Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Critical Christians

Should Christians be critical? Two texts suggest to people that they should not. At the beginning of John 8 is the story of the woman taken in adultery when Jesus utters the immortal line, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." and in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs us "Do not judge or you too will be judged." (Mt 7:1)

The picture emerges of a Christian who is not supposed to get involved in the wrongdoing in the world either to condemn or approve it. Above all we should be tolerant. This idea is reinforced by the apostle Paul who asks at the end of chapter 5 of his first letter to the Corinthians, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" (v12) But he does go on to say "Are you not to judge those inside?" In chapter 6 he goes on to suggest that disputes within the church should no suffer the disgrace of being decided by unbelievers in the general law courts, but to appoint 'even men of little account in the church' to settle this dispute.

I think that because of this train of thought, many Christians have got the emphasis wrong. First, with the woman taking in adultery, 'casting the first stone' is not about making criticism but about carrying out an execution. Jesus is the God of second chances. He came to save not to destroy. He did say, "Go and sin no more" to her, so he was well aware of her being in the wrong. Then on the 'Judge not' reference, what a judge does is to pass sentence. Again he wants to save rather than condemn. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul tells us "Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes." There will be a time of judgement, and a terrible time it will be, but until things work out we will not know the outcome. To condemn a brother now for a particular sin or viewpoint is premature. However, we should be able to warn.

Jesus was not amiss in confronting the Pharisees or the priestly party of Saducees or even King Herod himself. Paul criticised many people - Demas, in love with this present world; Alexander the coppersmith; even the Apostle Peter when he sided with the Judaizers.

From my reading of Scripture there is no place for mamby-pamby, tolerate anything attitudes. There is a right way to address this issue. It is given in Matthew chapter 18:15-17 "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."

This is a matter of gentleness and kindness. You are not there to score one over on him. Listen to what he says. Perhaps you are in the wrong. If so, make haste to apologize. Church discipline is never easy, but if it is neglected a brother may be lost. I have no truck with the sort of thought control that some elders exert over their flock. There are many things over which Christians may legitimately differ. Nothing should be forced on secondary matters. We have a responsibility to teach and protect young believers, but we must also help the more mature believer to grow. Sometimes we come ac cross inflexibility so that we might cry out with Oliver Cromwell, "I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ consider that ye may be mistaken!" But we should be winsome, patient, considerate and kind with those who disagree with us. Our resource should be Scripture, not tradition or experience.

What about our rights? Paul certainly stood up for his in Philippi when he was wrongly jailed as a Roman citizen. But I a impressed by his attitude in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 where he tells us that it is better to be wronged or cheated than go to law. The gospel is what it is all about, not our dignity or pride. That said in our secular culture, Christians should stand up for the right to believe, to witness and to change our belief if that is what we need to do. Some of the legislation we have seen recently is a direct attack on the life of the Gospel.

But we should not go out of our way to manufacture issues and hit headlines. Some of the situations that have hit the press seem to me contrived and they could have been settled by negotiation or even a simple apology. It is almost as if the publicity were more important than the issue.

In a survey this week 71% of British people said that they considered themselves to be Christians. With that many people not clearly understanding their faith there is a harvest field waiting to be reaped without bothering arguing with a small number of verbose and attention seeking atheists.

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