Church Discipline & Defending the Faith, Part 3

From Voice, Jan/Feb 2015. Adapted from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010). Used by permission. Read Part 1 & Part 2.

When Is It Wrong to Judge?

1. It is wrong to judge someone before you know all the facts in the case.

The Apostle John wrote, “Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing” (John 7:51). In other words, the believer should never judge on a whim, an impression, a rumor. The facts are necessary, and the believer should be quick to hear and slow to speak.

2. It is wrong to judge when judging is based on a person’s convictions and/or preferences.

Romans 14 makes it clear that personal decisions can direct activities in areas where the Scriptures are silent. For instance, the Bible doesn’t specifically address credit cards, dating practices, plastic surgery, watching television, using electric guitars in church, ad infinitum.

If our judgment of another believer is based on differences of opinion regarding issues such as these, to name a few, it becomes judgmentalism.

And don’t ignore the fact that this kind of judgmentalism can travel in both directions. Those who condemn others for allowing certain things in their lives are not right; neither are those who scoff at believers who choose stricter guidelines by which to govern their choices.

Judging preferences isn’t the same as judging a biblical violation because they are simply different opinions or personal choices. And in these matters of preference and personal conviction, we must not be judgmental.

It’s a difficult lesson to learn that God often blesses people we disagree with.

3. It is wrong to judge someone by attacking his motives.

Paul wrote, “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

This text certainly instructs us to leave off judgment that relates to motives. It implies that only the Lord is capable of judging motives and intentions, since He alone can see the heart. Therefore, we should confine our judgment to observable actions and leave hidden motives for the Lord to evaluate at the coming judgment.

We must be careful to give people the benefit of the doubt. If all we have to rely on is our perception of another person’s motives, our judgments will be skewed.

One of the reasons the Bible requires two or more witnesses to agree on charges brought against another believer is because one person can too easily misread or misinterpret the motives of someone else. One person alone can rush to judgment. Thus, taking the time to gather additional counsel will often slow the process enough to carefully arrive at the truth.

In the meantime, we would do well to remember something Jewish rabbis taught centuries ago—what they considered to be the six greatest works a person could do:

  • study the Scriptures
  • visit the sick
  • show kindness to strangers
  • pray
  • teach children the Scriptures
  • think the best of people

Giving someone the benefit of the doubt may be the first step in avoiding the pitfall of rendering wrong judgment.

4. It is wrong to judge when the act of judging becomes a display of self-righteousness.

Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge lest you be judged.”

We’re back to that verse again!

Jesus can’t be prohibiting all the other forms of judgment we have just seen validated in Scripture—there were several occasions we were commanded to judge. What we need to understand is that the Lord is referring to a type of judgmentalism typical of the religious leaders. The Lord was speaking to Pharisees (Jewish leaders) who were well known for their censorious, pietistic, critical attitudes of judgmentalism which loved to expose and embarrass the sinner. They enjoyed pouncing on the sinner without ever proposing a solution. To them, and anyone with their attitude, our Lord warned in that same verse, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged” (Matthew 7:2).

In other words, self-righteous, condemning judgment builds its own gallows—especially when self-righteous individuals refuse to deal with their own sinful behavior.

Jesus illustrated this principle when men brought before Him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. These proud judges with private sinful lives had come not only to condemn the adulterer but to corner the Savior. After seemingly ignoring these men and their captured prey, our Lord stooped down and began to write in the dirt. Then John records, “But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Then once again He wrote—twice we read that the Lord wrote on the ground.

There are some who speculate that Jesus was scribbling in the sand because he was embarrassed to be stuck in such a dilemma. Others have speculated that Jesus stooped down and wrote in the sand because He didn’t know what to say. The actual answer to this strange behavior from our Lord is revealed in the text itself. This is the only event in the New Testament where Jesus is shown to be writing something.

What’s even more revealing is that the usual Greek verb for writing isn’t used. Instead, the word that is used means “to write down a record against”: kategraphen (John Armstrong, The Compromised Church, Crossway Books, 1998, p. 175). The same word appears in the Septuagint in Job 13:26: “For you write [kategraphen] bitter things against me.”

In the stillness of that temple court, Jesus is revealing the hypocrisy of judging others while at the same time hiding a prodigal heart. What did Jesus record in the sand? He was writing a record against these men—a record of sins they had hidden in the dark shadows of their private lives.

Peter Marshall once imagined that Jesus Christ saw “into their very hearts, and that moving finger [wrote] Idolater… Liar… Drunkard… Murderer… Adulterer…. [T]he thud of stone after stone falling on the pavement” was heard as “one by one, they [crept] away… slinking into the shadows, shuffling off into the crowded streets to lose themselves in the multitudes” (Catherine Marshall. A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall, 339).

John chronicles that very thing: “And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman where she was, in the center of the court” (John 8:9).

What happened next has often been misinterpreted as tolerance toward sin. John writes, “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ And she said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go. From now on sin no more” ’ (John 8:10-11).

Imagine this scene: the temple courtyard is now deserted because of the disappearance of her accusers. Jesus alone has the right to cast the first stone, but He looks at her and basically says He isn’t going to do that. Isn’t this the opposite action of discipline? Did Jesus overlook her sin? Wouldn’t His failure to stone her be proof enough that we should never judge or condemn someone in sin? Not quite.

There are two very important things you should understand about Christ’s response:

1. Jesus Christ did not dismiss her sin; He told her to stop sinning.

The human judges only wanted one thing: they longed to condemn. Jesus, the Righteous Judge, wanted one thing as well: He longed to forgive. Any true church involved in rebuking, challenging, and judging sinful behavior longs to do the same thing —forgive—if that person turns from sin.

Our Lord told her to go and stop sinning. He confronted her lifestyle of immorality. He did not say, “The coast is clear…go on back to that man you were with…just try to remember to lock the door the next time.” Hardly! He said, “Go, and stop sinning.” In other words, the Lord said to her, “Your actions are wrong. Stop living the sinful life of an adulterous woman.”

2. Jesus Christ not only forgave her past, He issued a challenge for her future.

This was no easy forgiveness. This wasn’t tolerance of sinful immorality. Jesus confronted the woman with a choice that day: either go back to her old ways or live in the light of God’s grace as a forgiven woman. She was challenged by God incarnate to live an entirely new way of life.

We have every reason to believe that she did. Her humble response to Christ implied as much. I can’t imagine she ever forgot that afternoon of grace and challenge that came from the lips of the Lord.

Stephen Davey bio

Stephen Davey is senior pastor of Colonial Baptist Church and president of Shepherds Theological Seminary, as well as principal Bible teacher on the “Wisdom for the Heart” broadcast. After earning his MDiv from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, Stephen and his wife, Marsha, moved from Dallas to Cary, NC and started Colonial Baptist Church. In 2003, Stephen and the elders of Colonial founded Shepherds Theological Seminary, now fully accredited.

1797 reads
11413 reads

There are 18 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Amen to the part about attacking motives, but with a question.  I would agree that attacking moves is extraordinarily dangerous for many reasons, starting with the fact you're so likely to be wrong.  And yet....there are passages like you'll find in 1 Timothy, where it notes that an elder/pastor/shepherd/overseer is not to be a "lover of money".  So there are some places where we seem to be called to question and attack motives, no?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture


I would expect that if we judge someone a lover of money, it will be obvious because of his actions, not because he loves it in his mind but doesn't show it (is that even possible?).  Assuming for the sake of argument that a man is a lover of money and it doesn't show in his actions, how do we make any judgment about his motives?  If it does show, we should judge, but extremely carefully, since having and using a lot of money (cf. Job or Abraham) is not an indicator by itself.

So while I believe that in some sense we can judge motives (e.g. accidental homicide vs. murder), it needs to be pretty clear for us to make a good judgment.  When the actions don't make the motives clear, then maybe we shouldn't be attacking motives we don't really know or understand.  The OP talks about hidden motives or our perception of motives.  Generally if the motive is really clear, the actions will show it, and we can certainly judge that.

Dave Barnhart

Zack Murray's picture

When the person is not causing harm to anyone else. 

You are not entitled to the details of someone else's life. If they volunteer details, then fine, but the idea of "not judging until you know all the details" implies that you should get the details, and that you are entitled to judge. You are not.

Even better -- when you are not the person you are evaluating. Focus on your relationship to God and your neighbors, not on trying to direct your neighbor's life. There's plenty to work on when it comes to onesself.


Bert Perry's picture

Dave, well said--but I find it fascinating that 1 Timothy tells us to look at that motive.  Something of a game of inference, no?

Zack, you're touching on a very interesting point; first of all, let's be honest about the matter.  The person who harms "only themself" will also tend to harm his relatives, friends, and business partners, and it's also worth noting that the legal and medical fallout from such "victimless" crimes is borne by the taxpayer (that would be us of course) through incarceration, treatment, and Medicaid, no?  So strictly speaking, there probably is no such thing as a victimless crime.

But let's indulge the point for the sake of discussion; let me assume that there is such a thing as "near-victimless" moral offense.  What do we do, for example, when someone reveals their boyfriend is beating them, or that they're drinking a fair amount of vodka & coke (classic alcoholic's tactic--it doesn't show up on their breath)?   If we are truly growing in Christ, "working on one's self", what do we do?

In my case, I responded to these real situations by recommending reporting it to the police and getting in touch with AA.  If I can't do that much when someone I love mentions this sort of thing, I've got to question how much I am really growing in Christ, to be perfectly blunt.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Zack Murray's picture

Bert, the writer was not citing extreme cases of crimes committed or alcoholism. In fact, I don' think "crimes" were mentioned. 

This is one of the diseases of fundamentalism --- taking a point to its most extreme case, then arguing backward to the point where it's ok to nose into the minutiae of people's private lives, ringing in to "admonish" and "correct".

Of course abuse should be reported in every circumstance. That's not "judging". Of course alcoholism should be addressed in a loving manner, with suggestions of qualified help. Making your own decision about whether someone is drinking too many vodkas and cokes isn't really the church's business either, and in fact judging based on how many drinks you see someone consumes shows a bit of naivety about alcoholism. 

"Church discipline" as a topic usually deals more with the petty minutiae that comes up in a small community that spends a lot of time together. In my view, if the church is not invited to evaluate a member's behavior by an aggrieved member of the church, then it is not the church's business to police the lives of others.

In fact, the crimes you mention are absolutely out of the province of the church, and are up to the police and other authorities to handle.

"Church Discipline" is about whether people are allowed to be a member of your particular private religious club and whether to toss you out. It has nothing to do with the realities of criminal justice. I would argue it is not a replacement for civil justice either, but I know others will disagree.

Bert Perry's picture

Zach, I think you're misreading me.  Both points I made are not really involved in church discipline--what Christ said or how many churches mis-apply it--but rather involve a simple reality; if any of us is at all emphathetic and involved with the lives of people around them, we are going to be told about things that will indicate something about their moral character, and we are going to have to choose how we get involved.  The examples I gave are real examples from the past year in my life.

Now since the people involved are not church members, church discipline is not at issue.  Moreover, since it is not a crime to fail to report an assault against yourself, it is also not a legal issue.  But in the cases I've mentioned, there are four children, three grandchildren, brothers and sisters, and the like who are also affected.  So it's not victimless.

And hence I'd suggest that the person who is growing in Christ--learning to love as He loved and loves--is going to take note when someone tells them the kind of things I've mentioned. And if you want to use another term besides "judging", have at it, no skin off me.  But I hope that you're one who is seen by those around you as "safe" enough to broach these issues.  In a nation where one in ten is on antidepressants and one in four children is born out of wedlock, you're likely to hear this soon.

BTW, as you get to know me, you'll find few people who more strongly advocate using both Romans 13 and Matthew 18 in life, and you'll find few people who abhor "rules fundamentalism" more than I do.  (we might have to have a contest, you and I--ha!) The real fundamentals, fine, but we do the Gospel no favors when we try to be holier than the example set in the Scriptures, in my probably not humble enough opinion.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joeb's picture

 Bert I guess I'm not the only person who misread you.  ZacK must have a reading comprehension problem too.  Similar issue of the church getting involved with matters they don't belong in. ZacK makes a good point about what the church should and should not be involved in.  I hope as Christian brothers we can agree to disagree.  I think that many fundamental Christians can be very judgemental.  In my younger years a Christian brother of mine who lived in my neighborhood passed judgment on the ladies in my church.  My kids and his kids were attending each other's daily vacation bible schools and after the closing program in my church he commented in a judgmental way that the ladies in my church were wearing very short shorts. He made out like they were all wearing hot pants.  I was very confused by his judgment because that was not the case.  When I went to his church for their closing VBS service all the women were wearing shorts cut below the knees ie knickers.   Well the bell went off in my head then.  Legalistic judgmental christian.  Just to let you know one of the elders in this church was a friend of mine and the FBI Agent who managed the whole President Clinton investigation.   This agent who I was working with in an unrelated matter once passed judgment on a female agents character and Investigative ability who we both knew was not a Christian because you know Joe  she sleeps around.  So in two cases a member of this fundamental church and one of its elders were passing judgment in areas  they had no business  judging. 

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding Joeb's points:

1.  Let's just say that his analogy of alcoholism and domestic violence to the length of shorts is strained at best.  

2.  Sleeping around is an issue for FBI agents, most of whom have some level of security clearance to do their work.  If one wonders what could go wrong for the sexually promiscuous agent, look up why JFK was on PT109 instead of in some more glamorous position (slept with a German spy), why spy agencies use honey traps, and finally take a look at this article from Brazil.

The victims of those 28 criminals who escaped because their guards couldn't recognize a honey trap would beg to differ with the position that it is wrong to judge the person who cannot keep control of his (her) sexuality.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joeb's picture

Just clarify this since I don't want throw the old misread out to you. The other agent was from outside the FBI.  Yes you are correct that if someone has a Top secret clearance be it govt employee or a defense contract employee then sleeping around is an issue if you are married.  The female agent was single a non Christian and the comment had nothing to do with a security clearance.  Also the shorts story only pointed how ridiculous judge mental some fundamental Christians can be.  Instead focusing on their own lives they want to stick their noses into the lives of others to boost themselves spirituality.  I believe that was Zacks point was  putting your nose into other people's business in the church and correcting them.  Zack probably called you right out from the beginning then you brought up the old you misread me. 

Bert Perry's picture

Joeb, I'm reading this this way:

1.  You're ignoring the fact that I refuted every significant premise Zack made.

2.  You're appearing to try to link me with the hyper-fundamentalist rules crowd with a false analogy.

I don't know what your problem is, but I'm forced to apply Proverbs 26:4 with you.  Will interact with you again when you have something constructive to say, sir.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Zack Murray's picture


You have saved me a lot of work. I would have commented to further clarify my original points, but you have done a wonderful job of that yourself. For that, I thank you for saving me the time and energy. Furthermore, you've not refuted a single point I've made, other than to tell wild tales of Jack Kennedy, Spies and FBI agents.

Perhaps you should have your church discipline them.


Bert Perry's picture

Zach, I actually did refute some of your central premises:

1.  That there was such a thing as a truly victimless sin or crime.

2.  That I was talking primarily about criminal issues or church disciplines.

Per Proverbs 18:2, it really is a useful custom to at least acknowledge what the other person says during debate, instead of continuing the fiction that I'm primarily talking about church discipline.

(fwiw, the comments about JFK are there because, per this principle, I was responding to what Joe B. actually said--pointing out that yes, government agents ought to be judged for their lack of character, too)

I am also somewhat perplexed at your contention that the church ought not take part in helping members and even nonmembers with things like alcoholism and domestic abuse--both are common, not "extreme" (about 25% of adults drink heavily, 25% report domestic abuse, too), and the Scripture points out some things about drunkenness and how a husband ought to treat his wife.  So to deny the church's role in these things is to say that you either do not understand what Scripture says about these things, or that you do know and deny what Scripture says.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

Zack, I am also somewhat concerned about your comments about the nature of church discipline--you seem to be approaching the subject as if it's just "petty minutiae"--is that really what Scripture says?  Is it the example we would get from dealing with the topics of 1 Corinthians 5 (and 2 Cor. 2)?  Is it what John is talking about regarding Diotrephes?

Now if one had not read the Scriptures and just observed some churches, yes, we might well conclude that church discipline is primarily focused on the length of our shorts, whether we watch TV and what shows we watch if we do, and the like.  Too many churches make a hash of it, and if you've been hurt by such nonsense, you have my sincere sympathy.

That said, that is not what Scripture says about the matter.  It's supposed to be related to our growth in Christ, it's supposed to be intimate, and it's supposed to be significant.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Zack Murray's picture

I am concerned that many confuse Church Discipline with Christianity. Getting kicked out of your religious club according to rules the Bible sets is not equivalent to losing your salvation. Yes, I know, you're gasping.

It's fascinating how much time is spent discussing and analyzing what power humans have over each other in a religious environment. When is it ok to judge? When can I discipline someone? Do I have to pay my taxes, etc etc. 

There are far more edifying things to on which to spend one's energy during our limited time on this planet.

Larry's picture


Zach, I wonder why you are calling the church of Jesus Christ, which is his body, a "religious club." Why not call it the church or the body since that is what the Bible calls it?

I also wonder what your understanding of Jesus' words in Matthew 18, that when someone is disciplined from the church they are be treated as if they are an outsider. That seems to tie church discipline pretty closely to assurance of salvation and credibiliity of one's profession of faith.

You ask "When is it ok to judge?" The Bible indicates that we are to judge when one is a part of the church(1 Cor 5:12: Do you not judge those who are within the church?).

You also ask, "When can I discipline someone?" Again, the Bible indicates that when they part of the church they can and should be disciplined, and in fact, the church is disobedient if they don't practice discipline. Again, this is in 1 Cor 5 and Matthew 18.

You thirdly ask, "Do I have to pay my taxes, etc etc." This is a question that seems to come out of left field, but fortunately, it is one that is beyond dispute since Jesus himself directly answered it in Matthew 22:17-21. 

You close by saying "There are far more edifying things to on which to spend one's energy during our limited time on this planet." I wonder how you judge the relative merits of Christ's various commands. Can we really conclude that there is something more edifying than obedience to what Christ commands in his church? If so, how can we make that judgment?

Bert Perry's picture

Zack, with the comment "you're gasping", it would seem that you're still suggesting that I'm talking primarily about church discipline, or that I misunderstand what it is supposed to be about.   If the former, no, and if the latter, let's have chapter and verse, OK?

And I am taking it that, while I do not know the details, you consider yourself to have been injured by some act of church discipline in the past, and you are, rightly or wrongly, saying that at least in some cases (your own perhaps), you must admit that this action had something to do with Bible  rules.  I would dare suggest that at this point, you might have something of a "gut check" in terms of your faith.  I hope I am wrong, but if I'm inferring even halfway correctly from what you write, that's the guesstimate I come to.  Blessings to you!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Zack Murray's picture

I have never been part of a church disciplinary action, but interesting that you made that assumption.

I am merely challenging the idea that having four walls and someone who calls themself pastor entitles people to judge and take away someone's Christianity.

I was further making the point that there seems to be a huge focus on discussion when people get to judge/discipline. That should be done reluctantly and with a heavy heart --- not negotiated to the thinnest threshold.

Bert Perry's picture

Zack, glad to see you've not been on the business end of the "right boot of fellowship".  I must admit I was wondering because of how emphatic you are about this.

Now I would also agree, wholeheartedly, that churches ought to be sober and heavy-hearted when they confront sin in the church.  But that said, they need to confront it--that is the Biblical record, and let's ask a basic question.  Assume you see an unrepentant adulterer ushering in the church you grew up in.  Does that tell you something about the spiritual state of that church?

It did me.  And that brings me to another thing you noted; you think that "having four walls and a pastor" entitles a group to "take away someone's Christianity."  Now in church discipline, nothing of the sort happens.   Romans 8 points out that those who are in Christ can not be taken away by men.

What happens, rather, is that the church makes the reluctant decision that the sins of a member are such that he has declared himself to be either outside of Christ (never regenerated) or in such a state of sin that he can not take part in church life.  See the difference?

Now agreed, a lot of churches make a hash of it.  I knew of a church near the Twin Cities that seemed to measure its spirituality by how many members they expelled, and the reasons given were lame in my vew, not Biblical.  But a church that does discipline for Biblical reasons ought to be commended for its actions, IMO.  Sober, sad, yes, but make sure it gets done when need be.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Help keep SI's server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.