When I was a young lad and not long a Christian, I and my Christian friends would discuss the merits of the preachers we knew and heard in and around Glasgow. At uni there were many of us in the Navigators and the Christian Union so there were plenty preachers we knew of to talk about.
Perhaps it was arrogant of us to think we knew anything about what to look for in preaching and preachers. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all. Youth has a habit of not caring too much about such small but important details as experience and wisdom. But, undeterred, we pressed on with our discussions, often late into the night.
Not all the preachers were considered ‘good’. In fact, based on the quality of the preaching, the things said, the views expressed, occasionally someone would say in hushed tones, “I don’t think he is a Christian”. Such conclusions seemed perfectly rational.
Much later, having moved abroad to England, I still maintained that kind of thinking. In any church there are Christians and not-really Christians.
Now, there are two ways that one can deal with this kind of thought. First, there is the recognition that not all of those who are members of a church today will be there at the Last Day. This is a fact which cannot be denied. Hypocrites are in the church and they will be found out by Christ (Mat. 7:21-23). But the second way of dealing with this is to adopt an attitude akin to the Inquisition. “Is that person really a Christian?” I may ask. The person is a member of the church I am a member of. He/she is not an “open and notorious evil liver”. In other words, he/she could be living an ordered life, outwardly impeccable. Yet the Inquisitor in me says, “Is that person really a Christian?” This is the approach I used to take some years ago as I formed a mental list of those in my church who were “real Christians” and those who were not.
The difference between the two views is simple. Who decides? In the first case, Christ decides. He is the infallible judge. He always gets things right. This is a fearful fact that must be treated with some urgency and importance by each individual. He will not make a mistake and therefore there is no room for appeal, no matter how people will try. (Read Matt. 7:21-23 again to check that this is true.)
In the second case, I try to decide. Of course, open sin must be confronted – theft, adultery etc. Here, the process of pastoral discipline must be followed through by the church (Matt. 18:15-17), resulting in expulsion (1 Cor. 5:1-13) as the final step if necessary. But what of those who are not like that? They may be baptised, professors of the faith, but who at the same time don’t seem very lively spiritually speaking, sometimes come out with whacky theological views, and lack an eagerness to serve that others may have. Yes, there is a case for me to encourage them in greater zeal for worship, prayer, meditation on the Word, acts of service. But is it legitimate for me to entertain that secret little thought, “He’s not really a Christian”?
I can’t justify a “yes” to that question. Can you?
ADDENDUM: Of course I should add for the sake of clarity that for anyone to stand in a pulpit and preach unbiblical nonsense is a great sin. Any afflicted church must deal with this cancer and do so crisply. Young men who do not know what they are saying should be counselled and trained. Older men who know exactly what they are saying should be told to “pick a windae” – as they say in Glasgow.