Throughout my Christian life the question that has haunted me more than any other is why there is not a greater difference between Christians and non-Christians.
The lack of distinctive Christian behavior and practice has prompted observers like Mohandas Gandhi to conclude, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” It has caused others to stop short of the threshold of faith, concluding, with nineteenth century existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche, “I would believe in Christianity if I saw more Christ in Christians.”
As I have previously noted, this mismatch between teaching and practice has vexed the Church from the beginning.
Stunningly, a little more than a generation after Pentecost, the apostle Paul upbraided the church in Corinth for succumbing to the moral rhythms of the Greco-Roman culture. The attitude toward sin in pew and pulpit had become so complacent that an egregious form of sexual immorality went unchallenged by the church leadership.
I suspect that most people reading this know of people in their congregation who are in relationships that are contrary to Church teaching. Thus, Paul’s handling of a church that was losing the aroma of the “Bread of Life” holds valuable lessons for the Church today.
Upon learning about the unaddressed sin, Paul called for the immediate expulsion of the unrepentant party. He went on to say that open sin among the brethren was not to be tolerated, such that believers were not even to associate with professed brothers who are unrepentant. He then closed his counsel with the accusing question, “Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?”
Judge? But didn’t Jesus warn us against judging others?
Few bible passages have been as misunderstood and proof-texted as Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” In the context of the full passage, Jesus was not prohibiting our judgment of others, but rather he was providing the prerequisite: Before turning the moral spotlight on our neighbor, we must shine it on ourselves and address our own moral failings honestly and biblically.
But how do we judge? Since sin a disease of the heart, how can we discern the moral state of others?
Our Brother’s Keeper
While it is true that we can’t probe the thoughts and attitudes of our neighbors, we can determine whether their behaviors align with those prescribed in Scripture. In fact, later in Matthew 7 Jesus tells his disciples that “fruits” are reliable indicators of one’s spiritual condition. These are “fruits” not only of character, but of obedience, as is clear from the end of the passage: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Hence, Jesus does not prohibit us from judging others—to the contrary, he expects us to: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Yet how can we know that our brother has sinned, much less rebuke him, unless we’ve made a moral judgment?
The preconditions are that we know the standards of moral conduct set down in Scripture and Church teaching, we have taken stock of our own spiritual state against those standards, and we have addressed them through confession and repentance.
But wait! Didn’t Jesus say that he who is without sin should cast the first stone? Yes, but the question is “what did he mean?” Since no one is without sin, that statement, on its face, would go against the balance of his teaching that, contrary to Cain’s slack-jawed response to a probing God, we are our brother’s keeper.
Importantly, the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking was not intending to rebuke or restore a woman caught in sin, but to execute her and trap Jesus in a Pharisaical sting operation. Jesus’s response was ingeniously crafted to show grace to the woman while making her accusers consider their own moral failings. His actions also serve to show why we judge others.
Motivated By Love
The Christian virtue of love calls us to seek the highest good of others to the point of self-sacrifice. Thus, rebuking others for the purpose of condemnation, embarrassment, or to gain a heightened sense of our own moral standing is not love. Neither is it love to take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to our Christian brothers and sisters.
Rather, real love is found in the ministry of Jesus whose concern for people moved him to probe and ask leading questions, to the point of meddling and intruding. His purpose was not to condemn, but to prompt sinners to spiritual introspection and repentance so that they could be restored to right fellowship with him. Paul challenged the Church to follow Jesus’s example, urging “spiritual” members to restore those “caught in a sin.” Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians was intended for the ultimate restoration of the unrepentant sinner (“so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”)
To restore wayward members, spiritual members must be in submission to the authority of the Church, spiritually accountable to its leadership and each other. They must be open, honest, and teachable, as ready to accept spiritual counsel as give it.
The Conforming Church
It is a sad fact today, that while the vast majority of Americans claim some church affiliation, few live lives that give evidence to the faith they profess. And since our true beliefs are revealed not in what we profess, but in what we practice, it would appear that we are a nation of “belonging non-believers.”
Should we be surprised then to find that: out-of-wedlock births are staggeringly high; television networks air prime time shows that would have earned an X-rating on the silver screen a few decades back; relationships are being blessed and celebrated in churches that wouldn’t have been topics for polite company a generation ago; political scandal and corporate corruption have become so commonplace they barely provoke a collective yawn; lack of acceptance (or enthusiasm!) over a person’s sexual preferences is called intolerant; and moral objections to lifestyle choices are being threatened as hate speech?
If we are, we shouldn’t be. For in conforming to the culture, the Church has been absorbed by it, relinquishing its moral authority to the sirens of selfism and sensualism.
Lost is the moral vocabulary of sin, evil, guilt, repentance, and submission. Gone are the days when a pastor could dare challenge the moral character of his flock, much less call out specific congregational sins. If Paul’s letter to the Corinthians were addressed to a congregation today, the apostle would be brought up on charges of libel, and the plaintiff would win his case!
Most tragically, the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ has given way to the gospel of self-improvement through therapeutic technique; a gospel that palliates but neither heals nor transforms.
If the Church is ever to be distinguished from the ambient culture, it cannot ignore or be complacent about sin within its walls. Unless pastors, leaders, and every member are willing to address sin in the ranks, the “aroma” of the Church will remain something between flat and fetid.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” painted by Guercino, c. 1621.