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Authority to Judge Sin

There was a time when, especially in the church, the idea of “don’t judge me” was extremely prevalent: “God is love, so we should be too.” Today, most Christians I know don’t say things like that. I have seen an effort to reconcile both judgment and love in the church. I have seen us push this “don’t judge me” movement out of the church and balance the scales of how Christians should live with one another.

Yet, I think we haven’t pushed this movement out of our churches enough. I think if we were honest with ourselves, when the “don’t judge me” movement crept into the church, it caused significantly more damage than we are comfortable admitting. Specifically, this ideology has undercut the holiness of the church because we have lost sight of our God-given authority and responsibility to judge our fellow church members.

Let me make one thing clear: this article is specifically talking about how we interact with other members of our own local church. The scope of this doesn’t include a license to judge the outside world’s sin, or even the sin of people in other churches. The scope of this is to help us better understand how we deal with sin in our own local church.

My question to you is this: Are you, as a member of your church, calling out sin in the other members and are you allowing other members of your church call out sin in you?

My goal is that we would answer this question. My fear is that we think we already know the answer. Can you honestly answer that question in the affirmative? How seriously do you take your own sin and the sin of others in the church?

With this in mind, I think the problem is two-fold and therefore it will be dealt with in a two-part series. First, the reason we shy away from judging sin in the church is because we don’t understand our authority as fellow church members. Secondly, we shy away from judging sin in the church because we don’t understand our responsibility as church members.

“Who am I/Who are you to say anything?” = Misunderstanding of Authority

How many times have you said, or heard someone say, “Who am I to say anything? I don’t have the right…”? I do believe that this can be spoken from a pure heart and sometimes it is needed, so don’t get me wrong. There are times in which you need to deal with your own garbage before others’ (Matt. 7:5). But, if we are being honest, this is usually motivated by fear rather than humility. I don’t want to call you out because I am afraid of what may happen if I do.

On the other side, how many times have you thought, “Who are you to say anything to me?” Again, sometimes people should probably not say anything. However, this statement usually doesn’t come from a position of true righteousness, but pride. The basic idea behind these words are: “You do not have the right to call out my sin.”

I can guarantee most of us have thought both of these things at one point in our church-life. I know I have. But what these statements show is something deeply wrong with our understanding of the church and our understanding of membership. Ultimately it shows that we have a misunderstanding of each individual member’s authority over the other members of the church.

This recently hit home for me. Not long ago I asked a dear brother in Christ if we could get together. There were possible sin issues going on that I had to bring up to him. As we were meeting I said something that caused me to stop, “Listen, I know I don’t have the authority to say this….” Right after I said it, it struck me. I don’t have the authority to call out his sin? Is that what I really think? The more I look back on that meeting, the more I realize I said it because I didn’t want to confront this brother in the first place.

Ephesians 5:18-21 gives the church clear instructions on how it is to relate to one another:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Submission and Authority

This brings up a very important question: what does submission mean? I have yet to find a place in Scripture where submission does not have the connotation of “being subject, under, subordinate” to an “authority.” Here is a list of all the ways this word is used: Creation has been made subject to Jesus (1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:22); we used to be subject to sin (Gal. 5:13); children are to be subject to their parents (Lk. 2:51); we are to be subject to secular authorities (Rom. 13:1); we are to be subject to our church leaders (1 Pt. 5:5); wives are to be subject to their husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pt. 3:1); and most importantly, we are to be subject to Christ (Eph. 5:24).

Each of those instances speak about us willingly being in submission to some sort of authority; no one is arguing against that. The word implies an authority structure over the one who is subject. This is the main reason why I don’t think Paul is telling the Ephesian church to be in submission to every Christian, because submission doesn’t mean “have respect for one another.” Submission implies an actual authority structure over us.

This brings up another important question: who are we supposed to willingly allow to have authority over our lives? If submission implies authority, then who do you and I have authority over and who has authority over us? Everyone?

Submit to whom?

What does “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ actually mean? Now, someone could argue that this is how all Christians are to act toward one another. All Christians are to submit to all other Christians. The problem with this interpretation, though, is that by making it so abstract we lose most of the meaning from this text.  This would require interpreting “submit” as “respect.” If that is the case, then yes! All Christians are to have mutual respect for one another. However, that is not what “submit” means, especially in this context. Further, It doesn’t line up with real life. Am I supposed to submit to some random guy who calls himself a Christian? Even if he knows nothing about me? What would that even look like? Do I address every Christian I see in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? Who, specifically do I submit to? Who is Paul talking about? I think a loose analogy can be made with the following verses.

Wives are supposed to submit to their husbands. They don’t submit to every man nor every man who calls himself a “husband.” They are to submit to their “own” husbands. Although not as explicit as in the passage about wives submitting, local church membership does seem implicit throughout the book of Ephesians. Just as I would never expect my wife to submit to others in the same authoritative way she would submit to me, I do not expect Christians in our local church body to submit to Christians of other churches (in the same authoritative way they should submit to one another).

I think it works like this: in marriage the person a wife submits to is specifically the man she has covenanted to before God in marriage. In the same way, you are called to submit to those who have covenanted themselves with you, and you with them. Paul was writing to a local church in a specific context. The analogy isn’t a 1-1 ratio, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any connection between the two. My point is that we miss the importance of his message if we make this too broad because we miss what church membership is in its simplest form: A Christian submitting to other local Christians in a covenanting relationship.

What Does it Mean?

This shows us that saying “I don’t have the right to call out your sin,” or, “you don’t have the right to call out my sin,” was a foreign concept to Paul. If you are a member of a local church, that means you have willingly submitted yourself to the authority of the other members of that church. And, equally as important, you have entered into relationships with people who have willing submitted themselves to you.

I want to be as clear as possible: if you are a member of a local church, that necessarily means you have asked other Christians to be an authority over your life. You have given them the authority to call out your sin. It also means that you have been given the authority to do the same.

Be Careful

Before I end this section, I want to give a warning. Be careful. I don’t want to create a group of people who are arrogantly throwing down the “authority” card toward every single person they can find. When another person has placed this type of trust in your hands, it should never be used for personal gain. Instead, this type of authority should only be used in prayer and love. Just as a husband doesn’t lord authority over the wife who has submitted to him, but lovingly leads her into the glory of Christ, so each church member should lovingly use this authority over other brothers and sisters only for the purpose of making other members more like Jesus.

While a little fearful that some people may misuse this article, I will stop here. Next time we will turn to the responsibility each member has in regards to the use of this authority.


  Marty Beamer is the Assistant Pastor at FCC and teaches Rhetoric and Worldview at Faith Christian Academy. He graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December of 2017. He is married to Jessica and they have one son, Oliver.


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