On Consenting to Others’ Sins: Augustine and Fellowship with Sinners

Can Christians eat and drink with sinners? Of course. And, to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior, we must. However, there are certain types of association that are sinful—or at least dangerously unwise—regardless of private intention. We have to consider the public signification of certain types of association.

This has come up in recent weeks as a result of the drama surrounding the public statements from Alistair Begg about attending an LGBTQ “wedding” service. I don’t think Rev. Begg should be “canceled” for these comments, whatever that might mean. Nor do I think he is a wolf. But I do think he is wrong and has offered counsel that warrants pushback.

An angle one could take to expose the folly here is to press the argument into the ridiculous, thereby exposing certain double standards on this set of issues—exceptions to general principles about public associations in events that center on sinful activities. Doug Wilson has made such a case in a recent piece. Folks who would find no issue with attending an LGBTQ wedding would almost certainly recoil at the prospect of attending a white nationalist rally, the launch of a pornographic magazine, etc—even if these were organized by loved ones. One could even imagine a hypothetical in which a family member moves internationally to wed a child bride and invites loved ones to celebrate the occasion. We all know that something is communicated by our attendance at such events. Kevin DeYoung has also made similarly compelling arguments.

To probe this a bit further, I would like to turn to a surprising source: Augustine. Turning to Augustine for wisdom is rarely a surprise; but what is most interesting is that some of his most insightful comments on such corrupting associations come in his writings against the Donatists. Why this is noteworthy is that it was the Donatists who thought that sin was contagious and were sloppy in their thinking about how associations with sinners corrupted Christians. The Donatists were what we could anachronistically and crudely describe as “fundamentalist” (which is what Begg accused his critics of being) separatists. They thought that to maintain their purity they had to separate from sinners.

Augustine vehemently opposed the Donatists for their mistaken views of grace, lack of love, and abandonment of unity. It is not the presence of sinners that contaminates the Christian. Though sin is congenital, it is not contagious. Thus, Christians neither can nor should entirely avoid sinners in the ecclesial or broader social and civic spheres. These themes are all over Augustine’s numerous writings against the Donatists, and they emerge again in the text for our discussion: Augustine’s Answer to the Letter of Parmenian.[1]

Discussing Donatist misunderstandings of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 6, Augustine explains that Christians should not rashly cut themselves off from fellowship with other Christians (II.18,37) and is emphatic that Christians should eat with unbelievers (III.2,12). Augustine anticipates Donatist objections that might appeal to Ephesians 5:11-12 (“Have no fellowship with the fruitless works of darkness”), or 1 Timothy 5:22 (“Have no fellowship with others’ sins. Keep yourself pure”). So, Donatists might object, Christians should have no association with sinners. But Augustine believes this is incorrect (II.20,39). According to Augustine, we can and must associate with sinners; but he proceeds to argue that we must not associate with them in their sinning. There are forms of association that corrupt Christians and bring them under judgment.

Throughout this discussion Augustine uses the language of “joining with” sinners, and “having fellowship” with them, terms which he uses to convey forms of corrupting association. How do we join others in their sinning, according to Augustine? There are two basic ways, and a third that is a bit more complicated, but provides further clarity to the second.[2]

First, we associate with others in their sin by doing the sinful actions with them. Second, we associate with them in their sin in a corrupting way by “consenting” to their sin. According to Augustine, “having no fellowship means not consenting” (II.20,39). To keep pure from others’ sins, we must not consent; “if he has fellowship, he consents; if he consents, he is corrupted; if he is corrupted, he is not keeping himself pure” (II.21,40). Thus, for Augustine, it is consenting to sin that is corrupting. What does this mean? Well, we could think of it in basic terms through the contemporary language of “complicity.” Augustine uses the example of criminals, and we could again think of thieves. Even if we do not walk into the bank and hold up the tellers ourselves, but merely drive the getaway car or house the thieves while they are hiding from the police, we are complicit in the crime.

Here is the question related to the Begg debate: Are “witnesses” (a common term for participants in a wedding) similarly “complicit” in the sin of a service that celebrates a lie about nature and obscures the supernatural symbolism for which marriage was always intended? I would contend that attending such a celebration of a sinful union as witnesses conveys one’s “consent” in a way that would merit Augustinian condemnation. This action conveys “approval,” which is one of the ways that Augustine says we join with unbelievers in a condemning way (II.18,37). We consent in a way that corrupts by publicly signaling our approval as participants in a celebration of sin. Augustine hammers this point by saying those who limit their condemnation to those who “do not what they do”—and thus do not directly join in the sinful action—do not factor in enough forms of complicity (II.21,40). Augustine argues that the one who can confidently claim to “live as one who is firm and whole in the midst of the wicked” is “the one who does not do evil, and does not consent to the one who does it, and rebukes the one who does it” (II.21,40). This brings us to the third consideration.

Augustine argues that we can associate in a corrupting way when we fail to rebuke others in their sin when we are positioned in such a way that our rebuke is demanded. He explains that this is especially demanded when we are performing an “official function.” The most obvious situation is when one is an ordained minister and a member is in open, unrepentant sin. It is a failure of the pastoral office to “be lax in censuring” (II.21,41) toward such members. And part of the duty involved is toward the observers—this reproof “in front of everyone” is performed in part “so that others might fear” (II.21,41). Augustine admits that this aspect is a bit more complicated, and doesn’t apply as broadly as the other two. However, I think it is illuminating for the wedding attendance debate. A wedding is not merely a meal, but a public ceremony centered on a union in which the attendees, or “witnesses,” are participants, with the celebrant, in “join[ing] together” the individuals in a new union. For a union that offends God’s creation order and gospel signification, such a celebration is centered on sin; and attendees register implicit, and often explicit (if they are asked to pledge their support for the couple in their union), consent—unless they publicly object during the ceremony. I figure that most would prefer to avoid such an awkward confrontation. But I am convinced, inspired by Augustine, that attending the ceremony places one in a semi-“official” role, as a result of which failure to rebuke such sin would be to consent in an especially corrupting way.

Even if the couple knows your position, it is almost impossible for you to communicate your disapproval to all observers. Regardless of private intent, this public act communicates consent. And, according to Augustinian logic, this makes one “join with” sinners in their sin.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, a teaching elder in the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.

  1. All references and quotations come from the New City Press edition, translated by Maureen Tilley and Boniface Ramsey.

  2. These are most clearly listed in II.21,40-41.

*Image Credit: Jeremiah van Winge, “Phinehas slaying Zimri and Kozbi the Midianite”


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