Can we say somebody does or doesn’t belong to Christ?

My friend Dave Williams has added some thoughts to my article concerning judgmentalism that I put out yesterday. You can read my original post here. The essential point I was making was that simply accusing somebody of judgementalism does not mean they are wrong. In fact, the scriptures repeatedly call us to judge people’s profession of faith. We are called to make assessments as to whether an individual’s profession is genuine or not and gives us specific guidelines as to how we might judge such things and how we ought to deal with people as a result.

The catalyst for that post was the ongoing discussion between David Robertson, Vicky Beeching and their respective followers. I particularly noted the comments being flung in David’s direction from the supposedly loving liberal supporters of Vicky Beeching. He was repeatedly denounced as judgemental, as though Christ doesn’t call us to make such judgements, and received some vulgar and particularly pernicious comments from those who claim to be all about love and kindness. It was quite revealing. It is my contention that the judgements David makes are entirely in keeping with the call of scripture of judge professions based on affirmation or denial of doctrine and ongoing, unrepentant sinful behaviour.

Nor do I think the claim of some, that these things should have been said privately, holds either. Scripture calls us to speak privately to a brother or sister when their sin took place against us in private (cf. Mat 18:15-20). Scripture calls us to act and speak publicly when sin is public (cf. 1 Cor 5). This is especially true when it is the kind of sin that involves the public denial of right doctrine and/or the affirmation of heresy. All the apostles publicly call out false teachers in their letters designed to be read publicly and disseminated widely so as to protect those under their care. In a scenario in which false doctrine is being pushed publicly in book form, online campaigns and high profile speaking engagements – especially when it is underpinned by a desire to insist on conformity from all wings of the church universal – public comment is both biblical and vitally important. In a 2011 editorial in the journal Themelios, Don Carson helpfully fleshed out this very point which you can read here.

To come back to Dave Williams’ article, which you can read here, he makes 5 further points on my article. I agree with some of these points. For example, his second point that we should focus on what is evident and only on what we can actually see (rather than motives, for example, which we can’t see) is absolutely right. Nobody should come under church discipline over a suspicion for which we have little to no evidence. Similarly, his fourth and fifth points are key – we should keep bringing everything back to the gospel. The whole point of discipline, or public rebuke, is to bring a wanderer back to repentance. Our rightness should be a long way second to loving the person enough to be willing to do what is highly uncomfortable for us in a bid to bring them back to Christ.

But I do want to take up two of Dave’s points. In his first point, he warns us against making individual pronouncements. In his third point, Dave suggests that we are not second-guessing someone’s salvation when we bring them under discipline. I think Dave misses the mark on both these points.

The fact of the matter is sometimes we will have to make individual pronouncements. I fully agree that in the context of discipline within the local church, under circumstances in which we have gone beyond the first steps laid out in Matthew 18 or we are facing a 1 Corinthians 5 situation, the whole church will inevitably be involved at some point. However, I think even Matthew 18 acknowledges that if someone is in sin, an individual is going to address that sin privately. This, by necessity, involves a personal pronouncement that something is, in fact, sin and represents a problem. That aside, in circumstances such as the one precipitating this conversation, as per Carson, these sorts of steps don’t necessarily hold at any rate.

More to the point, you may be a lone individual making the point but right judgement is simply not determined by weight of numbers. Elijah was absolutely right to speak against Ahab irrespective of the fact that he was the only one doing so (cf. the same point for a whole bunch of prophets). Right judgement is not a democratic endeavour by which the majority voice win out. It is a Biblical judgement by which whoever is speaking according to scripture is right. Whilst there are lone wolf ‘heresy hunters’ looking to condemn almost everyone as beyond the pale as Dave suggests, the issue is not that they are the only ones saying so, it is that their judgement is wrong. Christ call us to judge rightly and we are to do so whether we are the only one prepared to do so or not. Our judgement is right if it accord with the Word of God, not if most people agree with us.

Second, Dave suggests that we aren’t second-guessing somebody’s salvation when we bring them under church discipline. I struggle to see how we aren’t. When we put somebody out of the church we aren’t just saying, ‘you aren’t living like a Christian.’ We are saying, ‘based on the way you are living, or the things you are saying, you are not a Christian.’ But the idea that we aren’t second-guessing salvation is a bit of a politicians answer. Of course, we are judging salvation. This is specifically the task that Jesus gives to the church specifically in the context of church discipline (cf. Mat 18:18-20). We are pointing somebody to scripture, outlining the behaviour it overtly states will write you out of the kingdom and applying it to the person doing it. We are saying, as it stands, your unrepentant behaviour indicates that you are not a believer and if we are to affirm you as such there needs to be evidence of repentance. To all intents and purposes, that is to say somebody is not a believer and stands outside of Christ.

This is interesting because nobody has a problem applying John’s comments about those who deny Christ directly being outside of him. We have no problem affirming non-belief in those who reject Christ, based on the words of scripture. So we do we struggle to make similar pronouncements from the rest of the biblical data that makes clear who is or is not in Christ? We seem to have an issue suggesting someone who makes it apparent that they don’t love Christ by the things they say and do – according to scripture itself – does not belong to him.

Whilst it is true that we can’t see into the heart, we can see unrepentant action, hear heretical views and read the plain words of scripture regarding who actually belongs to Christ. I appreciate there are grey areas where it is not wholly clear and we should lean toward charity under such circumstances. But where it is palpably obvious, even admitted by the individual, that they are continuing in unrepentant sin that scripture says puts them beyond the kingdom, who are we kidding when we say that we aren’t second-guessing their salvation? Of course we are! In fact, not only are we second-guessing it, we are directly saying they don’t (and, per John, never did) have it.

Now, that is not to say we can have a pure church. Of course, whenever sinful people are involved (and that includes all of us), our judgements will sometimes be wrong. There will be times we admit those who shouldn’t belong to the church and we exclude those who should. Nobody is saying that we are infallible on these things. But that is an issue of right judgement, not making any sort of judgement at all. We should rightly remove those who are not in Christ from the church and we should rightly admit those who belong to him by faith. Both of these things involve making a clear judgement about somebody’s salvation and standing in Christ. Similarly, we should rightly call out those who hold and propagate false teaching as exactly that and, as per the apostles, call them out as those who do not belong to Christ based on such things.

Let’s not be coy about applying scripture in the way it applies itself. We should no doubt be sober about pronouncing any such things – it is a solemn responsibility Christ has given to his church. But let’s not deny that we are making precisely this sort of pronouncement based on the evidence of what we see and hear before us and on the statement of scripture as to who genuinely belongs.