Mailbag #80: Should Pastors Discuss Past Sins? . . . Should Believers Ever Abstain from Communion? . . . Conducting Membership Interviews for Single Women

Mailbag
04.12.2019

How much should a pastor talk about past sins? Is there such a thing as “over-sharing”? »
When should believers abstain from the Lord’s Supper? »
Should women do membership interviews for single women? »

Dear 9Marks,

Our pastor talks about sexual immorality a lot, and he freely admits the struggles from his past. This is done in a variety of contexts—from the pulpit, in conversation, in training sessions like a parenting conference.

I think he overshares and inadvertently glorifies sin. I believe I understand his burden about this subject—knowing that he counsels many in our congregation who struggle with sexual sin—but I’m concerned at times about what he’s going to say. I have two teenage daughters and a teenage son, and they don’t need to hear such detail in these contexts.

Here are my questions:

  • Is there such a thing as oversharing from the stage, or am I just too conservative?
  • As a church member, what should I do? I genuinely love and care for our pastor, but he doesn’t seem to handle negativity, criticism, or evaluation well.

—Chuck

Dear Chuck,

These are great questions. I think that transparency is an important quality for a pastor to have. When a leader shares his own struggles, it makes it normal for Christians to talk about their temptations and sin—that’s a good thing for a church and its culture. With that being said, there is certainly such a thing as “oversharing.” Two dangers present themselves:

1. It may erode people’s confidence in their leadership. All pastors struggle with sin, and honesty is good. But pastors are too be models of genuine, if imperfect godliness, and some people may find themselves unsettled by knowing too much about their pastor’s marriage problems or wrestling with doubt. It takes wisdom to know where the line is.

2. There seems to be a special danger of “over-sharing” when talking about something like sexual temptation. If someone speaks frankly about the way that they experience pride or anger, it’s very unlikely to tether into something that tempts my soul. I don’t hear someone talk about their wrestling with greed and think, “Yeah, money is amazing. I want money so much.” Sex isn’t quite like that. Talking about it can be good, but if you share too many details or become too explicit, it can actually generate temptation and illicit desire in some hearers.

It seems that you genuinely love your pastor and your church. That’s a great place to start any conversation. But if what you say is true and he cannot handle negativity and criticism in any form, that’s actually a much bigger problem than any propensity to “over-share.” It’s interesting that he is comfortable being open with his sin in public, but he can’t handle talking about it in private. In the end, being too transparent is a matter of wisdom and judgment. But being open to criticism is a matter of character.

If I were you, I would find a way to prayerfully and gently raise this issue with your pastor. Tell him that because you care about him, you want to talk to him about the way he handles criticism. I highly recommend that you read Alfred Poirier’s article “The Cross and Criticism.” It will give you some biblical vocabulary that might help you in the conversation. If that conversation bears fruit, then the conversation about over-sharing will be much easier.

—Mike McKinley

Dear 9Marks,

On occasion we have noticed people abstaining from the Lord’s Supper (we observe weekly). We’ve asked for their reasoning behind it and some say they’ve been convicted of sin; others say that if they don’t “feel it that day” they don’t take it.

How would you counsel these people? How can we teach our congregation when it’s advisable to abstain and when to recognize it’s a means of grace that they should partake of?

Thanks!

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

The Lord’s Supper is a perfect opportunity for the gospel to be personalized in a believer’s life. When taking the bread and the cup, the believer is saying, “Christ gave his body for me; his blood has washed away my sin; I’m one with his people; he’s coming again to gather us to himself.” What a confession! What comfort to those who see their sin! What encouragement of faith! Why would a believer ever abstain from such a gracious meal?

Surely conviction of sin is no reason to abstain. The believer will often feel convicted when pondering the Lord’s sacrifice for his or her sin. Let conviction give rise to confession, then take the bread and cup as God-given signs of forgiveness and cleansing.

“Not feeling it” is no reason to abstain either, any more than it’s a reason to abstain from other means of grace. I would encourage the abstainer to identity what the “not feeling it” is—Apathy? Guilt? Lightheartedness? Distraction? None of these feelings is a barrier to eating the Supper in faith. The feeling can be acknowledged, confession made, and the Supper received with gratitude for Christ’s ongoing work in all the emotional ups-and-downs of one’s life.

So, are there ever any legitimate reasons for a believer to abstain from the Lord’s Supper? Yes, unrepentant sin. To be clear, unrepentant sin isn’t sin that the believer is confessing and forsaking. Unrepentant sin is sin that the believer is holding onto. He or she knows it’s wrong, yet they aren’t willing to confess and forsake it. Such a person would be wise to abstain from the Lord’s Supper rather than take it with blatant hypocrisy.

More specifically, a believer should abstain from the Lord’s Supper if his or her unrepentant sin is toward someone in the church. When the apostle Paul warns not to eat and drink without self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28), he does so in the context of relationships between brothers and sisters. It’s dangerous to sin against someone in the church and take the Lord’s Supper: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (11:30). Encourage the sinning believer to love everyone in the church and to seek reconciliation with anyone against whom he or she has sinned. Otherwise, it’s better to abstain than to eat and drink judgment upon one’s self (11:29).

—David King

Dear 9Marks,

Should women do membership interviews for single women?

—Alex

Dear Alex,

It depends. Since the Bible doesn’t command us to do membership interviews, pastors and churches have the freedom to structure their membership interviews differently. I would encourage, however, that a pastor conduct or at least be present for all membership interviews.

The reason for that is because pastors are given by God to provide spiritual oversight to their congregations. And in my experience, the membership interview is one of the best opportunities a pastor has to get to know the spiritual condition of individuals desiring to join the church. In thinking of the numerous membership interviews I’ve conducted, in nearly all of them I’ve learned something unique to that individual that has impacted how I pastored them. Different sheep need to be shepherded differently. The membership interview is a crucial opportunity for pastors to begin learning how a particular individual needs to be shepherded.

This also applies to single women. I’ve conducted many interviews with single women, and those interviews have been wonderful opportunities to get to know them better. I’ve learned about their upbringing, how they came to follow Jesus, their struggles, their successes, their joys, and their discouragements. These interviews help me pastor them more faithfully.

Not only that, but the membership interview also gave them an opportunity to get to know me. Single women, married women, single men, and married men should know their pastors. Obviously, the depth of that knowledge will vary depending on the size of the church, but there should be some knowledge of who is pastoring you.

If you’re asking your question out of concern about meeting alone with a single woman, I would simply suggest including a second person in the interview. You might even consider making that second person a female member of the congregation, which would have the added benefit of providing the prospective member with an opportunity to get to know her pastor, as well as allowing her to make an immediate connection with a woman in the congregation.

There are a number of different choices you could make in who you include in the interview. However, my encouragement would be to always have one pastor involved. I hope this is helpful.

—John Joseph