IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK LIKE THIS, of course. Sometimes it is not the case that the sin of one man and his family — in this case Achan — brings defeat upon the entire believing community (Josh. 7). For example, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira brought death only to themselves (Acts 5), and the punishment they suffered induced a godly fear in the rest of the assembly. On the other hand, the sin of David brought tragic repercussions on the entire nation. Perhaps the most frightening cases are those where countless sins are committed by many, many people, and God does absolutely nothing about it. For the worst judgment occurs when God turns his back on people, and resolutely lets sin take its course. Far better to be pulled up sharply before things get out of hand. That is why so much of the previous forty years of wilderness wanderings was given over to the disciplining hand of God: the purpose was as much educative as reformative.
Whatever is the case elsewhere in Scripture, here the sin of Achan and his family brings embarrassing defeat to the contingent of troops sent to take the little town of Ai. Worse, it brought death to about thirty-six Israelites (Josh. 7:5). In a sense, Achan was a murderer. When in some consternation Joshua seeks God’s face, God rather abruptly says, in effect, “Stop your praying and deal with the sin in the camp” (Josh. 7:10-12). The point is that God had given explicit and repeated instructions. They had been violated. The covenant between God and the Israelites was essentially communal, and so God is determined to teach the entire community to exercise among its own members the discipline that the covenant mandates.
No doubt there are some substantial differences to bear in mind when one turns to the new covenant. Nevertheless, here too God says some explicit things, and expects the covenant community to exercise discipline (e.g., 1 Cor. 5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:4; 13:2-3). Paul warns us that failure to take disciplinary action in the church, when there has been flagrant violation, endangers the entire community (1 Cor. 5:6). Pastors of churches and leaders of other Christian organizations who ignore this perspective are inviting disaster among all the people they are called to lead. In the name of peace, the real motivation may simply be cowardice, or worse, a failure to take God’s words seriously. The point is reinforced in the second reading assigned for this date: “I . . . will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2-3).