Can Christians Judge What Non-Christians Do?
Christian often use 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 to defend the claim that Christians cannot and should not judge what non-Christians do. This means that if a homosexual asks for a cake or flowers for a same-sex wedding, the Christian baker and the Christian florist must comply based on the following:
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within [the church]? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES [1 Cor. 5-12-13; see Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21].
What if someone wanted a cake for a KKK-themed wedding, a Nazi-themed wedding, or a cake celebrating witchcraft? Could a Christian make a moral judgment and refuse their business? Was it wrong to hide Jews from the Nazis? These are all “judging outsiders.” How Christians understand 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 is fundamental to how they will engage God’s creation and its worldview applications.
In addition, so the argument goes, Christians should not organize in the name of Christ to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion, to name two moral judgments, since it would mean judging those who are not in the church. Is this what Paul is arguing?
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In terms of sanctions, if a Christian breaks God’s law and refuses to repent, that person should be removed from the church (1 Cor. 5:2) and “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). The Bible does not prohibit Christians from impacting their culture even though that culture is not fundamentally Christian. Paul is not arguing that Christians must go along with existing laws that are contrary to God’s law.
Let’s take the case of slavery. The church should have confronted church members who were involved in the slave trade since kidnapping (“manstealing”) is a violation of God’s law (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; 1 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 18:13 [“bodies” and “souls of men”]). At the same time, Christians should have worked in the political realm to make manstealing illegal otherwise the anti-slavery movement promoted by people like William Wilberforce was illegitimate because it took the biblical law against manstealing and applied it to a non-church setting. While a Christian politician who supported the slave trade could be disciplined by a church court and excommunicated, the church could not remove him from office.
Consider the vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act bill that failed to get the necessary 60 votes to pass a motion to proceed.
A priest with a popular blog has called upon the Church to excommunicate Catholic senators who voted against the late-term abortion ban bill…. Fr. Dwight Longenecker posted a recent entry to his website in which he demanded accountability for the 14 Catholic senators who voted against the motion.
“Today is the day for their bishops to issue a formal statement acknowledging that these men and women have publicly denied their Catholic faith, and if not formally, then have informally excommunicated themselves,” wrote Longenecker.
“Since their offense is public it should be acknowledged publicly and their pastors should publicly rebuke them and ask them not to receive the sacraments.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City told The Catholic World Reporter in a December interview that he was concerned about when “we have Catholic politicians who flaunt their Catholicity but take positions that our inconsistent with our Catholic teaching.”
“[Former Gov. of Kansas Kathleen Sebelius] would talk about how Catholic she was but act totally contrary to Church teaching. It creates a problem for us as bishops when Catholic politicians do that. They teach our people that it is OK to be Catholic and support legalized abortion,” said Archbishop Naumann last year.
“Tim Kaine, a U.S. senator and former vice-presidential candidate, is another example of a politician who flaunted his Catholic background but spewed a lot of pro-choice rhetoric. When they do this, they’re taking on a teaching role and misleading our people.” (Christian Post)
The same is true for Nancy Pelosi, the Kennedys, and the Cuomo family.
The response by Fr. Longenecker and Archbishop Naumann is exactly what Paul is discussing in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. He is not saying that Christians don’t have anything to do with the world and its laws. It’s a matter of the jurisdictional separation of church and state. Church courts can only deal with people and their behavior who are members of the church. Excommunication is its ultimate sanction while the State’s is the sword (Rom. 13:4).
No Bible verse stands in isolation from its immediate context and the rest of the Bible. This means that 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 must be interpreted in light of the story arc and other places in the Bible where similar issues are raised.
The following verses give us the immediate context:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst (1 Cor. 5:1-2; cf. 7:1-3).
Some sexual impropriety had taken place in the Corinthian church. Paul references the Old Testament law (Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:30; 27:20). This is crucial for Christians who claim they are free from the law. Paul didn’t think so. The Bible required that the unrepentant person be removed from the church and treated as an unbeliever (see Matt. 18:15-20). This would have been done by the elders after all remedies for repentance and reconciliation had been exhausted. Paul writes, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). The old leaven was to be cleaned out so the new leaven would not be affected (vv. 6-7).
Paul goes on to write that Christians should not associate with any so-called brother in Christ who continues in his immorality. He then states that this would not apply to those who are not part of the church: “I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10-11). Jesus associated with sinners and was condemned for it (e.g. Mark 2:13-17), but He never condoned, ignored, or remained silent about their sins (John 4:7-45; 8:1-11).
Paul was admonishing the Corinthian church to exercise ecclesiastical discipline for the purpose of reuniting the sinner to the body of believers, something that eventually happened (2 Cor. 2:5-8.)
It should be noted that the woman is not mentioned as part of the discipline at Corinth. It may be because she was not a member of the Church. This is important. When it comes to judging where discipline is the issue, the church has limited jurisdiction. It can only discipline those who are actual members of a church body. In addition, one church can’t discipline someone from another church. In a hierarchical church government (e.g., Presbyterianism) with multiple jurisdictions (local church, presbytery, general assembly), the denomination itself can issue an ecclesiastical ruling on an issue that originates at the local church level.
Does this mean that Paul did not pass moral judgment on people outside the church? Not at all. Romans 1:18-32 is a perfect example of Paul making an overall moral judgment on the subject of same-sex sexuality and other sins:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them (Rom. 1:28-32).
We need, therefore, to make a distinction between moral and ecclesiastical judgment. Ecclesiastical judgment carries with it certain sanctions that can only be implemented by a church body of elders that cannot be applied to non-Christians who are not under the authority of a church government.
In the following verses, Paul is making a moral judgment that extends beyond the Christian/ecclesiastical sphere:
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim 1:8-11).
These comments aren’t just for Christians. The “law is good” for everyone if it is used lawfully.
But what about Paul’s comment “but those who are outside, God judges”? Is Paul saying that Christians have no interest in what those outside of Christ do to affect our culture, that given the opportunity to get involved politically, Christians should leave the law that Paul says is “good” behind? Paul is speaking about church government. The church’s government is limited to the courts of the church. Only members of a church can be disciplined ecclesiastically.
None of this means that Christians can’t address moral issues culturally. It does mean that a church court cannot subpoena a non-church member to appear before it to face sanctions.
If a person commits murder, there is no ecclesiastical judgment if that person is “outside” the jurisdiction of the church. If a church member commits murder, he or she is responsible to two jurisdictions — ecclesiastical (church) and civil.
Some might argue that since Jesus says, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1), Christians must remain silent in the face of outside-the-church evil. This is not what Jesus is saying as the next verse makes clear: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (7:2). If you impose a moral standard on others, that same standard will be applied to you. Judging must be consistent. There aren’t two standards of judgment: one for me and another for thee (Deut. 25:13; Lev. 19:15; Isa. 11:3; Zech. 7:9).).
In another place, Jesus says, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). There’s no prohibition about judging but a directive to do it righteously.
If enough Christians would understand these principles they might have a better impact on the culture. Consider that only small number of homosexuals have co-opted the culture. There are tens of millions of Christians who do not believe they have a role in affecting the culture because of their misreading of the Bible.