Article by Matthew S. Price.
Discipline is a bad word. Within our increasingly inclusive society and even within “Bible-believing” churches, the idea of discipline makes people uncomfortable and in some cases, downright angry. When we think about “discipline,” we’re tempted to think about rules and regulations and severe punishments for not following them. Is there anything really surprising about this? Honestly, who really enjoys being corrected or looks forward to being called out for being wrong? It’s part of innate and sinful human nature to respond to correction and criticism with embarrassment, bitterness, and sometimes anger. But are these visions and definitions of discipline accurate, especially when referring to biblical, godly discipline?
It’s not hard to imagine the scene. A church member approaches a close friend over some serious accusations of blatant sin. Not only are these accusations widespread in the church, but they seem to be based on true and reasonable evidence. Instead of receiving the brother’s admonition with respect and repentance, the accused man responds with anger and resentment. He begins to rally supporters and refuses to be brought before any official church leadership over the issue because Jesus said, “Don’t judge.” This is an often quoted yet misused verse of Scripture that comes right from the mouth of our Lord in Matthew 7:1: Judge not, that you be not judged. The accused man now in open rebellion against his church has complete and full Scriptural authority to do so right?
It’s also not uncommon for nonbelievers to use some version of that same verse to warn Christians they are being “hypocrites” if they “judge.” For unbelievers, this seems to indicate that Jesus didn’t call out people on sin and neither should we. So what is the correct way to interpret this verse? Is there a time when it is appropriate to call out other believers on sin? Do we truly have a biblical reason not to warn unbelievers about their sin and the danger of Hell?
It’s All in the Details
Imagine looking up a recipe for a cake only to find a single line reading, “Bake at 350o for 25-30 minutes.” Some recipe huh? No ingredients, no instructions, no details; just a single line. As much confusion as recipes like this would cause, imagine how much more serious confusion occurs when we approach the Bible like this. Unfortunately, this is exactly how many professing Christians approach the Word of God—as a series of unrelated and subjective sayings that may be interpreted according to the pleasure of any given reader.
The use of Matthew 7:1 as stated in the illustration above reflects this error of interpreting Scripture. We tend to separate individual verses from the verses that surround them and by doing so fail to understand the meaning of the whole passage. The answer to both our recipe dilemma and our Scriptural interpretation is in the details.
Who, What, When, and Where?
The context for this verse from Matthew 7 is Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. For this sermon we often picture Jesus sitting high on a rock preaching to thousands of followers and crowds that had gathered around to hear His words of wisdom. However, the very first verse of the entire sermon points to a different picture. At the end of Matthew 4 Jesus was thronged by tremendous crowds that were seeking healing. At the beginning of chapter 5 we see that Jesus saw these crowds gathering but proceeded away from them and up to the mountain where He began to teach His disciples. This does not mean Jesus ignored the crowds nor does it mean He was only speaking to a portion of the men that would become “the Twelve.” It does seem to indicate that while Jesus was indeed speaking within earshot of the listening crowd, He was explicitly teaching those who were at this time considered “followers.”
Jesus’ “sitting down” (Matthew 5:1) and “opening his mouth” (Matthew 5:2) is language of a rabbi teaching those who had already committed to follow His teachings. It is in that context that Jesus preached this sermon. These are not generic proverbs and instructions for social and secular well-being, but specific and detailed instructions for those committed to the teachings of Jesus. Although not technically in existence yet, Jesus was providing instructions for those who would become “the church”—those who believed in Christ and followed His teachings. The church proper would not come into being until the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but these instructions were laying the groundwork for this “new society.” This would be a society built on humility, a society of purity, a society of patience, and a society of love.
It is in that context that Jesus uttered the words, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” There it is! We’re all about love, peace, generosity, and patience right? There’s no room for “haters” and “bigots,” and that’s exactly what you are if you call out anyone’s sin right? Not quite.
The Problem of the Pharisees
Not only do we need to examine the Scripture before this verse to understand it, we need to take note of the Scripture after it as well. After stating that we will be measured by the same judgment we pass on others, Jesus asked why we are so quick to point out the “speck” in our brother’s eye while ignoring the “plank” in our own eye (Matthew 7:2-4). Only after first removing the “plank” or “log” from our own eye may we rightfully and clearly see to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. The instruction happens so quick you might miss it. Jesus didn’t deny the importance of discipline or calling out sin for what it is; what He did warn against is blindly and self-righteously condemning others without first dealing with our own sinfulness.
The Pharisees get a bad rap, but usually for the wrong reasons. Jesus never condemned their steadfast observance of the Law, but their self-righteous confidence in thinking they could personally fulfill the Law. Jesus never condemned their adherence to Jewish tradition, but their dead and vain traditionalism. Further, Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for calling out people on sin, but for arrogantly looking down on the sinner as if the Pharisee himself were not a sinner (Luke 18:10-14). This is the heart of the issue.
A Call to Repentance
The call to practice discipline within the church is repeated throughout the New Testament. Jesus continued on in Matthew to tell followers to avoid false prophets (Matthew 7:15), to judge believers by their fruit (Matthew 7:19-20), and to confront sin in the body of believers (Matthew 18:15-20). The apostle Paul also offered instruction for dealing with sin and false teaching within the church (1 Corinthians 5:5; Philippians 3:2). Needless to say, it is a command from the Lord Jesus and His apostles to confront and weed out sin within the church.
This is not to be done with the Pharisaical spirit of arrogance and self-righteousness, but with a cautious view toward our own sinfulness and a willingness to confess and repent of known personal sin before confronting our brothers and sisters in their sin.
This is also not to be done with an attitude of exclusion, but one of peace and love in hopes that the person being confronted will repent and be restored into fellowship (Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1).
For the Believer
God disciplines or “chastises” His children in order to bring them back to Himself if they should go astray (Hebrews 12:3-11). We should view the discipline of believers the same way. True, some will fall into serious sin, but God offers forgiveness to those who repent (1 John 2:19). The one who hears the voice of the Shepherd in the loving and humble admonition of a faithful brother or sister and turns from sin will be restored into the fellowship (John 10:3-5).
For the Unbeliever
We deal with professing believers as brothers and sisters in Christ who have hopefully subjected themselves to the loving accountability and oversight of the local church. But in dealing with unbelievers, we speak to those who are dead in their sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1). These are they who cannot hear or see the clear light of Christ unless someone preaches to them the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:14-17). The principle of confrontation must be the same as in Matthew 7:1. We come, not as self-righteous and arrogant “judges” in a condemning and sanctimonious tone, but, in the words of some, as humble beggars “telling other beggars where to find bread.” We pray and examine our own lives, confess and repent of known sin, and then ask God to enable us to speak His gospel to the unbeliever in the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit.
For the believer, the process of sanctification (being made holy) is an ongoing and continuous work that will not be completed until we stand glorified and sinless in Heaven. Until then, we are urged like Paul to press toward the mark, the image of Christ (Philippians 3:14). This includes removing that giant “plank” from our own eye daily before attempting to help a brother or unbeliever with the “speck” in theirs.
Jesus never condemned preaching against sin, nor did He teach a kind of soft, winking at sin within the church. But Jesus did assert that healthy discipline and right-minded thinking about sin doesn’t begin with an outward look, but an inward one; an inward look which first confesses and repents of one’s own sin before lovingly and patiently admonishing his brother or sister to turn from sin.
John Calvin, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, stated:
“‘Judge not.’ These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all. We see how all flatter themselves, and every man passes a severe censure on others . . . There is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people’s faults . . . But he who judges according to the word and law of the Lord, and forms his judgment by the rule of charity, always begins with subjecting himself to examination.”
Let us then “examine ourselves,” seek the council of God’s Word, and then live with His people and His world in love and charity, seeking not to scorn the sinner, but to welcome him home where Christ waits to forgive every man who repents and believes the gospel.
Matthew S. Price is a recent graduate of SBTS (M.Div.). Matthew and his wife are expecting their first child (a baby girl) in November. You can find more of his writing at his website: http://tableprepared.com.