By Kevin Paulson
The question of how to deal with religious offenders, whether doctrinal or moral, is one deeply troubling to many laypersons and leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. How are we to properly address challenges to the integrity and practice of our faith? How are justice and mercy to be balanced in such decisions? At what point does responsible firmness give way to brash cruelty. Christian tolerance give way to secular license?
Many in the current scene employ the example of Christ’s dealing with Judas as the model for handling apostasy and carelessness in the church. They cite the protracted patience and gentle reproofs of Jesus in this case as the norm for dealing with persons disseminating heresy or breaching inspired counsel in their daily lives. Those who call for decisive action-for the dismissal of such persons from church employment or membership- are often criticized as unloving, warlike, and guilty of needlessly dividing the community of faith.
This article wishes to examine carefully the case of Christ and Judas, and to compare it with another biblical example of patience with offenders-the story of Eli and his sons. The reader is encouraged to study the chapter “Judas” in The Desire of Ages as well as “‘Eli and His Sons” in Patriarchs and Prophets, as recommended reading along with this article.
Christ and Judas
Included among the disciples, at the urging of the other eleven, Judas quickly acquired prestige and respect in Christ’s inner circle of followers. His personal talents, exceeding by far those of his peers, were viewed as indispensable to the later success of the church. Doubtless many others were convinced, as was Judas himself, that none of the other disciples could match his administrative or financial skills. No wonder Ellen White declares, “Had Judas died before his last journey to Jerusalem he would have been regarded as a man worthy of a place among the twelve, and one who would be greatly missed” (The Desire of Ages 716).
Quite obviously, Judas had many people fooled. His proud, avaricious spirit he had kept well concealed during his years with Christ. His subtle insinuations of doubt, his devil’s-advocate role playing, were largely, if not exclusively, a private matter involving Jesus and the other disciples. His occasional stealing of funds from the treasury was probably unknown to anyone save Jesus and Judas himself. In short, the errors in the beliefs and life of Judas were largely veiled from public scrutiny, even though they were shared to some extent by Christ’s other followers, both within and outside the Twelve. In Ellen White’s words, “Judas made no open opposition, nor seemed to question the Saviorâ€™s lessons. He made no outward murmur until the time of the feast in Simon’s house”(Ibid. 720). This statement is highly significant. No observable, humanly perceivable damage had been inflicted by Judas on the cause of Christ until now. Hitherto, almost completely, the problem of Judas had been a problem of the heart, exhibiting itself on secret and subtle occasions in secret and subtle conduct. As such, it could only be addressed by Christ in secret and subtle ways. Even when He rebuked Judas at Simon’s feast He did not disclose the real purpose of Judas in wanting Mary’s ointment sold. Ellen White states, “Secret sins are to be confessed in secret to God” (Ibid. 811). It is probably fair to say that so far as possible they should be rebuked in secret as well. While the public disclosure of secret sins is at times necessary, as shown in the experiences of Ellen White and certain biblical prophets, it might be best to conclude that only an inspired person-with supernatural insight into the inner reactions and receptivity of individualsâ€”is qualified for such work.
Eli and His Sons
Here we find another instance of gentleness and patience in dealing with religious offenders. But in this case the inspired pen records serious divine displeasure at this approach to the problem.
Why the difference? Like Judas, the sons of Eli were avaricious and self-seeking. But unlike the acts of Judas, those of Hophni and Phinehas were done publicly, defrauding the worshipers at the sanctuary in open defiance of the Levitical law (1 Samuel 2:13-16). Vile and degrading practices were freely mingled with their ministry. Thus was the Lord’s work publicly dishonored and profaned. In Ellen White’s words, “The service which God had ordained was despised and neglected because associated with the sins of wicked men, while those whose hearts were inclined to evil were emboldened in sin. Ungodliness, profligacy, and even idolatry prevailed to a fearful extentâ€ (Patriarchs and Prophets 577).
During the time Judas walked with Christ, those persons exposed to the subtle errors of Judas were undoubtedly so blinded by their own errors that they failed to see what was wrong. Inspiration records nothing of any protest movement among Christ’s followers demanding that the offender be brought to justice. But in the case of Eli’s sons, we read a different story. “The people complained of their violent deeds, and the high priest was grieved and distressed. He dared remain silent no longer. But his sons had been brought up to think of no one but themselves, and now they cared for no one else. They saw the grief of their father, but their hard hearts were not touched. They heard his mild admonitions, but they were not impressed, nor would they change their evil course though warned of the consequences of their sin. Had Eli dealt justly with his wicked sons, they would have been rejected from the priestly office and punished with death. Dreading thus to bring public disgrace and condemnation upon them, he sustained them in the most sacred positions of trust. He still permitted them to mingle their corruption with the holy service of God and to inflict upon the cause of truth an injury which years could not efface” (Ibid.)
In this context we find one of the truly great passages in the Spirit of Prophecy on the subject of church discipline:
â€œThose who have too little courage to reprove wrong, or who through indolence or lack of interest make no earnest effort to purify the family or the church of God, are held accountable for the evil that may result from their neglect of duty. We are just as responsible for evils that we might have checked in others by exercise of parental or pastoral authority as if the acts had been our own” (Ibid. 578).
God’s Church Today
No one will deny that cases similar to that of Judas abound in the Adventist Church today. Ellen White indicates that some in the church who, like Judas, have experienced gentle reproof from godly souls will follow in the steps of Judas by betraying their reprovers (The Great Controversy 43-44). But are there also sons of Eli among us?
In recent years a tidal wave of open apostasy and sin has swept through our ranks. Attacks on the church and its beliefs have resounded through sermons, classroom lectures, and the printed page. Unscriptural divorce, Sabbath breaking, and the misuse of funds have occurred. Institutions are operated in a manner totally out of step with inspired counsel. As in the days of Eli, many have suffered alienation from the organized church as a result. Thousands of truehearted believers have raised their voices in protest to the leaders of God’s work.
But too many leaders, like Eli, have responded with mild admonitions, accommodating policies, and appeasement posing as redemptive love. Persons are granted leadership positions whose public statements and lifestyle patterns are completely out of step with the truth. In such cases the analogy of Christ’s treatment of Judas is utterly inappropriate. We are dealing with the problem of Eli’s sons.
The tension between tolerance and license here depicted is similar to the tension between judging (Matthew 7:1-2) and fruit-inspecting (7: 16-20) in the teachings of Christ, The former involves the motives and the heart, which God alone can read. The latter involves outward conduct and ideas, which believers have a duty to compare with the standards of God’s Word (Isaiah 8:20). Ellen White clearly distinguishes the two in discussing the parable of the wheat and the tares. She writes, “Christ has plainly taught that those who persist in open sin must be separated from the church, but He has not committed to us the work of judging character and motive” (Christ’s Object Lessons 71). Again we find the difference between open and secret sin.
Elsewhere we read:
“I saw that decided efforts should be made to show those who arc unchristian in life their wrongs, and if they do nor reform, they should be separated from the precious and holy, that God may have a clean and pure people that He can delight in” (Testimonies vol. 1, 17).
I believe with all my heart that God’s church will one day be purified. But leaders must be men and women of courage, unafraid of hard choices and the possible removal of personnel. AS in the rearing of children, love must at times be firm and even severe. Perhaps Deitrich Bonhoeffer said it best: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin” (Life Together. New York: Harper & Row, 1954, 107).
Kevin Paulson is a pastor in the Greater New York Conference and an alumnus of La Sierra University.