I started writing this long before Pope Francis’ comments on Donald Trump
It is a question that is often posed, not only about Trump, but about Barack Obama and other political and even religious leaders. For that matter, it is something we wonder about other people who attend our churches but behave in ways that seem to undermine Christian values.
The politically correct answer to this question is usually, “Who am I to judge what is in his heart? He says he’s a Christian and that’s good enough for me.”
But, while there is plenty in Scripture cautioning us against judging other people, there are also admonitions that run in the other direction. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians —
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV)
Paul also wrote to Timothy,
“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. “(1 Timothy 5:20-21 ESV)
So, it seems pretty clear that Christians have a responsibility to hold each other accountable for their actions. If someone who claims to be a Christian is engaged in sin, he should be publicly chastised, and shunned if he doesn’t correct his ways. But this does not apply to non-Christians. They are not bound by the standards of Christian behavior.
Now, Paul also says:
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:1-4 ESV)
This instruction seems to be more about internal church practices: how communion is served, who is eligible for baptism, the order of liturgy, and the like. These are cultural preferences, having little to do with the tenets of faith. Some people like praise music, while others prefer traditional music. Some churches hold communion every week, while others have it less often. Some worshippers are staid, while other like to whoop and holler. We shouldn’t “quarrel” over these matters, but should welcome each other as fellow believers.
Of course, there are many who show-off their religious practices more for public consumption, to make themselves look good to the community, without much actual faith behind it. Jesus recognized these folks –
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)
These cautions apply to all of us as faithful believers. But there are additional warnings for people in leadership positions. These leaders can lead the faithful astray with false teaching, sometimes knowingly, other times simply because they have other agendas and misinterpret Scripture to suit their political or social preferences. Jesus called them false prophets —
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV)
Peter spoke of this, too –
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV)
And Paul added –
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18 ESV)
So what are we to make of all this? To identify such a false prophet, we obviously have to use judgment, or if you don’t like that word, call it discernment. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is expected of us. Faithful Christians cannot allow people who claim to be brothers and sisters to mislead, by word or action, other people who may be on the fence about Jesus. We have to be willing to boldly declare that this person is not speaking the truth.
Now this gets complicated because none of us are perfect. We are all sinners and hardly in a position to lord it over others. We are often charged with hypocrisy because we cannot live up to the standards we have set for ourselves. We have to ask for forgiveness on a daily basis and (try to) “go and sin no more.”
Our relationship with God is private and personal. It is in our room with the door shut. We cannot tell what another person is doing in his room with his door shut. But we most certainly can tell what that person is doing and saying when he comes out of his room and is acting in public. If those actions and words do not comport with Christian standards, we are expected to call him on it publicly.
If such a person flaunts immoral behavior and brags about never asking forgiveness, we need to speak out and say this is not Christian behavior. He cannot be allowed to continue to mislead people by calling willful defiance of God a Christian act. Jesus warned about causing others to stumble: “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6 ESV)
Pope Francis got it wrong about Donald Trump. It isn’t his position on immigration that should make people question his Christianity, but his declaration that he never asks for forgiveness.