This is the first in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series will run through the summer of 2017.
At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester. We get students here from a wide variety of backgrounds and every possible relationship to Christianity. Some of our students grew up in Christian homes and were their church’s “Bible drill” champ. Some of our students have never cracked open a Bible nor stepped foot inside a church. They are all, however, required to take New Testament Survey. Needless to say, with that diverse mix of students, I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice, so for the next few months I am going to blog about my most frequently asked questions.
FAQ #1: Does Paul contradict Jesus when the apostle talks about judging other Christians who are sinning?
This is typically the time of year when I am asked this question, because we study Paul’s letters in chronological order in my surveys. By March the students have read both Matthew’s Gospel and the early missionary letter of Paul, and that is when they start to notice the “problem.”
When my students read what Jesus says in Matthew 7, it usually makes an impression: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
But then they read Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3: “[K]eep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us . . . If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”
And then they read Paul in 1 Corinthians 5: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you . . . I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality . . . not even to eat with such a one . . . Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
Jesus says, don’t judge. Paul says judge. Is Paul contradicting Jesus here? The answer is, of course, no. In fact, Paul is both affirming and then elaborating on the teaching of Jesus. Let me explain.
This discussion has to begin back in Matthew 7. If we don’t understand what Jesus is actually saying, we won’t ever really know if Paul is contradicting him. In Matthew 7 Jesus doesn’t just categorically say, “Don’t judge!” That doesn’t sound like Jesus. In fact some of my students find Jesus to be far too judgmental for their tastes. Here Jesus is making a larger point about what it means to be a community that follows God. He is condemning the religious crowd for their hypocrisy while affirming that helping one another along in righteousness is exactly what God wants his people to do. Jesus argues:
- We all have “specks” in our eye that we need help removing.
- We will see much more clearly to help our brothers when we take care of the “logs” in our own eyes first.
- We should never try to subject someone else to a standard of righteousness that we won’t submit ourselves to. This is what the “log” in the eye language represents. That is the hypocrisy about which Jesus is speaking.
- Thus, when Jesus says, “Don’t judge!” he is talking about hypocrites who condemn others while ignoring their own sin.
It is this very teaching that Paul is building on in 1 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Corinthians 5. Everywhere that Paul talks about the church, he is abundantly clear about a few key truths:
- To be in a church that follows Jesus is to submit yourself to a standard of righteousness. We are to help one another with this, and we are to hold one another accountable to it. This is exactly what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7. To be clear though, you don’t have to be perfect. Paul is not suggesting we kick people out of the church for not being perfect. If we did that, there wouldn’t be anyone left in the church except for Jesus. None of us are perfect. Paul is always the first one to admit that he is a sinner (1 Tim 1:15). What Paul and Jesus are both concerned with, however, is people who are living in settled defiance in their sin and yet stay in the church. For Paul and Jesus, this is the worst kind of hypocrisy. When we do that, Paul says, we have put ourselves outside of the church and the church shouldn’t go on pretending like we haven’t.
- For Paul this isn’t an issue of salvation. Paul isn’t suggesting that sin, even gross sin, can separate a genuine believer from the saving grace of God (see Rom 8). This is an issue of discipline. When we decide to live in a particular sin, in settled defiance against Jesus, we separate ourselves from the fellowship of the church but never from God’s love. Obviously there are many who attend our churches who are living in settled defiance against Jesus who have never experienced saving grace; only God knows the heart. But Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3 is specifically addressing believers who are refusing to repent of a sin and be restored to fellowship.
- The purpose of putting someone out of the church is always to restore them, to wake them up from their settled defiance, and to help them return to submitting themselves to Christ’s standard of righteousness. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3, “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
I hope it is clear now that Paul isn’t contradicting Jesus. Paul is applying the teaching of Jesus and elaborating on it. Our greatest concern should always be our own sin, and we should always be on guard against the hypocrisy which we as sinners so naturally fall into. But we should also be living in community as the people of God in such a way that getting the specks of besetting sin out of one another’s eyes is as common as breathing. I hope and pray that if I ever have a log in my eye that I refuse to remove, my church would love me enough to put me out of fellowship to wake me up from my settled defiance so I might ultimately return to fellowship with Jesus by the grace of God.