Judging Spirituality

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How do you judge someone’s spirituality? I hear it all the times and sometimes even surprise myself by saying it as well. It usually follows some variation of:

“so and so’s spiritual life is not doing so well right now. so and so’s not the most … how do I put it … Christian? so and so’s a great Christian! so and so has really showed that his connection with God is super strong!”

But how do we differentiate and observe the health and condition of someone else’s spiritual life? First let’s consider how one can even tell that a Christian has a healthy spiritual life.

I think most Christians can agree that the number of times you go to Church and participate in Christian events doesn’t signify that your spiritual life is particularly strong.

However the bible does affirm that a life of faith has observable indicators. We know that faith in God can move mountains and allow people to walk on water. We know that there are fruits of the spirit. We know that followers of Christ with healthy spiritual life CAN do certain things and can show SIGNS among other things, but the absence of these “things” doesn’t seem to suggest the opposite. If Jesus didn’t heal the sick and turn water into wine he would still be the Son of God.

For example, I don’t know any Christians that have been walking on water or moving mountains recently but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their faith isn’t the size of a mustard seed. Additionally, we can see that an Atheist may display all the fruits of the spirit outlined by Paul in Galatians 5:22–23 but have no spiritual life.

So this begs the question once again, how do we judge someone’s spirituality? Well, maybe we don’t even need to. Imagine if the apostles were all ranked by their spirituality. Peter denies Jesus 3 times so he loses 60 spirituality points and goes right above Thomas who had to touch Jesus to truly believe that he had rose again. Several years later Paul gets hit by the truth and spreads Christianity to the gentiles, +200 spirituality points for him!

The apostles didn’t (at least as far as we know) concern themselves over some vague understanding of how each others’ spirituality was (they had other things to squabble about like circumcision). They were passionate about God and spreading the good news. They didn’t talk in private about how so and so was at the top or bottom of the spirituality rankings.

That’s partly because spirituality is a very private matter. Jesus goes to solitary places to pray and rebukes those who worship to draw attention to themselves. John the Baptist literally goes into the wild and lives like a hermit, worshiping God by his own right.

The other main reason is that we don’t actually have the right to judge others. One of my favorite stories of Jesus is when he protects an adulterer from being stoned (John 8:7). Likewise there is similar wisdom in the bible to suggest that we have no right to judge our brothers and sisters.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘ Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:1–6

That all said, Paul touches on this matter many times throughout his letters in a more practical sense. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul writes to the Corinthian Church, rebuking them for some bizarre case of sexual misconduct. He instructs them on Christian holiness and the meaning of the final day.

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)

Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that God has drawn boundaries between his people and others. He wants them to discipline a man in their church involved in incest (for his sake) by casting him out from their church. Knowing Paul’s ministry, that man will probably have to come weekly to the church in repentance for 1–2 years, asking to be allowed back into the community of believers, before he is allowed back into the folds of the church.

One can easily be led to believe that this is an indication that Paul thinks we should, at least on some base level of Christian holiness, judge our brothers and sisters. After all, he’s clearly telling the church in Corinth to cast out people who are not living out a life one would expect of a follower of Christ.

This interpretation is too shallow. For one thing, the person in question seems to be repeatedly and flagrantly sinning despite calling himself a follower of Christ. Indeed, Paul here is tackling a tricky situation and it’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this piece.

The church is full of broken people. But we don’t have the right to judge anyone because we ourselves are broken. We give God the right to judge sinners. But at the same time, some of us must have the wisdom and authority to deal with contentions in the church (as Paul is doing with the church in Corinth and talks about in 1 Corinthians 6:5). After all, at one point there’s got to be a line drawn between the rest of the world and us. Consider that someone could grow comfortable in living both a secular and Christian life, living a life full of sin thinking that they will be for sure saved by grace.

Paul must have come across this tension in building churches. How he approaches the situation is interesting. He doesn’t keep this matter quiet, speaking with select leaders of the church. Instead he makes it very clear that they were all to assemble and openly cast him out of the church, allowing God to judge him. Clever. The church can not judge him for his sins, but they can judge in regards to his membership in their community. If he’s living a life that would bring reproach on the church and gospel, just kick him out. Paul calls for them to allow God to do his work. It’s critical to note here how he handles the situation. What appears to be an overly harsh action against a brother is instead an incredibly wise way to discipline and love on his son (as Paul considers himself a father in their standing as Christians).

Had Paul instead spoken privately with the other leaders and continued a chain of gossip about him, silently judging him for his sins, Paul would be going against his own words as well as joining, instead of resolving, the contention within the church:

“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:5)

While this may have been a somewhat long drawn out explanation for something very simple, I wanted to express my thoughts on approaching situations with nominal Christians and repeat sinners. I myself am an incredibly broken human being, but that in itself has given me the opportunity to see that leaders in the church are often divided on how to deal with these situations.

Many turn to each other for support, asking for prayers and advice. While this may be well intended, it can often be unproductive and sometimes even volatile, becoming instead a catalyst for gossip within the church. I personally find this to be a particularly disgusting and weak willed attempt to resolve problems with people in the church, often thinly veiled as an act of love with “good intentions”.

Others deal with contentions more directly, speaking with the person(s) about living a life that imitates Christ. While I do like this for myself, it doesn’t actually work with many people. It can easily push people away from the church, angry and frustrated with being judged as well as pressured to be someone that they simply are not.

Still others take this approach more subtly. Talking openly about what members of the congregation should NOT do, while intentionally directing it to specific situations involving one or two members of the church. This passive pressure often doesn’t work in two fold. One, anyone can easily shrug it off. Two, it would be reasonable for someone to leave a church that thinks the best way to deal with contention is through passive aggressive condemnations of their life.

So what do I think is the best way to deal with brothers and sisters who, while saved, are not following Christ in their daily life? While Paul’s method certainly does seem best, it’s simply not viable these days. In that time there were few churches you could join and every church was intimately connected with each other. It was not an insignificant matter to move churches. However, today it is inconsequential to move from one church to another.

“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. But 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.’ If 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

That’s why I must say that directly approaching the person with only love and understanding in your heart is the best method. Dealing with the problem yourself, putting aside your pride and what you believe is right to simply listen. Praying fervently to God yourself for wisdom and for the person to open his/her heart to you. Calling upon select others only when you fail and calling upon the church as a whole only as a last resort.

It is with love and patience, not gossip and pride that we nudge our brothers and sisters back onto the narrow path.