When my husband, Jim, and I went to Zimbabwe, we had fellowship on the spot with a man named Bekele who explained to us painful details of his personal testimony, even though we had all just met. We were so riveted by his account of God’s forgiveness that we repented in his backyard of holding grudges against each other in our marriage. Apart from Christ, Bekele would have been to us a stranger. But in Christ he was our brother from the start.
Of course, sometimes cultural differences can keep Christians apart. But usually those differences are temporary hindrances—because when people walk in the light, they are doing the opposite of hiding. Years ago I served as a mentor to a Korean senior pastor who emphatically kept telling me: “Dr. Sumner, in my congregation I am king. I cannot be honest, not about my own sin, even with the elders in my church.” Over time, however, that pastor changed his mind. He began to realize that followers of Christ can risk losing face if, like the apostle Paul, they have already surrendered their face to Jesus Christ. Through months of conversation, he and I both agreed that what ultimately hinders fellowship is sin, not cultural mores.
According to I John, when we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us (I John 1:9), so we can walk in the light once again. Notice it says “we.” When “we” walk in the light. The Bible doesn’t say, “When I walk in the light, I have fellowship with other people, even though they don’t have fellowship with me.” Fellowship requires mutuality. When “we” do not have fellowship, it means that one of us or both of us are walking in the darkness, not the light.
How many Christians have left the local church due to their disappointment in seeing so many other believers fail to be in fellowship with each other? How many people are fed up with seeing pettiness and politics instead of true repentance in the church?
As a seminary professor, I constantly encourage my students to model what it means to be repentant. Out loud. In front of others. So that others can see the progress Christians make. When pastors and parents point out other people’s sins without also confessing their own, it leads others to think quite mistakenly that believers are nothing more than authentic hypocrites.
What if a critical mass of Christ followers decided to make it normal, not only for those we lead, but also for us personally, to be open about our struggles—and open about the ways that God is helping us with our struggles and transforming us internally to be different than we currently are?
I think it’s realistic for pockets of Christians to be known for their progress in holiness. Confessing our sins helps us turn away from sin. When we walk in the light, we make progress together precisely due to the fact that we have fellowship together. In such a context of being truthful and repentant, we discover firsthand that sinners who follow Christ are saints. How many Christians would come back to church if the saints would be there to greet them in the light