Some time ago, there was a man I knew who had gotten into the habit of stealing things and lying about it. This guy was good because he either didn’t get caught, or when he did, the people who caught him let him off the hook. He would either lie about stealing, or he would tell you this great big story to convince you that he was just going through a hard time and really didn’t mean to do it. He never really confessed his sins or repented of it. I forgave him for the offenses, but purposely distanced myself from him. One man confronted me and told me that if I were to truly forgive him, then I would forget it and restore to him the trust I had for him before he started stealing and lying. Now this sounds like good sturdy Christian advice, but it isn’t.
According to Webster, Forgiveness is the act of forgiving; the pardon of an offender, by which he is considered and treated as not guilty. The forgiveness of enemies is a christian duty. This is a legal transaction: “Not guilty,”and Webster would be right. However, trust and relationships take time to build. Now remember that I did forgive that man for what he did. I pardoned him and didn’t hold it against him. So, you can say that he is “not guilty” in my book. I didn’t pursue justice and left it to God. But some would say:”If you really forgave him, you would give him another chance!” My response to that person would be: “I’ll give him another chance, but he is going to have to earn it.” There are some Scriptures I would like to share with you just to explore this thought.
Acts 15:36-41 NKJV – “36 Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” 37 Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
This verse is used often to show that there were even disagreements in the early church, and as you will see later, Paul and Barnabas worked out those differences. However, I want you to notice something. Paul didn’t trust Mark. He had deserted them in previous times. Now I am sure Paul didn’t hold it against him, but I imagine that he wasn’t confident that Mark was a sturdy vessel who was fit for such a daunting task as they were about to perform. He couldn’t afford the liability. Barnabas was willing to take the risk to give Mark another shot, but Paul wasn’t. The question one might ask is: “Who was wrong?” I don’t think either of them were. Barnabas being the “Son of Encouragement,” was willing to take the risk so that Mark could prove himself. If it wasn’t for Barnabas, Paul might not have grown to trust Mark as is evident in 2 Timothy 4:11 – “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.” (NKJV). Now there is a sixteen year gap between the events in Acts 15:36-41 and 2 Timothy. We don’t know when or how Paul grew to trust Mark, but we know at some point within a sixteen year period Paul deemed him a useful vessel.
Forgiveness and trust aren’t necessarily synonymous. Forgiveness just means that you are willing to “not hold the previous offenses against the man.” It doesn’t mean that you are going to trust him like a brother. If a man proves to be unworthy of the office of the eldership, it is our duty to remove him. One example I can think of is adultery. It is the church’s duty to remove an elder who has committed an adulterous affair; and if he doesn’t repent, he must also be removed from fellowship (Matthew 18:15-17/ 1 Corinthians 5:1-13/ Titus 1:10-16; 2:11-15/ 2 Thessalonians 3:14/ Galatians 6:1). This is a hard saying, but a true one, and is considered an act of love. I betrayed a friend of mine once by lying about him to others through gossip. I was an unfaithful friend. Now, I confessed my sins to him, but it took a couple of years to restore our friendship to its previous glory. At first I was angry because I didn’t think my friend “really” forgave me. I confronted him one day and he told me he had forgiven me, but he didn’t trust me. He told me that I would have to earn his trust. Now, over time, I proved myself worthy of his trust. Nevertheless, it took time.
I am thankful for men like Barnabas who are willing to experience injury for the hope that a man can change. It is people like him that make the best friends. Nevertheless, don’t hold it against Paul for being resistant to Barnabas’s hope. Paul knew his history, and at that point, history told him that Mark might not be a good companion and would compromise the mission. Just the same, if there is a brother who has been indulging in the fleshly pursuits of adultery, lying, stealing, gossiping, or any number of unrighteous deeds, we are not obliged to trust him after we have forgiven him. Even if the man is truly sorry for his misgivings, it takes time to build trust. You can forgive someone of a trespass, but it doesn’t mean you have to trust him. Now it is true that a forgiving man should give the offender a chance to rebuild trust if he is repentant; but, if he isn’t repentant, there is no reason to even do that. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t help if he was in trouble, or serve him if he was sick. I have forgiven all who have sinned against me, even the ones who never confessed their sins or repented of them. Jesus taught us to love and forgive our enemies. Nevertheless, He also said to be “wise as serpents,” and to “shake the dust off our feet” as a testimony against those who do not receive us in the name of King Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we hate them or hold a grudge, it just means that it is time to move on to greener pastures and to stop milking a dry cow. Wisdom teaches us that there is a time for everything, and forgiveness is always available from God and the Christian. Nevertheless, trust is earned. Before a man can be counted worthy of the office of deacon or elder, he must prove himself worthy of 1 Timothy 3. That doesn’t mean that anyone holds a grudge or doesn’t forgive someone of a previous sin. However, the kind of man you want for deacon or elder is one who has “proven” himself faithful to God and the brethren. Forgive, but verify.