making here, I think, is that we should be very, very cautious when hurtling head-first into “calling out” the sins of others. It’s not impossible, nor is it never required, but it must be approached with a hefty dose of thoughtfulness and care.
Pinpointing sin is a biblical command
While I believe handing down judgment and punishment for sins should never be part of the Christian life, there is a time and a place when personal sins can be addressed and challenged. However, this should always be done out of charity within a healthy Christian community.
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted,” Paul instructs in Galatians 6:1.
Now, you can be the judge as to whether the action taken against Fr. Zotov was justified, but personally, I’m not sure it was carried out in a “spirit of gentleness.”
There is scriptural instruction on how to point out the sins of others. However, this should always be done gently, so that they might be receptive to having their wrongdoings illuminated, and be provoked to change direction.
We must also remember that it is God who does the real spiritual legwork — it is God who holds the power to truly admonish someone for their sins.
Keeping this in mind, let’s remember: the Holy Spirit can prompt, convict and heal in a way that we as finite human beings cannot comprehend nor achieve. And we must not try to imitate, or enforce, the work of God in the hearts of others.
We must also be reminded that it is only the Lord who, one day, will punish those who refuse to repent of their sins and turn to Him. Indeed, it is only the Lord who, when all is said and done, will embrace those who call upon His name for the forgiveness of their sins. These are matters that soar far and above our pay grade.
However, we do know this: those who accept that they have fallen short, and who run into God’s arms with repentance in their hearts, will be embraced into eternal communion with Him — and shall be free from condemnation and blameless in His sight, forever.
So, as we think upon our role in admonishing and correcting others, and as we root out the sin in our own lives, may we also keep that glorious and fast-approaching day at the forefront of our hearts and minds — God will deliver justice, and it will be absolutely perfect.