Rounding Up Strays
Where I grew up, there were often herds of cows out in the fields. Some of them would “wander off” from the rest of the herd. Someone would go get on a horse and find them, then bring them back. It was called “rounding up the strays”. It is a good metaphor for James’ words in these two verses.
If a cow wanders off from the herd, it might get injured by falling on a slope or getting caught in brush or a fence. It might also get killed and eaten by predators. The same is true of sheep, the more common animal in the New Testament.
James writes of “anyone among you wanders from the truth”. (19) That could mean one who has theological error or one who has become entangled in sin. He once again starts his instruction with “brothers”, clearly addressing believers.
There are many false teachers today. There are many temptations to sin and plenty of people who tell you it is ok to do so. We should guard our hearts and we should fight for our brothers and sisters. Since James says we can save the wanderer’s should and cover a multitude of sins, he must be speaking of serious sin or error that could lead to apostasy.
James tells us that we should go to one who has wandered from the truth and try to bring him back, for it will save him and cover many sins. (19)
Jesus taught this also. He told a parable in Matthew 18 about sheep. He said if a man has 100 sheep, and one goes astray, he will leave the 99 and go find the one and rejoice that it is found. (Matthew 18:10-14)
In addition, Jesus even taught the steps we should go through. This teaching is in Matthew 18:15-20. We are first to go tell the wanderer his or her fault. If the person listens to you, that is the end of the matter. Jesus says you have gained a brother (or sister). If the person will not listen to you, you go again to talk to him, but with one or two others. If he still refuses to listen, you tell it to the church. Last of all, if he will not repent, you must excommunicate him. That is what Jesus meant when he said treat him as a Gentile. (Matthew 18:17) Gentiles were excluded from the Jewish fellowship.
Jesus did this with Peter. It is recorded in John 21. Peter, you may remember, denied Jesus three times. After Jesus was arrested, Peter denied to the servant girl that he was a disciple. (John 18:17) He denied Jesus again to men standing around a fire. (John 18:25) He also denied being in the garden with Jesus to a man who was a servant of the high priest. (John 18:26) Denying Christ is about as serious a sin as you can commit, isn’t it? Yet, Jesus sought out Peter and brought him back into the fold. He did not make it easy on him, requiring him to say three times that he loved Jesus. But he set him back on track and commissioned Peter to tend to the flock of new believers.
Although wandering off into sin or error is a dangerous and harmful thing, I find it comforting that Jesus can and will restore a repentant believer and even use him or her in the Kingdom.
Paul also had to confront blatant sin in the church. The church in Corinth allowed a man to attend their church while he was sleeping with his father’s wife. (1 Corinthians 5:1) Paul instructed the church to excommunicate him and they apparently did. The man repented. Paul instructed the church to forgive him and take him back, to reaffirm their love for him. (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)
Too often we let our brothers and sisters wander off without trying to bring them back. That means their sanctification has ceased. It means they profane the name of Christ by their continued sin.
It is hard to do, and frequently unsuccessful. Nonetheless, we are to do it and God will often be gracious and bring the person to repentance. If we bring a person to repentance and restoration, we have covered a multitude of sins. Whereas, if we leave the fallen one alone, he or she will commit a multitude of sins. I have seen success in doing this, and I have seen failure. But, I do not regret trying.
Once a person repents, it is our duty to forgive. Some churches are not good at that.
May God give us the honesty to confront sin in ourselves , the courage to confront it in others, and the love to extend forgiveness to the repentant.