Part of the reason I was led to write this series came from several podcasts I’ve heard and Facebook posts that I’ve read recently. Some of the Christian authors and leadership gurus that I follow have used their platforms to criticize other Christian movements for false teaching and leaders for being false prophets. Whether I agree or disagree with their assessments, I’m not a fan of criticizing others in the public arena, especially if those being criticized aren’t afforded an opportunity to defend or explain themselves. It comes across as a little “high handed” and “holier than thou”. Am I being “holier than thou” by saying that? “Bad Robby!”

Sometimes, I joke about the “spiritual gift of criticism” that is used so often because there isn’t one according to the Bible. Paul talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and the only one that really comes close to criticism is the gift of discernment. The gift of discernment is the ability to “distinguish between spirits” or being able to judge or appraise a person, statement, situation, or environment. According to some it is the ability to tell who is spiritual and who is not, but that can get kind of tricky since Paul tells us that “all have fallen short of the glory of God” and there is “no one who does good, not even one”. So, how do we decide who gets to judge whom? I will admit that I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand there should be warnings about those who teach a theology that is contrary to scripture, but is it supposed to be done in the public square? What affect or collateral damage does it have on those who witness these public floggings.

Both Paul and Jesus warned of false prophets or teachers, so they do exist. Jesus called out the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jerusalem several times during His ministry. Paul and John in their letters to churches didn’t pull any punches when churches were getting off track spiritually. Jesus tells us to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-20 NIV)

Jesus gives us a way to recognize false prophets or teachers in this passage when He says, “by their fruit you will recognize them”. The King James Version says, “you will know them by their fruits”. Of course, these fruits represent actions and patterns of behavior.  We talked about this last week when we studied Romans 12:2. We can recognize the “patterns of this world”. Patterns of behavior can help us discern, distinguish, test, and approve what God’s will is, but we have to be careful when it comes to judging others. While we do have the ability to know, recognize, discern, and distinguish between good and bad spirits or fruit, we have to be sure that we aren’t elevating ourselves above someone else, being high handed, holier than thou, or lording over others. Both Jesus and Paul warn against judging others for this very reason.

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1 NIV

13Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. Romans 14:13 NIV

Jesus also gave us very specific way of dealing with sin in the church.

15“If your brother or sister  sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

There are times when sin and bad behavior need to be confronted and brought to light. David was confronted by Nathan the prophet for his sins of adultery and murder, but he met with David privately or “between the two of them” (Matthew 18:15). David suffered the consequences for his sins, but he repented. His relationship with the Lord was restored. God’s purpose wasn’t to destroy David but to correct his behavior.

“8To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,” 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 NIV

“Distinguishing between spirits” or discernment in verse 10 comes from the Greek word “diakrisis”, which means an “act of Judgement” or deciding. It’s a process that includes knowledge and wisdom, as opposed to making snap judgements or going off halfcocked. Our own “fruits of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) also need to be added to the decision-making or discernement process. Although it is not mentioned in Galatians 5, mercy ranks pretty high on the “good spiritual fruit” list too. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) Most of the other New Testament writers mention mercy frequently. Mercy is the ability to hold back and even withhold judgement, especially until all the facts are in.

I can’t help but think of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and Jesus’ response to the situation. His first action was to address those standing in judgement. This whole encounter was initiated-instigated by the Pharisees and religious leaders to test and trap Jesus, and they were also elevating themselves above this woman. They said to Jesus “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” As Jesus ponders the question, he writes something in the sand. Maybe he was taking a moment to discern the right response, but he’s God and already knows what to say. So what was he writing in the sand? I’ve always been curious about that. Anyway, we all know how Jesus responds, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Of course, all of her accusers had to put down their stones and go home. They weren’t “without sin” and had no right to pass judgement. But Jesus isn’t finished, and I think this is extremely significant to the conversation because there is more to it than just a wonderful display of mercy, love, and forgiveness.

After all of her accusers are gone, Jesus has some parting instructions for the woman. Well, it’s more of a command. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Jesus points out that she is guilty by acknowledging that she is indeed “living in sin”. He wasn’t letting her “get away with it”. It’s clear that Jesus doesn’t want her to continue a “life of sin”. However, it is still one of the most loving displays of criticism I can think of if you want to call it that.

Jesus had every right to stand in judgment. He was perfect. He was “holier than her”. He’s God and yet He showed mercy. He confronted her sin, but He addressed it privately after everyone else had gone. He didn’t get caught up in the frenzy of the religious lynch mob or showboat for attention. “Holier than thou” likes to showboat, to be up on a pedestal elevating itself above everyone else, but Jesus didn’t do that. He wanted this woman to be transformed and restored not beaten down or destroyed. We don’t really know what happened to her after her encounter with Jesus. Some speculate that it was Mary Magdalene, but no one knows for sure. Whoever she was I have a feeling that her life was never the same.

I guess my point to this whole dissertation is about how criticism or judgement is done. This should be our primary concern not only for the one on the receiving end, but those who might be witnessing it in the wings. We often underestimate the affect our criticism, especially the kind that is overzealous, has on others especially unbelievers who are watching, reading, and listening. Ultimately, we don’t want our judgements to become so severe that they become a stumbling block or obstacle that gets in the way of others as Paul tells us in Romans 14:13.

I’m having a hard time pulling up the reins on this runaway horse, so this is probably a good place to stop. “Woe Nelly!”  We’ll try and finish this series up next week.

Have a great week! Love y’all!

Robby Morris
Director of Family Ministry and Facility Coordinator – Andrews UMC