“In judging others a man laboreth in vain; he often erreth, and easily falleth into sin; but in judging and examining himself he always laboreth to good purpose.” Thomas a Kempis from The Imitation of Christ.
Early in my ministry, in a sermon, I criticized an itinerant minister whom I did not know, nor knew anyone who truly knew him. My criticism was based on what I learned from an article I had read in Christianity Today a day or two before. After my sermon, a brother in our congregation came to me, and in a broken, gentle way explained to me that this same man had greatly ministered to him in a meeting some time in the last few years. At that humbling moment, I realized that God did not call me to criticize other ministers by name in the pulpit (or elsewhere). It was OK and necessary from time to time to call attention to errors in terms of doctrine/truth. But I needed to let the Judge judge His servants per Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”. (I’m not saying I have not sinned in this arena since).
Are they helping us or hurting us?
We all struggle from time to time with the sin of judging our brothers and sisters in Christ’s body/church. But one thing that surely hasn’t helped us is ministers who apparently have a “ministry” of informing the body of Christ of ministers who do not meet their approval.
Thanks to Covid, some of us believers have had more time to loiter on the internet and read what some of these folk say about other Christian leaders, or perhaps watch (via Youtube, Netflix, etc.,) certain documentaries produced by them to warn us about certain Christian leaders.
A question I’ve had to ask myself is: Do I really have the emotional, mental and spiritual bandwidth to handle all of this information about others who are not in my sphere of influence or responsibility? Does reading it help me come to the dinner table full of the love of Christ, humble, and as aware as I need to be of my own faults and need for transformation?
No one will ever be more concerned about doctrine and truth than Jesus and the apostle Paul were. Let’s look at some of their instruction that bears weight on this issue. May these truths help each of us resist the negative influence of ministries and individuals (and our own sinful nature) when it comes to judging other members of Christ’s body, especially ministers/leaders that we do not know.
Logs and Specks
First of all Jesus made it very clear early in His ministry that we are not to judge others (believers or unbelievers, though by his use of “brother” in vs. 3,4 He probably has fellow believers mostly in mind here). He follows that command with the reason, which is we will be judged in the same way that we judge others. “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1,2 Sadly many of us do not really believe this will happen to us if we judge others.
Secondly, He rather emphatically stated that only those who deal regularly and effectively with the major (from Jesus’s perspective) sins in their own lives, have any shot at effectively dealing with the lesser sins in others. “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:3,4
We believers in general give way too little attention to our own need for growth, cleansing and transformation. And one of the big reasons we don’t is because we focus so much on others’ sins. The more we allow ourselves to give attention to the sins of others, the less we will feel the need to focus on our own sin. So often we are oblivious or blind to how great our own personal need is. As King Solomon soberly asked, “Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?....” (Proverbs 20:9). The implied answer is no one.
They Are Not Like Us!
This passage in Proverbs goes on to speak of something God truly hates, “….Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the Lord.” (vs. 10) We insecure believers are often troubled by leaders and ministers in other groups who don’t do ministry the way we (or our leaders) do. Perhaps their priorities in ministry are not ours. Perhaps their style is not ours. Jesus encountered this insecurity/immaturity when “John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38). Jesus’s reply was very instructive for them and for us, “But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.”
Some of the ministers being highly criticized today (mostly from people who do not know them) are in no way speaking evil of Jesus, nor are they against us.
In this massive people called His body by Jesus there is great diversity. God is glorified and undisturbed by that diversity. We are easily disturbed by it. Paul knew the church in Corinth was struggling to understand and appreciate this, and thus he taught them, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” (I Corinthians 12:4-6). A mark of maturity is being able to celebrate this diversity – finding our security solely in our relationship with Christ, and not in our being right.
Now doesn’t Jesus warn us about false prophets and teachers? And thus isn’t it a righteous thing for us to sometimes assess/discern whether one is false or not? Yes and yes! But let’s look at one of those passages. Back to Matthew 7 starting with vs. 15, Jesus both commands us to beware of false prophets and explains how to respond to their presence/threat. “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” So these people are good at disguising themselves. They easily deceive, and thus Jesus’s warning and instruction. And please note, He is speaking of false prophets “who come to you”. These are people in your life or at least in your region. Or perhaps we could stretch this to ministers or ministries who market heavily and thus who in a sense come to us through the internet.
He goes on to say, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, You will know them by their fruits.” (vs. 15-20). This most helpful instruction begins and ends with the key phrase “You will know them by their fruits.” Now Jesus doesn’t define in this passage what those fruits are. But being fairly familiar with His life and teaching, can I suggest what He probably had in mind? First I would say the fruit of their character. Are they humble? Are they Christ centered? Do they cling to Christ? Are they free from the love of money? Do they strive for moral purity and holiness in every arena of life? Second, I would say He is speaking of the fruit of their relationships. If they are married, how is their marriage? Is their wife happy and secure? Do their children love Christ and His church? Do they take personal and corporate worship seriously? Are all of them concerned for the lost? Do they see themselves as stewards of everything God has given them? Are they rightly related to the body, confessing their sins when appropriate, and shunning independence and isolation?
Now I have two things to say about this matter of fruit inspecting. First, referring back to Matthew 7:3,4 (logs and specks), if you and I are not making bearing fruit in these areas a high priority in our lives, what chance does Jesus give us of accurately assessing it in someone else’s life? Second, practically speaking, how are you going to examine the fruit in someone’s life you have never met, who lives across the country, and whom you have only read or heard about, and perhaps only seen sound bytes of their sermons? Shouldn’t we entrust any correction needed in their lives from others to come from those who actually know and relate to them?
The last thing I would say about this passage is Jesus does promise in vs. 19 that these false prophets who do not bear good fruit will be dealt with (implied by Him).
Be a Berean
So what about the call to be “good Bereans”? This term or call if you like comes from the examples of the believers in Berea as contrasted by Luke (the author of Acts) to the believers in Thessalonica. It reads, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). These believers in Berea, heard the word of the Lord first hand in corporate gatherings (whether large or small). They received this teaching and instruction with great eagerness. After the gathering, these believers evidently went home and made sure via their own study of the scriptures that these things they were taught were true to the Scriptures. The best application of this passage is in our own spheres or our own congregations it seems to me. I seriously question whether the Holy Spirit had accepting others’ critiques of ministers and ministries, whom we otherwise would know little of, in mind when He directed Luke to pen this verse.
Father, for myself and everyone who reads this blog, I ask that "....our love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that (we) may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to (Your) glory and praise." Amen! (Philippians 1:9-11)
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