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Friday, July 30, 2010

Judging, Throwing Stones, and Biblical Confrontation

When I was younger it seemed obvious that the most widely known verse in the Bible was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
However, in recent years I’ve heard two other verses (or paraphrases of verses) cited more often than John 3:16 in both the secular and the nominally Christian worlds.  First, Matt 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”; and second, John 8:7b, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…”  These verses are cited most often when some kind of behavior is identified as sinful, or when one is confronted with his or her own sin.  The implication behind such citations is that it is illegitimate to be concerned with or to address any sin other than your own. 
A couple of weeks ago in our message on Joshua 22, I stated that one way that the church maintains its fidelity to the Lord is by watching over one another and lovingly confronting each other’s sin.  In light of the two verses above, did I err in my interpretation of Joshua 22?  In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that Joshua 22 was not the first piece of Scripture I have exposited in which I encouraged the body that it is appropriate to keep one another accountable and to confront sin in one another’s lives.  Do John 8:7 and Matthew 7:1 contradict that teaching?  Is it illegitimate to be concerned with any sin other than my own?
First of all, let’s consider some other passages that would indicate that we should lovingly confront sin.  Perhaps the most widely known passage on this subject is the “church discipline” passage found in Matthew 18:15-17:  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” 
Could it be clearer than that?  If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.  This passage not only commands private confrontation, but increasingly public confrontation if the brother refuses to repent.  Now, that poses a problem.  Matthew 18:15-17 presents a perfect contradiction with the popular understanding of Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7.  But there is more.
Luke 17:3b: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”  The passage in which this verse is found is an exhortation by Jesus to forgive a brother no matter how many times he sins against you.  But forgiveness only comes after the brother has repented, and his repentance is known only after his sin has been confronted, or as this passage says, rebuked. 
In Acts 20:31 in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders, he says, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”  The Greek word translated “admonish” here means “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct.”  In other words, Paul confronted them.
Speaking of Paul, in Galatians 2:11-14, he tells of his public confrontation of Peter for the sin of hypocrisy. 
There is still more:
1Thessalonians 5:14: And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  “Admonish” here is the same word used in Acts 20:31.
Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
1Thessalonians 5:12: We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.
2Thessalonians 3:14-15: 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.  Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.  Here “warn” is the same word translated “admonish” above.
And finally, 1 Corinthians 5 dedicates a whole chapter to the issue of sin within the church.  The body at Corinth included a man who was having a sexual affair with his stepmother and the church was tolerating it.  In v3, Paul says of the man, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.  Later in v12, he asks, Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 
If we took all of these contexts and put them in a row, we would see that confronting sin in the life of another believer is good, respectable, loving, wise, and commanded.  So how are we to reconcile that with the notions “judge not, that you be not judged,” and “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone”?
As always, context is key.  Considering how Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 are typically quoted, it is questionable whether or not the people quoting them have any idea about the contexts in which they are found.  The context of each makes it clear that the issue being dealt with in those passages is nothing like the kind of loving confrontation so obviously commanded in the New Testament. 
Key to each of these passages – both those cited above and Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 – is the intent behind the action.  In Matt 18:15-17, the intent is to “win” the brother, that is, to lead him to repentance.  In Luke 17:3 also, the intent is to bring the brother to repentance.  The idea is to edify the church by purging sin from its midst and to edify the sinning brother by leading him to repentance.  There is no malevolent intent.  This is not stone-throwing or mudslinging.  This kind of confrontation seeks the good of the church and the one confronted, not the condemnation or destruction of the one confronted. 
Yet what was the intent behind the confrontations referred to in Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7?  First of all, Matthew 7:1 is part of the famous Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that consistently holds up a standard of true righteousness contrasted with the false self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus says in Matt 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That piece of information about the context of Matt 7:1 is crucial.  What is being described in Matt 7:1 is the kind of self-righteous and unmerciful condemnation of others based on one’s own human standard, a condemnation that was practiced by the scribes and Pharisees.  There are numerous occasions in the gospels where we find the Pharisees doing this, not the least of which just happens to be the other passage we are dealing with, John 8. 
That Jesus is referring to hypocritical judgment like that practiced by the Pharisees is clear if we look at the following verses in Matt 7: 1 "Judge not, that you be not judged.  2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?  5 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.
The Pharisees sought to condemn others while ignoring their own glaring sin.  The word “hypocrite” in the book of Matthew is a distinction reserved for the Pharisees.  In Matthew 23, 6 times Jesus cries, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  Thus, what is being forbidden in Matthew 7:1 is not the loving, edifying confrontation commanded elsewhere, but the self-justified, self-righteous, hypocritical condemnation exemplified by the Pharisees.  Intent is key.
Likewise with John 8.  There we find the scribes and Pharisees bringing to Jesus a woman caught in adultery (v3).  They challenge Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (vv4-5).
The intention of the scribes and Pharisees was not to bring this woman to repentance nor even that justice be served.  How do we know this?  V6 tells us explicitly what their intent was: This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.  They wanted Jesus to have to choose: He could have compassion for the woman and defend her (which the Jews knew was His nature), or He could uphold the law of Moses.  If He chose to save the woman, the Pharisees could then accuse Him of contradicting the law.  But Jesus knew their hearts and brilliantly turned the tables on them.  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, much like what we saw in Matthew 7:1.
These words from Jesus in John 8:7 were spoken in a very specific situation to a very specific intent in the hearts of the Pharisees.  We should no more take them as a moratorium on confrontation than we should take the words of Matthew 19:21 to be a command to sell all our possessions in order to get into heaven. 
In short, the confrontations addressed in Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 are completely different from the kind of confrontation commanded in Matthew 18:15-17, Luke 17:3, etc.  We ought not confront hypocritically, that is, condemning others while tolerating glaring, unrepentant sin in our own lives.  Rather, confrontation should be done in love and humility with the intent of edifying both the sinning believer and the church.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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