Lately, I have been thinking about the distinction we, as believers, should have in approaching other believers and non-believers about sin in their lives. The Gospel calls us to love everyone, but those of us who commit to living for Christ are held to a higher standard. The best analogy I can think to use is that of the difference between a teacher and a student.
When a student applies poorly what he has learned it is generally because of a lack of understanding or immature growth into a topic. The answer is to lead and encourage the student with patience until the results reflect more positively. The reaction is different for the teacher though. When he misuses concepts that should be understood, we point out the situation clearly. If a teacher is passing on false information to others, we are sure to make it known because he should know better.
So there is a difference between these two figures (student and teacher). They can both make the exact same mistakes, but they will each receive very different reactions, and rightfully so. This same distinction exists between the lost and the saved. Christians should have a similar approach to those who are believers and those who are not. When we engage those who have not entered into a relationship with Christ, behavioral criticism will do nothing. How can we expect someone who does not know Jesus to act like they do? Our first response must be to love. People respond to that. We live in obedience to the Great Commission when we enter into intentional relationships with others in order to share the Truth of the Gospel in love. God grants us opportunities in that obedience to share the hope that we profess. He allows us to encourage them towards Christ with patience much like we would a student learning a new concept.
I am not saying that God has lower expectations for non-believers than He does for believers because He doesn’t. Romans 2:11 makes it clear that God shows no partiality to mankind. What I am saying is that human beings do not have the ability (or the responsibility) to convert someone to a relationship with Christ. So beating a nonbeliever over the head with the Gospel does nothing but shut doors. That’s why I always cringe when I hear the fire and brimstone evangelicals on the UT campus screaming about how homosexuals and porn addicts and atheists are all going to hell if they do not repent. That message does not speak to the hearts of the lost. Instead, it hijacks the Gospel and turns it into a weapon it was never meant to be. We should not treat the behaviors of someone outside of Christ in a way that assumes they know who He is. We are called to meet them where they are in life and share the Truth in love when given the opportunity – because that’s what Christ did for us. The sick are in need of a Physician (Luke 5:30-32).
On the other hand, our approach to believers living in sin should be different. Of course, we always act in love, but those who claim the name of Christ and do not reflect that with their lifestyle need to be rebuked for that. The situation is different. A believer knows Christ. Therefore, we can treat him as if that is a truth about his life. When we become Christ followers, we cast off what Paul calls “the old self.” Throughout his letters, he describes the attributes of the old self as being things like drunkenness, anger, obscene talk from the mouth, and sexual immorality to list a few. As Christians, we are called to be set apart from the desires of this world because we are no longer a part of them. Those chains belong to our old selves. Now we live in the new self and our pursuit is holiness in Christ. This is a collective responsibility since God calls us to live in community with one another. So when we see a member of the Kingdom of Christ living in a way that is not set apart from the wickedness of our world, we should approach them about it and help them back to the path of righteousness – but always in love.
There is a huge danger in putting this into action though. Often times, we resort to legalism, elevate ourselves to the seat of the Judge, and forget God’s place in the midst of our criticisms of others. Yes, the Bible calls believers to hold other believers accountable, but it also makes it very clear (especially in the first three chapters of Romans) that we are ALL sinners and God is our only hope. So parading around your own perceived moral standing as the standard for everyone else (“I don’t do this so that person is worse than me because he does”) illustrates perfectly the status of a depraved heart. I struggle with this often. I have to consistently remind myself that people will screw up, but Christ is our only hope and God’s kindness and patience is meant to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
The distinction I am making is that much more delicacy must be involved in our interactions with nonbelievers than with believers. Often times, we are too condemning to the lost and too apathetic to the church. I am certainly guilty of this. Let’s consider the message of the Bible. Paul saved his most harsh tones for believers who mistreated their faith (Galatians 3:1-6) and Jesus embraced the whore (John 8:1-11) while He rebuked the religious (Matthew 23:13-36).
As Christians, we are not better than those who are outside of Christ. We should not elevate our faith or think too highly of ourselves because the message of the Gospel is that we are all broken and sinful beings in desperate need of a Savior. Christ is our hope – not our condemnation and His Word is the Good News that we are called to share with others while always speaking in love and patience. Because that is the very thing that Christ did for us.