In Proverbs 27:17, Solomon writes that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” For the New Testament believers, where is the primary place that this kind of “sharpening” happens? The answer is . . . in the local church.
The church is the place where we are sharpened into being more Christlike and less like the world. But there’s a catch. Sharpening hurts. And the fact that it hurts means that, left to ourselves, we would avoid being sharpened into Christlikeness. This is why the verse doesn’t say that “iron sharpens itself.” There are certain times in which we must rely upon the accountability that only the brothers and sisters in our church family can give.
Jesus saw the need for members of His church to sharpen one another, and even gave his followers directions on how to do this when the sin of someone in the church became known. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus states,
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Though these words may sound harsh to our modern ears, they are actually very loving.
When a person in the church sins and stumbles, Jesus wants the other members of the church to love that stumbling brother or sister enough to “sharpen” them by holding them accountable and calling them back to faithfulness to the Lord. Ignoring the stumbling of those around us is unloving. If a person we love is sinning against God, we must love them enough to “sharpen” them for their good and God’s glory.
Does this mean that we need to become “spiritual police,” always looking out for the failures of those around us? Does this mean we have an excuse to be judgmental? Certainly not. Paul agrees with Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18 and adds some instructions of his own on the manner in which this sharpening should be carried out. In Galatians 6:1-2, Paul writes,
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
We are to sharpen each other, but we are to do so in a spirit of gentleness and humility, realizing that we too are just as susceptible to falling as anyone else. Let’s love one another enough to not let our brothers and sisters grow “dull” spiritually. Let’s sharpen one another in gentleness and out of love.
(Another helpful passage on this subject is 1 Corinthians 5.)