Bleats From the Pen

A Civil Judgement?

…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  Jesus (Matt 12:37)

It was at a youth meeting a while ago when I was showing the youth a series on prayer by Pastor Jim Cymbala.  It’s not the first time I have done this series with a group, but it was the first time I had a particular reaction.  In one segment, Jim Cymbala shares a story in which a couple approach him  about wanting to get married, and it soon becomes clear that the couple were already living together.  He pointed it out as sin.

And then the reaction happened. One youngster just put his hands out expressing confusion over what the big deal was, and another young lady was angry because Jim was ‘being judgmental.’

But that scenario is mild compared to what we find amongst Christians today.  Social media has provided fertile soil for the growth of both perceived and real judgementalism.  It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that in the eyes of many, to cause offence and to be judgmental are ‘big sins’ nowadays, especially in a culture that values tolerance above all (ironically except with regard to Christian views).

The body of Christ is tragically suffering a pandemic of its own: disunity.  This disunity is unfortunately characterised by deeply contentious disagreement (to use the words of James Emery White)[i]. The result of this division is the proliferation of judgements towards those not deemed to be in ‘our camp’ or aligning with our version of the Christian narrative. Judgementalism has become a Christian cultural norm, and of course the challenge for me is to not be judgemental in writing about judgmentalism!  This scenario is not what Jesus prayed for in His High Priestly prayer prior to Calvary:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23)

In the light of this Scripture, the sobering implication is that the world has the right to not believe because of the example a disunified body is setting.

The waters are not easy to navigate.  For example, I personally don’t go out of my way to cause offence because I’ve accepted that no matter how nicely or gently one may share truth, invariably someone will get offended because truth has that capacity when landing in a heart not ready to receive it.  Such a heart will naturally jump to the conclusion that I was being judgmental.  As a pastor I’ve often found myself on the receiving end of this charge.  One case stands out for me in particular when I had to challenge a couple that were living together prior to marriage (and trust me I didn’t do it in a heavy-handed way as I am not a person who enjoys conflict).  The guy got really angry with me and left the church.  About two years later he came to see me to apologise and just simply say that I was right and he should have listened to me: the relationship had failed.

It seems to me that the issue of judging has become murky, and clarity is needed.  I do think Paul Washer hits the nail on the head in his strong comment when he says: “People tell me, ‘ Judge not lest ye be judged.’ I always tell them, ‘twist not Scripture lest ye be like Satan.’  That’s undeniably a strong statement, but we have to appreciate the point being made: don’t misuse Scripture for your own ends, because that is precisely what Satan does.  We need to go to Scripture for clarity on the issue.  The following Scriptures are useful in understanding the issue: Matthew 7:1-5; Matthew 12:33-37; Matthew 18:15-35; Luke 6:37-42; John 3:16-21; John 8:1-11;  John 12:46&47; Romans 2; Romans 12:9-21; Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 5 & 6:1-8; Galatians 6:1-10; James 2:13; James 4:11-12.

Can Christians judge? The short answer: yes and no. Two primary factors determine whether you have the authority to judge in a particular circumstance or not: the state and intent of your heart.

Let’s begin with the no.

The Scriptures are quite clear that we are not to judge others.  What we need clarity on is what we mean by judging.  To not judge does not mean to not make a moral evaluation – that is simply impossible. To live in a way that honours God is fundamental to our faith: to call sinners to repentance means that sin be identified as sin.  Critics who want to accuse Christianity of being judgmental on the basis of the moral evaluations we make are ironically themselves guilty of judgmentalism by their own definition.

What we are addressing here is the spirit behind the judgment: the state and intent of the heart. In Ephesians 4:15 we are instructed to ‘speak the truth in love,’ because unfortunately we can speak the truth in a way that is unloving, slanderous and judgmental.

A popular Scripture which gets quoted about not judging others is taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus in Matthew 7.  Here Jesus clearly states: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Taken on its own we could settle the discussion about judging right now.  But the reality is that Jesus didn’t make that as an isolated statement but provided a context to it.  The context? Jesus paints quite a comical picture to get the point across: imagine you’re standing in a carpenter’s workshop and you’ve got a big plank of wood sticking out your eye, and you look at your mate and say “hey – you’ve got a bit of sawdust in your eye – let me help you get it out…” It’s absurd right? Surely the focus should be on getting the plank out of your own eye?

That is precisely the point Jesus was making: don’t judge others without an awareness of your own frailty, i.e. don’t be a self-righteous hypocrite.  Self-heart awareness is critical.

In James 4:11&12 we have these strong words:

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

This passage forces us to consider why we would speak against a brother or sister.  To slander and judge is to belittle and condemn a person, and, as Tim Keller points out,  in the light of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, this is not a sub-category of lying but of murder.[ii]  When we slander and judge a person, we assume a position of moral superiority as opposed to a position of equality.  This is clearly dangerous ground as each of us are in need of the grace of God.  In Romans 2: 1 Paul emphasises the need to be careful in passing judgement, because we are guilty of sin ourselves.

So, if our heart condition is one where we presume moral superiority and fail to see our hypocrisy, then we have no authority to judge.  If our intent in judging is to pull the other person down to size (in order to feed our own insecurities or self-righteousness), to punish them in some way, such as besmirching their character in the eyes of others, then we have failed to judge properly.  We have sinned.

So when can we judge?

When the goal is relational redemption.

When you see a brother or sister in sin, and you are genuinely concerned for their welfare and fully aware of your own frailty (a repentant hypocrite as I remember one minister putting it), then the grounds for proper judgement is given.  The goal here is to warn a person against the error of their ways in order that they may be restored to God and to their brothers and sisters.  The “worst case scenario” in which this would play out is the context of church discipline.

The well-known passage in dealing with the sin of others is from Matthew 18:15-17.  Jesus makes it so clear as to what is expected, that should the process not be followed then the proverbial red flags must be raised in our hearts and mind.  The first person to speak to about the sin you are concerned about is the person himself.  If there is no response after this, then you need to address it again in the presence of witnesses.  Let’s stop here for a moment:

If you find yourself in a situation where a person is accused in the context of a group without prior one on one engagement, then you have to consider the probability of just plain nasty character assassination, even though the person bringing the charge may sincerely believe he or she is doing the right thing.  Satan knows how to give the appearance of righteousness.  If there is furthermore a lack of substantive evidence provided by others on the issue, especially in the case of a mature Christian or elder in the faith, then the problem is heightened, because a person’s character has been tainted and people now perceive the person in a different light, and it may simply be a false perception, but the damage has been done. Slander has a very slippery slope.  The following story has a number of variations but it illustrates the point well:

Once upon a time, an old man spread rumors that his neighbor was a thief. As a result, the young man was arrested. Days later he was proven innocent. After being released, he sued the old man for wrongly accusing him. In court, the old man told the judge, “They were just comments, they didn’t harm anyone.” The judges, before passing sentence on the case, told the old man, “write all the things you said about him on a piece of paper.” “Cut it up into little pieces and on the way home, throw the pieces of paper out of your car window. Tomorrow, come back to hear the sentence.”

The next day, the judge told the old man, “Before receiving the sentence, I want you to go out and gather up all the pieces of paper that you threw out of your car window yesterday.”

The old man said, “I can’t do that! The wind spread them all over the place and won’t know where to find them.” Then the judge replied, “The same way, simple words and comments may destroy the honor of a person to such an extent that a person will not be able to fix it. If you can’t speak well of someone, don’t say anything at all. Let’s all be masters of our mouths, so that we won’t be slaves of our words.” “Gossips are worse than thieves because they steal another person’s dignity, honor, reputation and credibility which are impossible to restore. So remember this: when your feet slip, you can always recover your balance but when your tongue slips, you can never recover your words!”[iii]

However, if the person was engaged one on one first for actual sin (and not suspicion of sin) and then in the presence of two or three witnesses and there was no repentance, then, and only then, does it get brought before the community of believers.  This pattern is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 in dealing with a brother who was not only unrepentant but boastful of his sin.

Is it possible for Christians to disagree civilly without casting judgement on one another?  Of course it is.  How?

The best way to get rid of judgmentalism is to allow the gospel to truly sink into your heart.  We need to understand that God alone has the full right to judge, and it was His judgement on Christ on our behalf that enables us to be forgiven.  The Judge became judged and took upon Himself what we deserve.

Look at others through the lens of Calvary, and then you will be enabled to speak the truth in love.

[i] https://www.churchandculture.org/blog/2020/10/29/the-mark-of-a-christian

[ii] Keller, Tim : Communication – audio sermon on James 4:11&12 & 5:12

[iii] https://mygoodtimestories.com/2016/02/25/something-worse-than-a-thief/

Discerning the Calls

In the light of the increasing number of calls to prayer doing the rounds on social media, this article offers us encouragement not to simply accept at face value the call to prayer, but to explore a little deeper. I am thankful to Rev Melvin Tinker whose insights helped shaped this article. I also recommend Disarming the Darkness by Calvin Miller on the topic of Spiritual Warfare…This article first appeared on Incontext

Discerning the Calls

Every now and again, prayer requests do the rounds on social media, and they seem to follow a variation of the following pattern: “God woke me….gave me an image/revelation…need to pray against…sense of urgency….we serve a mighty God.”

A call to prayer is always a good idea, and I don’t doubt the good intentions and sincerity of those issuing the calls, but given the increasing frequency of these calls, it would be prudent to discern the nature of these prayer requests and compare it to what we see in Scripture. We live in an age where there is no shortage of spirituality, but there does seem to be a shortage of discernment. It is rather disturbing the number of ‘prayer hoaxes’ that Christians have been passing on to one another (If you want some examples, go to www.incontextinternational.org and click on the hoaxology tab). Scripture instructs us to discern and test (eg 1 Thess 5:21) what people claim to say in the name of God. We cannot, if we want to be God honouring disciples, just simply accept every ‘revelation’ (this in itself is a warning bell as it implies that the current revelation of Scripture is not sufficient) that comes along. Remember, Satan knows full well how to appear as an angel of light, and he is an absolute master at giving deception the appearance of truth – Jesus simply calls him a liar (John 8:44). If we take the words of our Lord seriously, we need to examine our hearts in coming to the Lord in prayer. Let us not be naive; Satan does not mind people praying if they are praying with a wrong spirit. It was Jesus who warned us that there would be many on that day who will cry out about how they did mighty things in the name of Jesus, and His answer will be “I never knew you (Matt 7:21-23).”

I want to encourage the body of Christ to pray in accordance with Scripture. Given the spiritual warfare nature of these calls to prayer, let us look at some ‘spiritual warfare’ examples in Scripture. Let us look at the example set before us by men who were intimately familiar with knowledge of the spiritual world: two from the Old Testament (Elijah and Daniel), one from the New Testament (Paul) and, of course, Jesus our Lord.

Let’s consider the epic stand-off between Elijah and all the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. You know what happened. There was one prophet of God, Elijah, and 450 prophets of Baal on that mountain. The goal of this meeting was simple: to determine who was God. Was it Baal? If so, then follow him! Is it God? If so, then follow Him! How would the people know? The one who answered by fire.

The prophets of Baal engage in their frenzied worship, and Elijah does have some fun at their expense (v27). But no fire came. I’m pretty sure Satan knows how to light a fire. Any thoughts as to why he couldn’t?
Then Elijah arranges for the altar and sacrifice to be drenched in water (v33-35 – how would this go down today in terms of water restrictions?).

Please take note of Elijah’s prayer: there is no binding of the spirits of Baal, no coming against them in any form: just a simple prayer of faith to a powerful God. “O Lord” Elijah prays… “ God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
The result? Fire fell.

There is so much to be learnt in this! What do we see? We see a willing, obedient and believing servant, coming humbly before God, desiring the glory of God, and entrusting the outcome to God. Elijah knew the real miracle and display of power was not in the binding of spirits, but in changing the hearts of the people. Let’s not forget that in James 5:17 we are told that Elijah was a man like us. We don’t have to have the epic stand off scenario to pray like Elijah. We too can live in obedience, come humbly before God, desire His glory to be manifested and pray not for spirits to be bound, but for hearts to be changed.

What about Daniel? Daniel was forcefully removed from his homeland as a teenager, placed in a pagan palace in Babylon, got given a new pagan name (Belteshazzar – Daniel 1:7) and had to learn a new language along with the practices of this culture, which was polytheistic and steeped in sorcery and astrology. Daniel definitely understood the reality of a spiritual world.

In fact, in one of his fantastic apocalyptic visions, Daniel matter-of-factly gets told by an angel that he got delayed in responding to Daniel because he was held up! Does this sound a bit strange to you? “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia…(Daniel 10:13)!” It is primarily this verse that has been used to bolster the notion of binding territorial spirits, but nowhere do we see Daniel being instructed to engage in such an activity or that he actually does anything like that. What is telling is Daniels approach to prayer: it was a way of life. In the context of keen sensitivity to the spiritual world, Daniel’s approach is not to bind anything or come against anything, but to submit to God and to be a faithful witness within his context and pray for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.

Daniel’s prayer life was anchored in the sovereignty of God. He didn’t curse the darkness, but instead sought to be a light.

The early church knew the reality of the spiritual world, and we read about it in the book of Acts. I am always amazed at how, in the context of persecution, we do not find prayers that come against the authorities, but rather instead we find prayers for boldness to preach and live out the gospel witness. In Acts 4:23-31 we again see prayers to a Sovereign God and a willingness to be used of God for the honour of God.

What about the Apostle Paul? Paul lived and ministered in the context of the Greco-Roman world with its pantheon of Gods. He also knew about the spiritual world, having during the course of his ministry cast out a few demons (although he never went looking for them), to the extent that we even read about the sons of Sceva trying to drive out demons via the names of Jesus and Paul (Acts 19:11-20)! Paul’s approach to witnessing in a hostile context? Proclaim Christ.

Perhaps Paul’s most famous teaching on the issue of spiritual warfare is his armour of God image in Ephesians 6. We find that the real locus of the battle is not the earthly political sphere, but, in the light of all that he has written before in this letter, the church. Children of God, collectively called the church, represent a ‘supernatural community which God indwells by his Spirit (2:22).’ We certainly do engage in battle with the demonic realm, but not in the way that popularly gets promoted. We don’t fight from a distance via spiritual Bluetooth, but we instead wrestle (v12)! And the areas we need to watch out for? V11 tells us: the schemes, or to use a more literal translation, the “stratagems” of the devil. The same word is used in Ephesians 4:14 in the context of calling Christians to grow in biblical knowledge so that we “may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” So – we need to be discerning!

Again, in the context of this passage of warfare where the weapons boil down to the church simply carrying out its calling of proclaiming and living the gospel and trusting God, the atmosphere of prayer is not about binding spirits or coming against anything or anyone, but rather the bold proclamation of the gospel. The gospel has a way of sorting people out. Remember that the real battle is about establishing the rule of God in the hearts of men! People are not the enemy; Satan is (more on him below…)

But there is something else very interesting. There is another mention of the devil in this book of Ephesians, and it also in chapter 4, and it’s in connection with something far less esoteric and far more real. It’s in v26&27 and it says the following:
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Did you get that? Through anger the devil can be given a foothold.

Now think about the seeds that get sown in your heart through some of these calls to prayer. We get told to pray against this person or that spirit…and don’t you find yourself just getting so angry over that person or that spirit? And then, don’t you find that anger has a knack for leading you into fear?

Oops.

The command ‘do not fear’ appears throughout Scripture for the child of God. Why? Because God is sovereign over all. Why pray against a defeated enemy when we can instead pray for the establishment of an already won victory? Isn’t it interesting that the objective of the battle laid out in Ephesians 6 is not disarming principalities and powers, but to stand. Why? Because Jesus has already defeated the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15)

A victory won at Calvary, and I want to close this reflection by briefly look at the example of our Lord.

When Jesus walked this earth, His disciples soon became aware that there was something different about the prayer life of Jesus, and so they asked Him to teach them. What always astounds me about the prayer of Jesus is this description in Hebrews 5:7. Before I quote it, please remember that this is the description of the prayers of Jesus, the Son of God:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence

Does that make you marvel? It should! And let us not forget the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane: Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done (Luke 22:42).

And when He taught us to pray, He taught us to pray to our Father (that means Jesus sees us as His brothers and sisters). He taught us to pray for God’s name to be revered (and that begins with us), for the establishment of God’s kingdom and will (again, that begins with us), to ask for our daily needs (so that we remember that we are dependent on God and we can be grateful for His provision), to please forgive us (recognising that we need it) just as we forgive others (its hard to hold onto anger when you seek to forgive), and to lead us not into temptation (because we know our weakness in being tested) and to deliver us from evil (which could only happen through Calvary).

So, the next time you hear a call to prayer, ask yourself the following:
• Does it encourage a humble, reverent dependence on a Sovereign God?
• Does it sow the seeds of faith or fear?
• Does it desire the revealing of the glory of God through the transformation of hearts…or is it maybe just rather wanting to get rid of a potential threat to our comfort?

When I look at Scripture, I would, if I could, issue a call to prayer along the following lines:
Father God, you alone are Lord. You alone hold the hearts of men and women in Your hands. You have both the authority and the power to change hearts, and we ask You to do so. Please give us hearts of compassion and courage to live and speak your gospel.
We look at what is happening in our land. We see people promoting hate and violence, and we want to lift them up to You. We pray that You will create gospel opportunities for these men and women who promote hate, that they will encounter You in the fulness of Your holy love, and that they will see the wickedness of their own heart by comparison and desire you to instead be Lord of their lives.
We thank you that You are at work. Forgive us for our complacency and being more concerned for our earthly kingdom than Your eternal one. We do pray that You will continue to work in our land, and more especially in our hearts. We even pray that Parliament will be filled with a passion for righteousness.
But most of all, help your people to advance Your Kingdom, and may it begin with me.
We ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord
Amen.