Jesus, Tax Collectors, and Prostitutes—A Correction.

Lately I’ve been thinking about misused and abused passages in the Christian Scriptures. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I’m contemplating a long-term series of posts which deals with those issues one by one. I’ve already written about Matthew 7:1 (why we should stop quoting “Do not judge” the way we do), and I’ve got four or five more lined up in the queue. Just this morning I encountered another, and I wanted to take a few brief minutes to sketch the wrongheaded ways we talk about Jesus spending time with “tax collectors and sinners” from Matthew 11:19.

jesus-with-sinnersIn my experience, I have encountered this language used in the following ways, and to argue the following things:

  • The bulk of Jesus’ time was spent with outcasts.
  • Because Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, so should we.
  • Because Jesus hung out with outcasts, those church programs or events that don’t explicitly welcome outcasts are a waste of time.
  • In fact, if Jesus came back now he would avoid modern churches because he’d be seeking these outcasts. Not only this, but we wouldn’t find him at church because he’d be at the clubs, bars, maybe even the strip clubs.

In practice, the (Scriptural) fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners is combined an implied “WWJD” to criticize, condemn, and blame the church for perceived inadequacy. To put it bluntly, “tax collectors and prostitutes” becomes the litmus test for the orthodoxy of your ministry practices. Those church practices which explicitly welcome the social outcast are those which are most in line with Jesus’ expressed ministry purposes. Those church practices which do not target social outcasts are Pharisaical and self-serving. If “tax collectors and sinners” is not the answer to the question “Would Jesus do what you are doing in your church?” then your Church is condemned as inadequate.

I want to address this kind of thinking from two perspectives—the first, from that of Jesus’ time. The second, from that of the company Jesus kept.

Let’s begin then with the matter of how Jesus allocated his time. Did Jesus spend the bulk of his time with outcasts? Simply put, the answer is no. When we read the Scriptures what we see, first of all, is that Jesus spent the vast bulk of his time with his disciples. The primary allocation of the time of Jesus was to the group he was training to serve alongside him. What is the next allocation of his time? We read in Luke (5:16) that Jesus would often go off to lonely places and pray in solitude. Prayer was another significant element of Jesus’ time. What is next? In the Scriptures we see Jesus healing the sick, preaching the good news, and teaching the crowds. When it comes down to it, there are only a few, rare times when we see Jesus explicitly “hanging out” with the social outcasts of his day. He eats with Matthew and Matthew’s tax collector friends in Matthew 9. He eats with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. And what is especially noteworthy in both those cases is that Jesus is eating with those men after they have been called to follow Jesus. The criteria for their table-fellowship with Jesus was not their sin, but Jesus himself.

The BibleThat, in fact, brings us to the matter of the company Jesus kept. It is incorrect to imagine that Jesus scans the crowd for outcasts and then seeks them out especially for his table fellowship. It is also incorrect to assume that Jesus prioritized his companionship for sinners as a category of their own. In fact, what we see is not that Jesus prioritizes sinners so much as seekers. It is not that the sinners make for especially great company, it is that the unifying factor of the group is that they are all seeking Jesus together. To put it plainly, Jesus hung out with the people who wanted to hang out with Jesus. That’s why he says that bit in Matthew 9:12, that “it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus is the great physician, and the qualification for his company is not the kind of sickness so much as it is the acknowledgement of need.

In the end, the central error in our misuse of the language of “tax collectors and sinners” is simply this—that in reading this passage we have placed our focus on the sinner, when we ought to have placed our focus on Christ.

A final word. In terms of praxis—if we are truly going to do as Jesus does—right application of this passage would mean that we are focused not on the particular sins of an individual so much as we are focused on that individual’s receptivity to Jesus. We seek out anyone who is willing to hear the good news of new life in Christ Jesus, regardless of their social status or particular kind of sin. And this brings into focus the real danger to our church programs—not their homogeneity or socioeconomic breakdown—but that somehow, even subtly, we might come to believe or act as if we no longer need the doctor. Pharisaism is not the lack of obvious social outcasts in our fellowships; Pharisaism is forgetting that we ourselves are sinners in need of Jesus.

2 Peter 1 and the Furnishing of Faith

This is an exact replication of Peter's likeness.

This is an exact replication of Peter’s likeness.

This past summer I attended a pastor’s conference where one of the keynote speakers spent several of his sessions preaching from the text of 2 Peter 1. His goal, as best I could tell, was to speak about the moral formation of pastors, and he was using the list of characteristics in 2 Peter 1:5-9 toward this purpose. In case you are unfamiliar with that list, the NIV renders that passage as follows:

5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

I confess a few problems. Three to be precise. First, is that of all the New Testament books, 2 Peter is the most likely candidate for, shall we say, lack of authenticity. Many scholars don’t believe that Peter had a hand in writing this letter, and there are a number of reasons for this. For example, a large section of the book is exactly copied in Jude, which means either that Jude was written first and Peter borrowed from him, or that Peter wrote and Jude borrowed. Either way, it’s a little troubling. For another matter, the business where Peter defends both Scripture (1:19-21) and Paul (3:15-16) feels a little strained. It is only later, inauthentic books that attempt to shore up their own authority with these kinds of claims. That isn’t to suggest that 2 Peter doesn’t belong in the Bible, but only that we have to read it with some special attention.

My second problem with 2 Peter 1 is that I find this list a little tiresome and daunting. Whenever I hear it I feel a kind of undue pressure. Does this mean that in addition to all the other ethical practices I am meant to keep—the Sermon on the Mount, the Fruits of the Spirit, and so forth—that this metric of adding to virtue A virtue B, and to virtue B virtue C and so forth is the way forward in faith? Something about the math of the matter leaves me sour, especially the sense that in order to get to love as a quality I have to accomplish tasks A, B, C, D, and E. This seems like a contradiction to the witness of Scripture elsewhere. Third and finally, the conference speaker wasn’t particularly good, and although he was very enthusiastic the level of his energy, this, combined with the relative poverty of his insights, left me feeling rather dry and nonplussed in the audience. His interpretation of 2 Peter 1, in other words, did not incite me to greater moral formation.

Reader's Greek Bible

I carry this with me at all times, just in case.

So, as is often the case, while he preached I opened my Greek Bible and began to work my way through the text in question. What I found in 2 Peter 1—as is often the case when I attend to the original Greek text—opened my eyes and encouraged my faith. Let me see if I can share the same encouragement with you.

The message of 2 Peter begins in verse 3 and the first paragraph runs through verse 11. Other translations do an injustice when they break the paragraph into pieces—the whole section from verse 3 to 11 is really one thought. Permit me to offer (or maybe even forgive me for this) my own translation here. Things may sound a little wooden because I am being intentionally literal. Also, please note that the words in bold are directly repeated words and ideas in the Greek text. Peter writes,

Since all things of His divine power—the things for life and for reverence—have been given to us through the knowledge of the one who calls us to His own glory and goodness (through whom the honorable and great promises have been given, in order that through these things you might share fellowship with the divine nature, escaping from corruption in the world’s desires)—now, regarding this very thing, making making every effort in all haste, supply in your faith goodness, and in goodness knowledge, and in knowledge self-control, and in self-control obedience, and in obedience reverence, and in reverence brotherly love, and in brotherly love love. For these things are possessions to you and increasing, making nothing idle or fruitless for the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in the person for whom these things have not come, he is blind and shortsighted, holding forgetfulness of purification from his old sins. Wherefore more, brothers, hasten to make secure your calling and election, for doing these things you will never ever stumble. For thus access will be richly supplied to you for the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the funny things about the Greek language that make it difficult to translate into English is the way it uses verbs. In any given sentence you can have one main verb with a whole host of attached clauses—the trick is that the main verb doesn’t always have to be at the beginning. In the passage above, the first main verb we get is in verse 5, were Peter commands us to “supply.” That means that the whole of the first two verses are clauses explaining this action of supplying. What this means is that we can neatly summarize the main idea of the passage as follows: since all things of the Divine power have been given, therefore supply the following to your faith. Because of verses 3 and 4, perform the command of verse 5. The grammar points to the importance of verses 5-7.

As I looked closer at verses 5-7, however, more of my curiosity was aroused. The preposition used between each element is en, meaning ‘in’ or ‘within.’ This seems like an odd choice to translate as “to” since there are other Greek prepositions that can mean “to” (such as eis or even epi). That made me want to look up the translation options for the word which the NIV translated “add,” but which I have translated “supply” above. In Greek, that word is epicoregeo, and other immediate options for translation are “provide” “give” “grant” and “support.” This range of options warranted some further digging, and what I found was this—the primary meaning of the word is to “supply” or “furnish,” and its special usage is the action of a husband providing for his wife. This discovery piqued my interest.

I looked at other occurrences of the word in the New Testament, and more things came together for me. Of these (there are 5 total, including the two in our passage above), Paul’s use of the word in Galatians 3:5 was especially arresting. Paul writes, “So then, does He who furnishes you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” What a concept! The Church, who is the bride of Christ, has been supplied (epicoregeo) by the Spirit. Taking from the special usage of the word, Paul is implying that the Spirit is like the support offered by God to we who are His Bride. He is our deposit, our household expense account, if the image is not too irreverent.

Concentric CirclesWith a fresh understanding of the word “supply” and its possible implications, I returned to 2 Peter 1 and reread the list. Things then began to shift. This is not a list of ethical addition at all. My faith is not a matter of adding x to y and to z in order to achieve love. Instead of addition, the dominant image is one of concentric circles. Faith is the overall picture, the biggest circle, but at the centre of that circle is love itself. The action of “supplying,” then, is the action making provision for the needs of my faith through these qualities. So, within my faith I supply goodness, and within goodness I supply knowledge, and within my knowledge I supply self-control, and within my self-control I supply obedience, and within my obedience I supply reverence, and within my reverence I supply brotherly love, and at the absolute centre of my being, the heart-of-hearts from which I operate all my faith, I am to supply love. The progression of my ethics is not adding action to action, but of a sanctified centre working outwards through all my behavior. The Christian life, in other words, is not a matter of adding qualities to attain to love, but of centering your life on love and then growing into these other qualities.

Suddenly, this passage in 2 Peter which had seemed obscure and, quite frankly, a little difficult, resolved into a clear message of Christian ethics. God is calling us into His Divine nature—to participation in His image and likeness. How are we commanded to respond to that call? By placing love at the centre of our lives, furnishing our faith with it as a husband furnishes living arrangements for his bride. If we reject this process, we are blind, shortsighted, and forgetful of our salvation.

My little Greek study made the conference more enjoyable. It overturned my previous thoughts on this passage. And it even began to change my perception of the second letter of Peter as being something of a fringe text. Indeed, read this way it would appear that the message of 2 Peter 1:3-11 is at the very centre of the Christian ethical life.

The Law of Forgiveness

clenched-fist-silhouette_21-56776952“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15

According to Jesus, we don’t have a choice about forgiveness. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. This is explicit. There is no wiggle room. There is no option. Forgiveness for the Christian is a command, not a choice.

It’s not like this is the only place where Jesus says this kind of thing. When Peter asks about forgiving his brother seven times, Jesus drops an ideological bomb on him in response—not seven, but seventy times seven (in other words, so often that you’re not counting anymore). Then he tells that chilling parable about the guy who owed a lot, was forgiven, and then went on to choke the other guy who owed him a little. The story finishes with the lord, moved to anger, handing “him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” Wow—but that’s not all, because Jesus completes the parable with the following stunner: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Huh? If we don’t forgive from the heart the Father of Jesus will hand us over to the torturers to make us repay what we are owed? Not forgiving others invalidates our own forgiveness like that? Apparently this forgiveness business is serious stuff.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the passage immediately preceding the scripture quoted at the top, there is a subtle hint to this—one that our traditional translations obscure. You’ve heard this clause as, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One small problem—the word “forgive” in the second part is in the perfect tense. That means it’s something that has been done and completed already. A better translation would be, “Forgive us our transgressions as we have already forgiven those who transgressed against us.” Before we even ask for forgiveness, Jesus commands, we must deal with our own forgiveness issues. This is serious, tough stuff.

It’s such tough stuff that some have attempted to write these passages off entirely by dividing the teachings of Jesus into two categories—they argue that all the teachings before the cross fall under law, while the Christian life is all about grace. Passages like these three certainly have a force like law, and this equips these readers to dismiss them with a clear conscience. “Jesus came to free us from the law,” they say, “and these words are law. Therefore we aren’t bound by them.”

This seems inadequate, even laying aside the fact that such a reading invalidates most of the New Testament. So, presuming that as followers of Christ we must take the words of Christ with utter seriousness, how will we make sense of such a statement? What do we do with this “law” of forgiveness?

Sermon on the Mount_Altar in Copenhagen ChurchLet’s begin with the immediate context—the Sermon on the Mount. The first time Jesus lays down this law of forgiveness is in the section of the Sermon where he talks about three aspects of the Christian religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each of those teachings he makes a specific point to talk about not performing these actions “to be seen by men.” Instead, we must focus our attention solely on our Father “who sees what is in secret.” Our model for bad spiritual practice in each case is the Pharisees, who love to give in order to be seen, who love to pray in public places, and who love to disfigure their appearances when they fast. This is noteworthy: in each case the Pharisees are taking advantage of their power—whether status, visibility, or position—in order to make themselves look better. This is perhaps most clear for us in the passage on almsgiving. The only way to be seen giving to someone in need is to make the need of the other person highly visible. If I were to give today in the Pharisee fashion, then I could stand in front of my church, summon a needy member to come forward, then make a show of offering this poor person some portion of my grand resources, perhaps in the form of an oversized cheque. In that circumstance I would look big at the other person’s expense—my magnification would be one of perspective only, a righteousness achieved through injustice. This seems to be the heart of Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees. It is a rebuke of their abuse of power.

To take this and apply it to the other three teachings is straightforward—we cannot ever give, pray, or fast in such a way as to either shame others or seek to make ourselves look good. Our religious life is designed to focus our attention on God alone, and not our fellow man; that is its “secrecy.”

So then, how does this impact the law of forgiveness? Observe that in the middle of a passage about the abuse and right use of power—especially religious power—Jesus speaks a word about human forgiveness. The placement of Jesus’ command begs the question: if we are not to use our religious power to make ourselves look good or others look bad, how are we to use our religious power? The answer is forgive. This is the proper use of power—and not just a proper use, but the mandate of human power. We are not in control of our circumstances or our futures, of what will happen tomorrow, of what others will do to us—but the thing over which we do have control is whether or not we will forgive. In this place, the place where we do possess control, our Lord commands us to forgive.

Christian in Pilgrim's ProgressEven the word for forgive is interesting—it is aphiemi and it means “let go.” In the place where you do have power, hold your hands openly. In the place where you might hold a grudge, or be tempted to keep something, you must let it go. In the same way that we are commanded to trust our Lord with provision for our lives, we are also commanded to trust him completely with the wounds and grievances we bear. We entrust absolutely everything to our Lord and King, and perhaps our greatest obstacle to receiving and living out these words—the reason we ignore them and invent theological motifs to remove them from consideration—is that we recoil in fear from the radical submission required by absolute forgiveness.

The command to forgive is a command that humbles, convicts, and challenges God’s people. You can never shame someone when you are forgiving them. It is not possible to make yourself look good when you forgive someone from the heart. Forgiveness is the power that makes us powerless, and this, perhaps, is one of the innermost foundations of this thing called “Church.” How will we survive if we do not forgive one another? How will we preach a message of forgiveness from sin if we refuse to forgive at home? Will we allow our lack of forgiveness to invalidate the message we are commanded to bring? Would we be like that wicked servant who choked the other servant for a pittance, forgetting that we have been forgiven an amount that cannot possibly be repaid?

The Law of Forgiveness. Lex Aphesis. The law that breaks, and makes, the People of God.

Stop Quoting Matthew 7:1. No, Seriously, Stop It.

Tied HandsIf you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a hundred times. Somewhere in public discourse a Christian is speaking about some principle of the Christian faith—the exclusivity of Christ, Biblical sexual ethics, abortion. In response a person arguing against the Christian perspective (and wishing to silence his or her interlocutor) quotes Jesus back. The quote is Matthew 7:1, and typically comes off a little like this: “Jesus said ‘Do not judge.’”

Ha ha. Case closed. Time to shut up, O Christian. Your leader tells you not to judge. So there.

I’ve had it with people quoting Matthew 7:1. I’m sick of the casual smugness with which people misuse Jesus. I’m frustrated on behalf of my fellow Christians who seem to be genuinely stymied by this tactic, reduced sometimes to sputtering incoherence or muted in a well-intentioned but misapplied obedience. It’s time to clear the ground around Matthew 7:1 and set the record straight about just what we Christians have been commanded to do by our Master and King.

Sawing the Branch You're Sitting OnLet’s begin with what’s obvious. The person who says to you, “Don’t judge” has just judged you. Think about this for a moment. To say, “You shouldn’t judge” is itself a judgment, and this fact is quite conveniently overlooked in these public discourses. What is more, I find that the person who tells you not to judge is quick to make other, more culturally acceptable judgments—he or she will be more than happy to pronounce that people shouldn’t drink or drive, or that we should cut carbon emissions to save the planet. These are judgments as well—they just happen to be socially acceptable ones. And so the real reason why such a person quotes Jesus in response to you is because he or she doesn’t like what you’re saying, “I have judged your judgment,” he says, “and I don’t like it!”

That is the first irony about this passage, and the primary reason why pretty much nobody should ever quote those three words to anyone else during a dialogue—to utter the phrase “Do not judge” is to pass judgment. It is fundamentally self-defeating and hypocritical.

This leads us to wonder what on earth Jesus is actually saying, and to understand that we’ll have to quote the whole passage and not just those three convenient words. The paragraph starts in verse 1 and ends in verse 6. Look at the whole thing now:

1“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. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 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. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

If you read that carefully, you’ll be aware that there is a subtle irony here—namely, that as soon as Jesus tells us not to judge, he then goes on to give advice on how to judge. Let that soak in for a moment. Jesus, after saying “do not judge” teaches us how to judge. This means, at the least, that whatever Jesus means by the words “do not judge,” he can’t mean never to speak in public discourse—to accomplish that would mean, essentially, ceasing to speak at all (which is quite possibly what our non-Christian and ill-informed Christian interlocutors desire).

When we look at these verses carefully, I think we discover four principles of Christian judgment—or, rather, four principles for making judgments as a Christian and in Christian community. We must remember that this teaching is situated within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ magnum opus for Christian living. These are words for the people of God living as the people of God alongside one another.

So, what are these four principles? I call them the principles of Disposition, of Standards, of Priority, and of Propriety.

#1 The Principle of Disposition

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

This first principle deals with our posture in community, and is drawn directly from verses 1-2—that we are not to judge and that we are to be cautious with the standard we use. Why should this be? Well, the second verse informs the first. To judge someone justly requires that I have the following characteristics: I must have authority to judge that person, I must have full knowledge of that person’s life and situation, I must have a perfect grasp of the standards of right and wrong, and I must myself be in a position of perfect rightness relative to that standard. Obviously I lack all four of those characteristics and am disqualified as a judge. So do you, and so does everyone on earth. Nobody on earth is equipped to make perfectly just judgments. And that means that my disposition must change relative to others. I, by virtue of my lack of omniscience and sin must never place myself in a position superior to another person. I am not a judge.

This is a first principle of preserving Christian community—that we are, in a Divine sense, all equal under the law, equally damned, equally recipients of grace, and that there is only one Judge, and we dare not attempt to usurp His place. The best we can do is come alongside one another. This will mean speaking with humility, rather than power.

#2 The Principle of Standards
This second principle is inseparably bound to the first—they are arguably the same sentence. In this second verse we are given the means by which we are to judge one another—that is, by means of a measuring rod. In essence, if we are going to make judgments we must ensure that we are appealing to the correct standard. That standard, for the Christian, is the life and teachings of Jesus our Lord. He is the perfect, omniscient, authorized judge of all humanity. His is the perfect life against which all our lives will be judged, and his words to us are the instructions against which our conduct, choices, and obedience will be measured on the Last Day. Christ is the measuring rod for human life.

The error of our ways is when we apply our selves as the standard of judgment against others. With the measuring rod you measure, Jesus states clearly, you yourself will be measured. If the standard you use to judge others is your self, then you will find yourself judged as well. Consequently the judgments will be self-defeating. Judge the wealth of others, and you will be judged by your own abuse of wealth. Judge the beauty of others, and you will be revealed for the shallow, image-conscious person you are. Judge the economic life-situation of a person, and you will be judged for the ignorance you have of your own economics.

All this to say that making judgments as a Christian means always appealing to absolute standards—the life of Christ, the teachings of the Scriptures, the Doctrines of the Church. “Absolute” in that previous sentence is synonymous with “objective”—the standard has to be outside of your self. We do not judge based on opinion, or preference, or personal discomfort, but on what we believe to be the revealed will of God. Will we be perfect? Of course not, but that may be precisely why we have the next principle.

#3 The Principle of Priority
Log in the EyeThis principle comes from verses 3-5 where Jesus describes the procedure for log surgery. In short, we are commanded to judge ourselves first. Quite simple, really: before you go barging into someone else’s life in the community (especially that of faith), ensure that you have applied the perfect standard of Jesus to your self. If you discover that you have a log in your eye—some glaring omission of obedience—get that sorted first. Then, Jesus says, “you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Nobody wants a speck of sawdust in his or her eye—it is profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, the only thing worse than a speck of sawdust is an unhelpful idiot trying to help me remove it.

The point is not to never make judgments, but rather to make judgments that are at the same time clear and empathetic. Judgments must be clear because blundering about with logs in our eyes only hurts other people and renders us hypocrites. Removing the log removes the hypocrisy and increases clarity. Then, once we’ve performed our log surgery, we’ll be more empathetic with judging others. We’ll know what it feels like and be far more tender, gently assisting the brother or sister with the speck. Much of Christian discourse would improve with a little more empathy—that is, remembering, as we pronounce judgments, however true they may be, that hearing them can be painful and difficult for others. We must imaginatively consider the impact that Christian teaching will have on the world both before and as we pronounce it. Then we’ll be effective speck-helpers for others.

#4 The Principle of Propriety
This final principle comes from the somewhat confusing final verse (7:6) where Jesus says that bit about throwing pearls before swine, or giving holy things to dogs. To state this simply, we are being taught to use propriety when executing our judgments. In other words, only apply your judgments to people who will listen to you. Only judge the willing. Make good decisions about when and to whom we speak Christian truth. Not every situation requires us to speak. Not every person will be receptive to our faith. Not every believer in the Church will be amenable to Godly correction. So make an initial judgment. After all, the knowledge you have of God, Jesus, and the Kingdom is holy and sacred, it is like fine and precious jewels. Offer these jewels of Godly wisdom to people who are profane, and not only will they not know what to do with them, but very likely they might turn on you because of it.

You must make a judgment, then, about who you will judge. Is this a person who will listen to me? Is this a person who will honor the teachings of Jesus? If the answer is no, then you don’t need to worry about correcting them. Your disposition, your right standard, and your log surgery will be meaningless. You can still love the person, and maybe you can plant some seeds of God’s truth in his or her life, but by the words of Jesus you have permission to keep your judgments to yourself. In other words, don’t lose sleep over people who ignore God’s word.

Final Thoughts
PearlDisposition, Standards, Priority, and Propriety: these are the four principles of judgment that Jesus gives us in this passage. With these four principles in place, we will use the knowledge we have been given by God’s grace in a way that accords with God’s plan. We will employ our power in a way that honors God and builds up community. After all, when we come alongside one another, when we come looking at Jesus together, and when we come tenderly, those are the conditions under which a person will feel not reprimanded, but loved. Under those conditions a person will feel grateful that you loved them enough to bring the word of God into their lives. It is under those conditions that the Church acts like the Church for one another.

But outside the Church, what should you do the next time someone quotes Matthew 7:1 to you? You have a number of options. First, you can determine whether you are offering “pearls to swine” (don’t call your conversation partner a pig, please). If you don’t have cause to believe that this person will hear you, then I think you have permission to walk away from the conversation. Second—and if you have permission to speak—you might remind the person helpfully that he or she has just made a judgment, and ask them by which standard they are judging you. That could lead to an informative conversation about authority and sources of knowledge. Third, you can point to the remainder of the passage (Matthew 7) and apply principles two and three—point out that you are appealing to an absolute standard (the words of Jesus), and describe how you yourself are subject to whatever Christian principle you are expositing.

But above and beyond these, a safe bet for faithful Christians in any discourse is to have a ready grasp of Scripture. If your conversation partner quotes Scripture to you, take advantage of the quotation to talk more about Scripture. If they are claiming to hold Jesus as an authority (even in trying to dismiss you), use the door they have opened to speak more about the authority of Jesus—talk about his Divinity, or his claims of exclusivity, or his absolute power. But do this with gentleness and respect, having sanctified Christ in your heart before you even speak. Which is something you should have done before you got involved in that Facebook dialogue anyways.

[Note: I’m thinking about writing on other commonly misused passages. If you have one you’d like me to write about, send me a note or drop it off in the comment section.]

The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

(Note: The contents of this post reflect a real conversation I had with a friend. However, I have edited it into simple questions and answers for readability. He contributed as much, or more, to the “Answers” as I did, even though they’re in my voice below. For the full context you’ll want to read the original post, here.)

"Excuse me, I have a question."

“Excuse me, I have a question.”

Q: You’ve claimed that the Weaker Brother Principle isn’t about personal sin but about community life, but can’t we still use the Weaker Brother Principle for some kinds of issues which are cultural in origin? For example, what about the church from the 40s and 50s–no drinking, dancing, playing cards, or cinema? If the conscience determines something is sin, isn’t it still sin, and doesn’t the principle still apply?

A: The answer to the question is “Yes, we can.” But we can only do it very advisedly.

The problem is twofold. In the first place, we must object to the manipulative use of the Weaker Brother Principle to maintain a centre while explaining outliers. The centre (who are proscribing behaviours) are by definition the weaker brothers–that’s how Paul has identified them in the passage. But they don’t apply the principle that way–they don’t actually think they are weak. To them it must be made clear that the proscription of activities which have no Scriptural or historical ground as sin is a weakness of faith (i.e., rather than an inward reality, faith is ‘proved’ by a set of predetermined actions–“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.”) The Weaker Brother Principle is, first of all, a public rebuke of sin. That’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned that Romans was originally read out loud. Don’t you see? Paul is publicly identifying one group of believers in the church as weak, and this is not a compliment but a rebuke.

The second problem is with the libertine use of the Weaker Brother Principle to permit some people in the church to abandon holiness in profligacy. These are not exercising their freedom in service but in rebellion. They cannot possibly fulfill the command because they have no actual strength of faith to lend to the brother who is weak in faith.

So, to round this out, for the Weaker Brother Principle to work properly there must be both these elements of rebuke for weakness of faith as well as call to service for those strong in faith. The Weaker Brother Principle exists to strengthen community, not to explain sin.

Q: Still, what about the conscience? If I can’t look at sexual content in movies because I recognize in myself that opening those doors will lead to sin, am I not still weaker? Are you not still stronger?

SmokingA: Perhaps you are weaker, and perhaps I am stronger, but that weakness and strength has nothing to do with our faith. This, in focus, was also the problem with the understanding of faith and holiness in the church from the 40s to 80s (or so). Leaders in the church defined ‘faith’ as a set of actions–it was a way of determining who was in and out of fellowship. If you drank, smoked, and danced, you were clearly out; if you avoided those activities you were clearly in. Public perceptions of sin, in other words, came to determine who belonged or didn’t belong in the church. But these were all about outward conduct, and had little to do with inward reality (although the two are, admittedly, linked).

In other words, honoring your conscience by not presenting you with sexual material doesn’t fall under the Weaker Brother Principle–it falls, rather, under the law of love from Romans 13–for if I am loving you, how can I possibly want to do you harm? Again, this is simple courtesy, not necessarily accommodation to weakness.

Q: But what about sins of conscience? What does it mean for one person to drink and another to abstain? For one person to view cinematic content that another must avoid?

BeerA: The answer lies in self-knowledge. Let’s take alcohol as an example. Drinking, we know, is not in itself sinful (although drunkenness is clearly proscribed by Scripture). For you and me, we can visit over beer with no ill effect (quite the contrary, when we visit over beer we have conversations like this one!). But for another brother who struggles with alcoholism that beer–or even the smell of the beer–may be enough to tempt him into falling away from his sobriety. Now sin for our alcoholic brother is not in the alcohol itself but in the moment when he chooses against his conscience and his own limitations. Sin on our part is placing before him a condition which could make him stumble despite our knowing of his limitations. In matters of personal conscience, therefore, if the Weaker Brother Principle obtains it obtains at the level of self-knowledge. You are aware of your personal limitations when it comes to content of movies, as am I of my own for that matter, but we have different limits. It is not that I am particularly ‘free’ to watch whatever I wish–I, equally, am under constraints, but I have to attend to my own conscience to know when I am watching for the right or wrong reasons. That, really, is where sins of conscience fall–not in the activity itself (which, if it is a candidate for this kind of activity, cannot be a sin proscribed by Scripture), but in the limits of the conscience for the individual believer. Now if–and this is a big if–if the Weaker Brother Principle is going to work, then my strength of self-knowledge and maturity of conscience must be converted in accommodation to serve the weakness of your self-knowledge and immaturity of conscience. The goal, for us both, will be greater Christlikeness. But just to clarify, here again the failings of applying the principle to personal sin arise–in what way is an alcoholic’s inability to drink alcohol a ‘weakness of faith’? In what way is the gambling addict’s inability to play cards a ‘weakness of faith’? The Principle can only help to strengthen community, when it comes to matters of conscience and personal sin, when we are strengthening one another in self-knowledge in Christ.

Q: Okay, but how does this all tie in with Paul’s words about idolatry and idol’s feasts in 1 Corinthians 6?

A: It’s funny you should bring that up–weren’t you the one who was just talking to me about Helmut Thielicke’s thoughts on this very subject? In fact, here’s the book now, and here are the relevant paragraphs:

Helmut ThielickeThe statements occur in a discussion of the question whether the Christian may eat meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods. In brief, Paul’s position is as follows. In principle there can be no objection, since we have only one God, the Father of Jesus Christ (8:6). To that extent there are for us no other gods. No sacrifices can be made to beings that do not exist and have no significance for us. Hence the meat offered to them is only meat for us. It has no sacral implication. It is simply a means of nourishment. In principle eating idol meat is an adiaphoron, a matter of indifference.

If nevertheless Paul asks the Corinthians to refrain from eating it, this is for different reasons. Christians might participate whose spiritual understanding is undeveloped so that they do not yet see that idols are unreal. Their situation is thus very different from that of mature Christians who can eat without scruples. Since the immature still regard idols as realities, by eating they would be deciding against Christ, not accepting him as the only Lord. Hence those for whom Christ died might be destroyed (8:11). For they would be coming under the power of demons and letting ungodly forces come between them and the one Lord (10:18-22). In simple terms, the reasons why Christians should abstain from idol meats are not theological (there can be no theological reasons in view of the unreality of idols). They are ethical reasons which demand regard for weak and spiritually immature brethren.

The difference between the theological and ethical aspects reflects the ambivalence of what is said about the gods.

Theologically, since there is only one God, the gods are a negligible quantity. Ethically, however, their nothingness can suddenly become a real power which can captivate the weaker brother, who is not yet rendered immune by faith, if he comes under their influence (8:10ff). Perhaps one might put it this way. Whereas God calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), unbelief calls what is not as thought it were. It enables the idol’s nothingness to become a demonic power (1 Corinthians 10:20). Its nothingness is intrinsically an occasion for achieving freedom over it (10:23, 29). The moment, however, that God is no longer the one and only Lord for me, I am deprived of my freedom by what is outside God. This takes his place as a demonic alter ego. I come under the sway of a power that is nothing in itself but is something for me. It is because the mature Christian cannot let this happen that he must freely abstain from anything that might rob another of his freedom (10:24, 33). (Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 96, bold emphasis added)

I think Thielicke ties up our discussion nicely. These aren’t questions of sin per se (i.e., they are not “theological” questions), they are questions of idolatry and culture. Those who are free in Christ recognize that Christ is Lord over all and are free in their conduct. Those who are not yet mature in Christ continue to view the world and culture as having power. This is their weakness (one worthy of public rebuke!), and viewing these things as powers they give to them power. The idol meat is not idolatrous because it is idol meat (because an idol is nothing at all); it is idolatrous because the weak-faithed believer, out of his weakness, gives it power. The Weaker Brother Principle, then, is really about applying my strength of faith to help weaker brothers gain victory in Christ. And this is not a victory of conduct-holiness (proscribing certain behaviours, which is often how we speak of victory), but rather a victory that comes from the ingested knowledge of Christ’s absolute lordship over all things, powers, cultures, histories, events, and so forth. Naturally, when Christ indwells us in power more fully our conduct will change accordingly, holiness being a byproduct of Christlikeness, but the metrics of holiness are outside the Weaker Brother Principle, which is ultimately about knowledge of Christ’s absolute Lordship leading to service for the saints.