When a Christian leader like Ravi Zacharias is publicly exposed in egregious sin, many introspective church leaders ask, How did this happen? Was this kind of behavior always there, hidden and unrepented? Did it grow slowly in the dark like a fungus? What would keep me from the same sin?

I don’t know whether this sin was part of his life from early on, or whether it grew across time. But I was recently struck by an insight from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that, had Zacharias applied it, would have prevented or killed at the root the sins that corrupted him and harmed his victims. Bonhoeffer’s insight is vital for church leaders who strive for lifelong fruitfulness.

Sin Isolates Christians

Bonhoeffer writes this in Life Together:

He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.

Bonhoeffer says that there is a form of Christian fellowship that we could call “the pious fellowship.” It encompasses most of what we imagine in healthy Christian community: corporate worship, prayer, service, and spiritual conversations. It’s easy to assume that someone engaged in these activities has a proper spiritual life. For Christian leaders, particularly, if we are involved in these activities and our ministry seems to be fruitful, those around us aren’t likely to ask more probing questions: they’re going to assume we must be spiritually healthy.

But if we are only part of the pious fellowship, Bonhoeffer says, we are in one important way alone. And that solitude, whether it feels lonely or not, is a dangerous state. It’s dangerous because it leaves us alone with our sin.

Solitude is dangerous because it leaves us alone with our sin.

He adds:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.

The pious fellowship—the fellowship of only “positive” worship, prayer, and service—doesn’t acknowledge the presence of sin. When a “real sinner is suddenly discovered,” as he notes with wry humor, people whose hope is in the outward appearance of holiness react in horror. How much more pressure, then, do church leaders feel to conceal their sin “in lies and hypocrisy.”

Grace in a Fellowship of Sinners

Rather, Bonhoeffer says, true grace—not cheap grace, but God’s grace—is found when we join “the fellowship of sinners.” The fellowship of sinners is marked not only by a striving toward worshiping God, but also by radical honesty about one’s sins and struggles. It is a community that practices deep confession and frequent repentance, and celebrates God’s forgiving grace.

Bonhoeffer writes:

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sins wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.

Again, I don’t know how long Zacharias’s sin grew in darkness. But I read this and imagine what might have been if he had confessed his sin the first time it occurred, whenever that was—if he had cleared his conscience by acknowledging his wrong in a fellowship of sinners.

The pressures of ministry and church leadership incline pastors to forsake the fellowship of sinners even more than other people might. We fear that our reputations will crumble or our ministries will suffer if people know that we sin. But the price of hiding sin is locking ourselves away from the light that can bring real forgiveness and cleansing.

Confessing Our Sins

The practice of confession turns a merely pious fellowship into a fellowship of sinners. This is a grace pastors need for lifelong fruitfulness and faithfulness—the grace of opening their lives, including the ugly, unresolved, and unredeemed parts—to other Christians.

Bonhoeffer writes:

The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. . . . Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.

Confessing to other Christians is not a suggestion. James 5:16 commands, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” While that command comes in the context of seeking healing, it also fulfills the intent of 1 John 1:6–7: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Walking in the light includes living in the pursuit of holiness and living in transparency with others.

Walking in the light includes living in the pursuit of holiness and living in transparency with others.

Bonhoeffer anticipates modern objections to this principle: aren’t we supposed to confess to God? Isn’t our primary relationship, including our need for forgiveness, with him?

Bonhoeffer responds:

Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to a holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness?

Confession Frees Us

To a person steeped in the culture of expressive individualism, Christianity can easily become about “me and Jesus,” which means we assume that God really meets us privately. Our most significant spiritual interactions come in solitude: if we confess in solitude and read words of forgiveness in solitude, we must have dealt with our sin.

But as Bonhoeffer writes, solitude—especially in matters of sin—can lead to self-deception. “Self-forgiveness,” as he calls it, is not equal to “the judging and pardoning Word of God.” He says we cannot be sure we are dealing with our sins before God until we deal with them in the light of the fellowship of sinners. Just as there is a sense in which we must meet God in solitude, as individuals, there is an equal sense in which we must meet God in community to really experience him.

Once I was talking with a mentor through a besetting sin that was extremely painful to my conscience. After about 15 minutes, he stopped and said, “Do you need to hear that you are forgiven for this? Because you are. You’re repentant, and you’re covered by the blood of Jesus.” I hadn’t been asking for that, but as soon as he said it, I experienced forgiveness in a way I hadn’t felt before. Sharing that sin in our relationship allowed me not only to experience repentance but also to experience grace.

Any Christian living with unconfessed sin is living in darkness, outside of the light of God and the grace of fellowship. Unconfessed sin makes the semblance of fellowship something other than true Christian fellowship. One elder of my church described a time at a previous church when members of their Sunday school class experienced a period of marital infidelity followed by reconciliation. They shared this with the class, hoping that the members would celebrate with them: instead, the class shunned them, uncomfortable with even sin followed by repentance and reconciliation. This was not the response of people who lived under the grace of God in the cross of Christ.

Pastors, we need people in our lives to whom we confess often. They may be people in our church; leaders in a different church; or even a counselor. But if we are to live in the light instead of the darkness—if we are to live under the only hope for sinful people—then we too must join the fellowship of sinners under the cross of Christ.