“I really don’t think Christians should judge each other”, said the middle age couple I met with a few months ago. “I disagree.” I said, “In fact Christians are actually commanded to judge one another.”
It is true that Jesus warns us about judging others in the oft quoted, “Judge not lest ye be judged” passage in scripture. But, then Jesus in Matt. 18:15-20 and Paul in I Cor. 5 not only commands us to do it, but then instructs us how it’s to be done. So then, how do we reconcile both teachings?
To begin with, both tell us only to judge those who call themselves believers – never non-Christians. And if we must judge, it’s to be done in the context of the community of believers – the church, not individually. Given those pre-conditions, there appears to be three reasons given why we’re called to judge:
1. Our goal ought to be the repentance and restoration of the one who has sinned, both to God and the community. It should never be punitive or done harshly. (However, the process will usually feel punitive by the person being confronted.) “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” Galatians 6:1
2. To guard the integrity of the church and the reputation of Christ. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” I Peter 2:12
3. Serve as a warning to others who may be contemplating or committing serious sin. “You must purge the evil from Israel. All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again.” Deuteronomy 17:12b-13
First, A Warning
Wisely, God has given us several checks and balances to keep us from judging too quickly, harshly or unfairly. Matthew 7:1, 2 says, “Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7 is a warning. Before you judge another, first examine yourself to make sure your life is relatively free from major sin and certainly free from the sin for which you are confronting another.
Also, there is an important distinction between evaluating another person’s actions and passing judgment. The first is assessing a situation or sin in light of scripture. The second is actually confronting another Christian about your evaluation of their behavior. Therefore, we should begin with the evaluation process, using the process Jesus gives us in Matthew 18.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17
Why These Steps?
While scripture isn’t clear, it may be that the reason for this multi-step process is this: First, to give the person every opportunity to admit the problem and do something about it. You might also discover that there isn’t any sin at all, or it’s not as great as you were led to believe. The second reason may be to guard the reputation of the person being accused, so if they repent, or are found innocent, they are not subject to public humiliation. Humiliation makes it far more difficult for people to feel accepted and loved back into the church or Christian community.
Remember the purpose for any confrontation is to help someone understand the nature and consequences of their sin, along with your pledge to do anything possible to forgive or help them, if they stop sinning and truly repent. In fact, apparently the man who sinned in I Cor. 5, repented and so Paul in II Cor. instructs the Christians to “back off” and forgive.
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” II Corinthians 2:6-8
Should only churches exercise discipline?
Is judging and discipline something only the organized church can do? I don’t believe so. The early church to whom Paul addressed his letters were generally small groups of believers who gathered in homes – home churches. Therefore, I believe this is a command both to organized churches and to groups of spiritually mature believers who see a fellow believer committing a serious and apparently unrepentant sin, especially if the sin is harmful to that person, others, or is robbing God of his glory. My blog next week will detail how a group of us exercised discipline and actually, “ex-communicated” a friend. God used this and number of other factors to bring our friend to repentance.
But, what happens when you and a small group of believers or church leaders, have done everything Jesus and Paul taught and there is no change in their behavior? Jesus says, “treat him as an unbeliever” (Matt. 18:17) and Paul says we should have nothing to do with him. “Don’t even eat with him” (I Cor. 5:11). What does that mean?
First, it means that person should be asked not to worship with other believers so as not to confuse non-believers or the spiritually immature. Secondly, we’re not to associate with that person socially. However, when meeting them on the street we should be kind and gracious.
While some of these steps seem harsh, these are commands directly from Jesus and Paul. To not obey, simply because it seems unloving, is to question the wisdom of God.
Jesus is concerned for the purity of his church. While it is true that Jesus loves each person individually, he never values the rights of an individual, over the spiritual health of the larger Christian community – his church. The same was true in Old Testament Israel. When a person makes a conscious, willful decision to sin and refuses to stop even when warned, the Bible really doesn’t give us another option. To do nothing is to disobey scripture.
What if they walk away from the faith?
I’ve talked to good Christians who are very concerned that those who are disciplined may “walk away from the faith!” And, that’s obviously a serious possibility. However, if they do, that’s their choice and they’ll have to live with that decision. But, we don’t have the option to violate a clear command of scripture just because we are fearful of the possible outcome. When we begin to think like that, we may have forgotten the obvious solution: All the guilty person has to do is repent and cease doing the thing they’re being disciplined for!
I’m proud that my church of nearly 5,000 people still exercises discipline, although I wish we didn’t have to. We have been called every name in the book by people who believe this practice is outdated, unloving and even unbiblical.
Other churches have gone a different direction. In an effort to be more loving and accepting, they sometimes unintentionally, actually encourage disobedience. When other believers see sinful behavior ignored or accepted, it becomes just that much easier for them to make similar choices. I believe Jesus’ church, like any loving family, has to exercise reasonable and measured discipline and risk holding each other accountable for actions which bring dishonor to God.
Next Week: Ex-communicating a Friend
Questions: Does your church exercise biblical discipline? Please share any ideas you or the church have used successfully to guard Christ’s reputation.
Free: Guidelines for Churches Restoring a Christian Who Has Sinned and Repented of It. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request “Guidelines for Restoration” and we’ll email them right out to you.
Following Jesus in Real Life