She’s doing all the right things, but her heart is far away… he’s a church leader, but he unapologetically abuses his family… are you actually a Christian?
NB. The following post is intended for a professing Christian audience and addresses some very raw subject matter. You have been warned.
It’s 5am on a Saturday morning, and I’m awake churning a number of difficult cases I’ve heard over the past few years, as well as some of the most contentious, undiscussed passages of Scripture that are around. For those who know me, I try to tend more towards the encouraging and uplifting tones of life and faith – you can even read a number of such posts to that end right here on this site. However, there are some realities about life and the Christian’s core document that can’t go unaddressed.
As someone who’s been involved in church leadership for several years, I am routinely presented with a number of disheartening events and occurrences in people’s lives. For all intents and purposes, people want to live a good and happy life. They want to get along with people, they want to do the right thing, they want to be accepted and well liked and respected.
And yet I think about how many times we absolutely betray and hurt one another. I think about people I’ve known who have gone through the tragedy of losing family members to murder. I think about people I’ve known who’ve been abused or belittled at the hands of their husband or wife. I think about those who have had their children stripped away from them through no fault of their own, those who have had close friends betray them, or pastors who have had their eldership absolutely destroy their lives.
And as we all should, I try to consider things from all sides. There are two sides to every story, some would say. Some would say there’s his story, her story, and then there’s the truth. I think it’s important that we cover things from all possible angles before making a judgement or reaching a conclusion.
Having examined several Scriptures and many cases, I have come back to a question that perhaps is actually one of the most sobering thoughts to ever be put to paper in the body of Christ. And it’s this:
Are you actually a Christian? Because Scripture suggests you’re not. And this has severe implications for churches, leadership, marriage and even friendships. Even moreso for the life of the person involved.
Okay, I know. Sounds quite judgemental and harsh and dismissive of people’s faiths. But hear me out. I hope you catch the heart of what I’m saying here, but recognize also that I believe there is a true warning and reprimand for people whose words profess faith but whose actions profess death.
I’m even bolding things in-line, I never really do that as a writer. That’s how you know how serious this is.
But I am so sick of how many cases of people I have heard over the past number of years who have called for the destruction of the innocent because of the actions of the guilty. In the name of God, no less.
You only have to look as far as the widespread outbreak of sexual abuse amongst much of the church, especially of children. Priests, bishops, pastors, leaders, male and female, young and old, who have been exposed as being habitual molesters of infants and children. Don’t you just feel sick even reading those words?
And they profess faith. They profess to love God. They run the Bible study, they bring forward compelling sermons. Their world aid programs may even reach millions of people.
So why do we find out years later that this behaviour has been running uninhibited in their lives for decades? Excuse me Mr Leader, are you actually a Christian?
Let’s take another case where a wife is physically abusing her husband and cheating with another man. This happens way more than you think, and is not restricted to a gender. They’re both in church. They serve together. Everyone knows them. They’re so sweet and kind.
But when she gets home, it’s a different story. She’s cruel, she’s violent, she hits her husband with the phone, and she’s got another man on the side.
But it’s her husband’s fault, right? They’re both Christians, right? She’s apologised once or twice. Hasn’t changed, but she apologised that one time. They confronted her about it, but she just avoids it. He just has to put up with it. Paul said. I mean, I think he said. He said that thing about, you know, staying. Even through habitual unrepentant adultery. I think. Or maybe he didn’t mention that part cause he was referring to what Jesus said about it. And Jesus said something about unrepentant marital unfaithfulness because of the hardness of people’s hearts, and maybe even Paul mentioned one who is clearly an unbeliever may want to leave, but it’s not my life so I don’t want to see that that exception exists.
Or how about the person who professes to be doing more for God than they are? Oh look at me, I’m doing all these great things for God. I even sold my house for the sake of the church, and here’s all the money I brought for it! Look how holy and noble I am, everyone! Me and my wife Sapphira think that’s perfectly acceptable. Let’s see what Pastor Peter thinks. Yes, that’s a biblical example, but how many other cases do we have where people do that? Oh I’m making so many sacrifices in Jesus’ name, meanwhile I belittle and unrepentantly mistreat my family. They’re running the women’s ministry or helping run the kids church or serving with the men, but they refuse to be corrected by spiritual oversight or the words of Scripture.
I know what you’re thinking about some of these people and cases.
Oh, but they’re a church leader. They’re on the board. They went on that missionary trip. They cast out demons in his name, and they gave a fortune to the church.
And what were the words that Jesus said would be leveled at such people?
“But I never knew you”.
These are the words Jesus Christ Himself said He would utter at the end of days when all men and women come forward for judgement. Professing believers. Best selling authors. Stay at home mums. The greatest to the smallest. Those who made a bold claim with their mouth and with surface behaviour but in their hearts were utterly unrepentant.
And that is the key issue here. Unrepentant behaviour. It’s a thing. And some people will remain unrepentant, even until the end of time. Scripture makes that clear.
In the church world, we are called to be gracious, and forgive as God forgave us. Yet do we actually know how God forgives? We say God gives people unlimited chances, that He bends over every time for all the sins we’ve committed, that He puts up with how horrible and cruel we will continually be to His face. He waits for the day for people to reconcile to Him.
Let me just say that this is true: God is a gracious and forgiving God. Full of mercy, abounding in opportunities. He takes us back when few others would.
And I absolutely would not like to advocate for just dropping people because they made some mistakes or they hurt us. Even in those cases as severe as adultery, you should pursue restoration first if you can. Exhaust opportunities to do so even. That’s what God does, and that’s what the believer should do.
But I would like to challenge our view on forgiveness and reconciliation because I think in the name of being spiritual we aren’t actually forgiving “as God forgave us”, in the sense that we are missing a number of aspects of what grace means. Because grace isn’t just forgiveness for the guilty, but it’s also protection and restoration for the innocent.
Take for instance that God will not give people unlimited opportunities to continue rejecting Him. One day, eventually all of us will have our lives on earth finish up. Whether we get 20 years or 80, eventually there’ll be a day where that’ll be it, show’s over, did you accept God’s gracious gift of forgiveness or not? If so, great. If not, God will take that as your final answer.
“Oh, but what if they change their mind later?”. This is a question that keeps many people in severe bondage when someone is likewise rejecting of them. The person could change. And yes, they could, and we hope for that. But I would like to acknowledge that even God gets to a point where he accepts that person’s decision as final, and will not open the door again for them. That’s exactly what hell is for. It’s the extreme of your choice. It’s a place devoid of God’s characteristics. That’s how removed God will allow you to be from who He is because you remained unrepentant in your behaviour.
Another consideration is that God does not form or maintain covenant with people who continue in unrepentance. I’m not saying believers who have issues with sin here. Because that’s all of us. I’d be in a lot of trouble if God just ditched me here. However, if in my heart I had purposed not to remain heading in the direction of God’s heart, that is actually a posture of unbelief. Scripture teaches us that salvation is the end of our faith – that is, it’s what you receive after you continue in the direction of God’s heart. If you have not done so, the author of Hebrews says you are not restored. It’s the direction, and it will be revealed by your behaviour.
Moreover, God actually broke covenant on the grounds of unfaithfulness with people, not just as in the case above which is our modern day reality, but also in times past. God famously divorces Israel in the Old Testament, and several times withdrew His promise because the direction of the people was not toward him.
I’ve alluded to a few Scriptures throughout but mainly stayed in my tone to convey the point and the picture. Let me get more specific with you. Jesus said in Matthew 18 that if you have an issue with someone, go tell them. Why? Because Jesus’ preference and desire is forgiveness met with reconciliation. Forgiveness is always a requirement of the believer, but reconciliation takes two. And so, if they won’t listen to just you, bring someone else. If they still don’t listen, bring the eldership. In these days, that would either be church leadership, or legal counsel. And get this – this is the words of Jesus Christ Himself – if they still won’t listen, let them be to you as a heathen and a tax collector. People would argue, “Oh, well aren’t we supposed to be merciful to tax collectors and heathens?”. This is not the point Jesus is making here. He’s saying, in line with Old Testament and Rabbinical teachings, that once you have done all you can with an unrepentant person, you are no longer bound. And this is the rule that, as we’ve seen above, even God will use Himself. If a person receives that many opportunities to turn and still refuses, even God will not put His word in them because of a hard heart.
And not just a change of actions on a surface level – Jesus said the Pharisees did that and called them white washed tombs. Beautiful appearance, great Facebook profile, helps a lot in church, but full of death. It has to be a change of heart, and we will see that in genuine fruit. You will know a tree by its fruit, after all – what it continually and habitually produces.
This is pretty extreme. Treat them like an unbeliever? But that’s my pastoral oversight. That’s my best friend. That’s my ex-wife. That’s a very well respected Christian in public and on social media. Why would Jesus say that?
It might be because the person is actually an unbeliever.
1 John 2:4 tells us that if a person says they know God, but doesn’t do what He says (unrepentantly so), the person deceives themselves and the truth isn’t even in them. James tells us that faith without works is dead. 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us that anyone who refuses (unrepentantly, not just a once off instance or due to a lack of effort) to look after his own household is worse than an infidel. Yep, there’s a category for people worse than infidels. Are they actually a Christian? Scripture tells us that by their unrepentant behaviour, they’re possibly not.
I was talking to a great older man in our church a few weeks ago about his former marriage. He was saying that he found himself bound with the unrepentant adultery of his ex-wife, but as a Christian he felt trapped to reconcile. But she wouldn’t. After years of attempts. And yet Scripture (even through Jesus Himself) would give him a biblical mechanism to free himself from the unrepentant sin of another (see Matthew 5 and 19 as well). People who are unrepentantly adulterous, abusive, abandoning, whatever it may be – these are all signs of an unbelieving, unredeemed life. As Shane Willard excellently and aptly puts it in his message on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, “We think to ourselves, ‘Oh, but that person is so sweet and Christian!’. Yeah, to you. But what are they like when they get home?”.
Boy oh boy, I could think of dozens of high profile (as in covered by the media) cases of infidelity and unrepentant change, and even lower profile ones, where the church has pulled out its “holier than thou” weapon and bashed the victim of someone’s unrepentant behaviour towards their spouse. And attempting to justify it because “that person says they’re a Christian and they do Christian things”. Disgusting. Man, this one in particular is one I’m super passionate about. Stop telling the victims of perpetual abandonment, abuse, and marital unfaithfulness that it’s the will of God that they stay beyond a point of reasonable reconciliation! Even God Himself doesn’t do that, and the Old and New Testament are full of cases where the person is free to go. Especially if the person is an unbeliever, which by demonstration of a person’s unrepentant behaviour, I would contest is actually the reality in more cases than we’re willing to admit – no matter how many bible college classes they’ve been through or how many church teams they’ve served on. I laughed to hear John Piper’s more constrictive and damning views when he spoke on the subject, only to end his sermon with, “Oh by the way my own church eldership don’t agree with me on this and this is not even the position of the church”. Of course they don’t! It doesn’t hold weight with the whole message of the Gospel. And I’m a huuuuge fan of marriage and keeping your commitments, don’t get me wrong. But not where it’s no longer possible.
But there are so many other cases where that happens too. I’ve seen friends expect other friends to bear the weight of someone’s extreme sin that has never been apologised or repented from. I’m not talking about those cases where we hurt each other and repent. I’m talking about those cases where someone runs through someone’s house. Wilfully destroys their property. Intentionally defames or destroys the person’s heart and character unjustly. And we think we’re advocates of the grace of God because we expect such a person to just forgive and continually allow this person to run them over? No way. Read what Paul said about the people who continually scorned him. There’s your New Testament example. Grace does break down the walls, but it also provides protection. God is mercy and justice, not one without the other. As Jesus said above, the person is free to avoid or stay away from such a person. That doesn’t mean staying bitter, that doesn’t mean staying unforgiving. Forgiveness is always a requirement of a believer, and a full-hearted attempt at reconciliation is also called for.
But a person has to repent. Philemon was a wealthy man who had a worker named Onesimus who hurt him quite badly. And the relationship could only be reconciled after the repentance of Onesimus and the advocacy of Paul.
So what am I saying here? I’m saying unrepentant behaviour is the posture of an unbeliever. Can we stop damning the innocent party for the sin of the guilty? Jesus was already damned as the innocent party for the sin of the guilty once, and it was a great injustice that set us free. We do not require people to be continual epitaphs of the injustice they suffered. The church needs to wake up and start living out the grace it professes. “We keep hoping that person will change though”. Yes, we do. But Scriptural counsel would advise us to consider the reality that they might not. There has to be an acceptable point where we say, “alright, they have done all they can”. Leave the guilt with the guilty.
And you, dear reader. Which category are you in? Are you completely unrepentant about anything in your life? Perhaps you’re reading this and you’re actually in the category of the unrepentant, or the formerly unrepentant. You’ve been confronted, someone has attempted to do the Christian thing of offering grace and forgiveness, but you still refuse it. You need to recognize and accept the magnitude of your actions. People may have legally and justifiably moved on from you. People may no longer trust what you have done. To set things right, you might have to put some hard yards in, and you may need to accept that your actions have caused some things to be lost. But there is a chance for something new even for you.
But repent first with God. A change of the heart. Turn that direction around. That’s what true Christianity is all about. You won’t always be perfect in action, but as long as you have repented of all you know you need to, and you know because the Holy Spirit convicts us, you’re heading in the right direction.
I apologise for the longer post and the more aggressive tone. But man, we’ve gotta set some things right.
What do you think on these issues? There’s a lot of stuff I brought up there.