Friday, July 22, 2011

The Top 10 Things Every Christian Should Know #3

Number 3- "We Are (not) Called to Judge (unbelievers)"

My first trial by fire as a young minister of music involved a best friend's mom having an affair with an associate pastor at our church. The woman was young enough to be the pastor's daughter, and he and this woman were both married to other people, with children of their own.

As a newly ordained pastor, I was thrust into a very complicated and painful series of deacon's meetings, private conversations, and sleepless nights as I wrestled with this ugly mess. The woman was our organist on Sunday mornings, and one of my own mom’s best friends. I was the minister of music for our church and I felt it wasn't prudent for her to continue to play the organ every week with this controversy raging through our church. Our deacon board verbally assured me that they would be behind me all the way, and they were behind me...about ten feet behind me. I had to approach this woman who I had known and respected for years, and the mother of one of my best friends, and ask her to step aside until the issue could be resolved. It was the first of many painful confrontations to come in my pastoral experience.

Many people at this church took the position that we are not to judge others when it comes to situations such as this. They all quoted Jesus himself in this case who said, "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 7:1-2)

If we only look at this verse of scripture alone, we can easily close the issue and conclude that we are wrong to judge others. However, Jesus has more to say on the subject than this. Later on, in the very same Gospel, Jesus also says, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matthew 18:15-17)

Taking both passages into account, what Jesus is saying is that, first, we are to judge fairly. In the first passage Jesus talks about how we will be judged in the same manner that we judge others. If we judge them fairly, then we will be judged that way too. If we judge with prejudice or without a sense of mercy, we will also be judged without mercy.

Additionally, Jesus forbids us from judging the eternal salvation of others here. Whatever our response to someone's actions, we are never to judge their eternal position before God. We cannot determine if someone is righteous or evil, that is for God alone to decide. This is why Jesus follows the passage in Matthew chapter 7 with the added illustration of taking the plank out of our own eye before we attempt to remove the speck from our brother’s eye. He wants us to be more concerned with our own personal righteousness and leave the inspection of others' righteousness to One more qualified.

In the second passage gives us a practical procedure for dealing with people who have hurt us or wronged us. People who are caught in adultery usually take the position that they are not hurting anyone else and the rest of us should just mind our own business and leave them alone. What they don't realize is that their infidelity is like an emotional/spiritual nuclear bomb that explodes, devastating family, friends, relationships and acquaintances for hundreds of miles in every direction. Adultery is an offense to everyone who ever knew you, loved you or trusted you. I’ve watched it decimate entire churches, families, and life-long friendships in a matter of days. With this in mind, Jesus' instructions to us in the second passage (Matthew 18:15-17) are very welcome indeed. First he asks us to go privately to the person who has wronged us. The goal is repentance. At every step, the ultimate goal is repentance. The person has to realize that they've done something that is fundamentally wrong and then they must be willing to take steps to cease the behavior, seek forgiveness and work towards healing (for themselves as well as the one's they have injured).

Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the Corinthians, also provides great clarity for us within the Church on matters of dealing with this issue:

"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you." (1 Cor 5:9-13)

Here Paul clearly states that he expects that those within the Church would be discerning and would deal with those within the Body who call themselves Christians and yet continue to behave in a way that is inconsistent with someone who has truly surrendered their life to Christ.

Paul assumes that if someone behaving this way is confronted by the Church, in a loving and humble way, they will certainly repent and turn away from their sins and be restored to the fellowship. If they have not truly surrendered their lives to Jesus, then they will refuse to repent and will continue in their selfish, destructive behavior, and in that case Paul echoes Jesus (from Mathew 18) and commands that this person be removed from the fellowship and treated "as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Many in the Church today take too lightly the idea of Church Discipline. Most of us would rather "Live and let live" than to confront another person about their ongoing sinful behavior. Many feel that to ask someone to repent of their behavior is destructive and cruel, however the truth is it's the most loving thing we can possibly do for them. If we love them, we will come to them and give them an opportunity to repent and to turn away from their destructive behaviors. It's not the easy thing to do, the right thing rarely is, but it's the most loving thing to do.

Over the last few years, I've had many opportunities to confront a brother or sister in Christ who was engaged in destructive, sinful behavior. I've always dreaded those conversations. I've never enjoyed the process at all. Many times the person's response is to run away, or to get offended, or to leave the church. Sometimes, (and I am sad to say it's rare), the person responds with tears and confession and repentance and moves forward into healing and restoration and wholeness. I wish that happened every time, but for those few times it has happened, I am very grateful.

The real test comes when that person does repent and turn away from their sin. This is the time when the Body of Christ has the opportunity to practice forgiveness and acceptance. This is where we are the ones who get to prove that we also have truly surrendered to Christ and remember the amazing grace poured out on us.

There's a passage in Paul's first letter to the churches in Corinth that I love to quote on this issue. It starts out sounding harsh, but the latter section is brilliant. It says, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offender's nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

Notice that he says, "And that is what some of you were." This is a wonderful reminder to all of us that we were all screwed up when we came to Jesus, and many of us are still screwed up as we wake up each day to follow Jesus. Paul points out that the early Church was made up of former idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, swindlers and even homosexual offenders. Take that into consideration for a while. Those first groups of believers were hardly saints in their former lives. Paul wants them to stop and remember this. He wants them to recall that they were once far away from God and have no basis to wag their fingers at one of their own who falls back into that way of life.

The truth is that none of us has it figured out. None of us is yet perfect. So, when a brother or sister stumbles, we are called by God to lovingly, compassionately, confront them and offer them a chance to repent and turn away from their destructive behavior, and when they do, if they do, we are then expected to love them and embrace them and accept them as if they had never stumbled at all. One day you and I might stumble, and this is how we would want to be loved by our church family, isn't it?

Judging the unbeliever's around us is clearly out of the question for us. We are expected to love them and befriend them and serve them. We are called to demonstrate the love of Jesus in tangible ways to those who have yet to receive Christ. But within the Body, we are fully commanded to confront sinful behaviors and to remove those who do not turn away from their sin. This is also the love of Jesus.

We are called to love one another, and this means being willing to speak the truth, even if it is painful to those we love, and even to us.

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." -Jesus (John 13:34-35)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great job addressing a tough subject. Here is another but similar take on it.