By Dr. Herbert Samworth
Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, has brought Christians around the world together in a offering of gratitude to God for what Christ suffered on our behalf through his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. But it has also caused conversation and debate over the distinctions made between individuals and groups. The film itself sparked controversy regarding alleged anti-Semitism due to a rancorous portrayal of the Pharisees even though Jesus Himself was Jewish. Some evangelicals oppose the film because of Gibson’s choice to include several non-biblical elements to the story taken from visions of a Catholic mystic named Anne-Catherine Emmerich. Gibson himself along with actor James Caviezel have frequently shared their personal stories of God working in their lives during the making of the film. So, how should we respond to claims of belief and authority? How should we perceive the belief of an individual in light of the beliefs of an organization or a denomination?
No person can state with absolute certainty that another individual is or is not a true believer in Christ. The Lord, in His wisdom, has withheld this knowledge from man. 2 Timothy 2:19 states that the Lord knows those who belong to Him. The Lord alone possesses such knowledge. No person can know perfectly the motives and attitudes of another human being. The ability to discern heart motives requires infinite and sinless knowledge. Jeremiah 17:10 states that “the Lord searches the heart…”
While absolute judgment of an individual’s spiritual states lies outside the knowledge of sinful human beings, the Lord commands us to use what can be called “ministerial” judgment. Ministerial judgment makes a decision based on evidence that can be seen. Ministerial judgment analyzes the habitual conduct of a person. If an individual conducts himself consistently in an upright manner, we say that he is an honest person. If a person professes to be a Christian, and his life demonstrates the character of that profession, we say that he is a Christian. Although we cannot know perfectly the motives of his heart, his behavior gives us confidence that our judgment is correct.
The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “By their fruits you shall know them.” Where there is agreement between the profession and conduct, we judge the person is what he claims to be. This is a ministerial judgment, not an infallible judgment.
The correct use of ministerial judgment is critical. People from all walks of life profess to be Christians. Movie stars, sports figures and others give credit to the Lord for what they claim He has enabled them to accomplish. What is to be our judgment about these claims?
As professions of faith, we have the liberty to determine if there is agreement between their lifestyle and the life of the Christian as described in God’s Word. If the profession of Christianity and conduct of the person’s life do not agree, we have no biblical basis to believe they are truly born again. We cannot state definitively that they are not Christians; we merely state that their manner of life and the plain statements of Scripture are not in agreement. In such cases, we simply do not know if the persons are Christians or not. To say that we do not know if they are Christians should not be interpreted to mean that they are not Christians but merely states our inability.
However, the situation is different when we evaluate Christian organizations or churches that have issued confessions of faith or doctrinal statements. The purpose of a doctrinal statement is to declare what the church believes about biblical teachings. In such cases we are to test their doctrinal statements against the Scriptural standards. While we are required to do this in a fair and objective manner, we are responsible to determine whether their beliefs are true or not. The standard must be the Word of God, and for us to do this properly, we must know what God’s Word teaches.
If, after a close and impartial analysis, we determine that a confession of faith or doctrinal statement is not in agreement with the teaching of God’s Word, we have the responsibility to state our opinion. This is mandatory because we are required to warn people against false teachers. Because it is a public document given for the purpose of informing people what the organization believes, for one to give their judgment is not an unfair attack against the organization. Public documents are open to being analyzed and discussed.
Some important practical lessons can be learned from these situations.
First, we must learn to suspect our own hearts before we accuse others. The primary question is not whether the other person is a Christian but whether I am a Christian. Even true Christians are capable of being deceived. The disciples, in the Upper Room, responded with the question, “Lord, is it I?” when the Lord stated that one of them was a traitor. Note carefully the apostles’ words in Matthew 26:22. A healthy self-distrust can be an effective antidote against deception.
Second, we must recognize our limitations when we judge, even ministerially, another person. How easy it is to convince ourselves that we know the reason for another person’s action. But in truth, we do not know. Paul asked, “Who are we to judge the servants of another?” The servant is required to give an account to his Master not to us. Paul’s teaching in Romans 14:4 is a sober reminder of our responsibility not to go beyond biblical limits in judging others.
Third, we must know the doctrinal positions of groups with which we differ. If we are convinced that a group does not teach the Word of God, what is the basis of our confidence? Has the decision come from a close study of their beliefs and a strict comparison of them with the teaching of God’s Word? Have we permitted our prejudices and biases to influence our position?
Fourth, a lack of discernment can be detrimental to effective Christian witness. This also can occur when we claim that a person is a Christian when the evidence is lacking. How many times have Christians declared a person to be a Christian when subsequent events have proved otherwise? An example of this takes place when one assumes a person is a Christian because of his position on a particular issue. However, holding a position that can be considered Christian does not make the person a Christian.
Fifth, we must graciously, yet firmly, correct those who are Christians and not give aid and comfort to the enemies of the Gospel. We must adopt the attitude taught in Jude 22-23, “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.” It is tragic that many Christians do not know what the Scriptures teach. This doctrinal ignorance has resulted in grave harm to the effectiveness of the Gospel.
If we are to obey the commands of Jude, we are required to show the love of Christ, and to know what and why we believe something. Even doing this does not exhaust our responsibility. We must demonstrate by our words and actions the truth of what we profess to believe.
The Church of Jesus Christ needs a generation of Christians who have biblical discernment. The Bible warns us against self-deception. May we all be knowledgeable of God’s Word, able to comfort the sorrowing but able to convict the false professors of Christianity.