Monday, May 3, 2010

Casting Stones

I was reminded recently of a biblical passage that is often quoted, and I believe generally misused, in ordinary conversation. In John 8:2-11 we read of a woman who was accused of adultery and the townspeople had gathered to stone her to death as punishment for her sin. But Jesus stops them, saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”
This passage is often cited by those who wish to deflect criticism by pointing the finger back at their accusers: “How dare you point out my sins? You have no right to accuse me, since you yourself are a sinner.”
This misapplication of Jesus’ words does a disservice to the Word of God and allows sin and disobedience to flourish under the supposed protection of Jesus’ own command. Did Jesus really intend to prohibit fellow Christians from admonishing and correcting one another when one is caught committing sin? Are we forbidden from correcting others simply because we are all sinners?
This seems to fly in the face of other biblical texts which imply the opposite:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom...” (Colossians 3:16)
“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning.” (1Timothy 5:20)
These and other passages instruct us in no uncertain terms that we are right to admonish and correct one another (sometimes publicly) when we see a fellow Christian falter. Indeed Paul’s writings are filled with sometimes harsh scolding directed at Christians for their sinfulness. Paul rebuked Peter (one of the chosen Twelve) for back-peddling on his position concerning eating meals with Gentiles. It seems that Christians have never shied away from pointing out error in fellow believers.
“He who is without sin…”
Now, Paul was not “without sin,” as he himself admits. He even calls himself the “worst of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15-16). So, how is it that Paul feels qualified to point out another’s sinfulness? Is Paul “casting stones” even though he is a sinner? And are we also “casting stones” when we point out the sins of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
There is a distinction that needs to be made here between the kind of Christian admonishment that we find in Paul’s writings and elsewhere in the New Testament, and what Jesus calls “casting the first stone.” Simply put, there is nothing wrong with calling a sin a sin and informing those who are trapped in a cycle of sin that they need to repent and conform their lives to Christ. This is the basic goal of evangelization – we are all called to repentance, to turn away from sin. Even baptized Christians need to be re-evangelized from time to time and evaluate their fidelity to the Gospel. We all must help one another by pointing out error. But this is different than “casting stones.”
For ancient Jews, to “cast a stone” was to exact a punishment as prescribed in the Old Law. The woman caught in adultery was not merely being admonished or corrected publicly, as Christians are told we ought to do for one another. Rather she was receiving the divinely mandated punishment for her sin: death by stoning. When Jesus says that “he who is without sin” should “cast the first stone,” He is saying that only God (who is without sin) has the authority to punish us for our sins. In light of this, the story of the woman caught in adultery tells us that we should not pass final judgment on a person because only God can do that. But it does not say that we can never point out the sins of others and urge them to correct their ways. Condemning someone to death and admonishing someone for their sins are two different things entirely.
Also important to remember is that the Jews of Jesus’ day disagreed about the resurrection of the body. Some believed that there would be no final resurrection, and so any reward or punishment given by God would be handed out during a person’s time here on earth. A rich man was rich because God recognized his righteousness and rewarded him with wealth. A poor man was poor and the sick contracted illness because they were sinners. But Jesus taught that this earthly system of temporal punishment and reward was not the way of God. Our final judgment and punishment would come after our deaths, not as outward signs of wealth and wellbeing here and now. Through the Grace of Christ, everyone (even the greatest sinner) has the chance to repent up to the moment of death, leaving salvation to the mercy of God.
Under the Old Law, punishment for sin had to be swift and severe to ensure that justice was served in this lifetime. But under the New Law, God’s mercy does away with the harsh brutality of fellow sinners judging one another’s souls. Jesus ended the barbarism of “casting stones.” But in doing so, He did not give us a “free pass” to sin. And He certainly did not forbid fellow Christians from reprimanding one another when we have fallen away from the Truth. We are all sinners (this much is true), but as sinners we all benefit from correction, even when correction is offered by our imperfect companions on this journey through life.
Too often, I hear fellow Christians citing John 8:2-11 as they wag their finger in the face of their accuser: “How dare you point out my sins? How dare you caste stones when you are just as much a sinner as I?” They are using the Word of God to shield themselves in their own sinfulness. This abuse of Scripture is a false refuge. They only compound their sin by twisting the words of Jesus to their own demise.


  1. They're citing the wrong passage. They should be citing Matthew 7:1-5:

    "Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove that splinter from your eye,' while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's eye."

    If we're genuinely honest with ourselves, how many times are the so-called "accusers" doing such not from a sincere desire to help their fellow Christian, but rather out of a prideful and judgemental motive. Much like teenagers who are compelled to put others down to boost their own self-esteem, no doubt many Christians appoint themselves as judges (and sometimes executioners) out of an insecurity about their own rightousness.

    If we are to engage in admonishment, we should do everything we can to make sure it is done "with all wisdom" as Saint Paul says, and that we do not abuse passages of Scripture about such admonishment to our own demise out of a misplaced sense of pride.

  2. I thought this blog was right on and I thank you for that. I do have a question unrelated to this subject, however. I am studying the different faiths and I struggle with the catholic religion because of the "saints", "Mary", and carved images that catholics pray to for guidance. Is this not a form of idol worship? I thought if you were going to pray you should pray directly to God or to Jesus who is said to be the truth, the way and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him. I am honestly perplexed by this and I would love to hear the true catholic perspective on this topic. Thank you in advance for your insight.

  3. Jim:

    I agree that the passage you cite (Matthew 7:1-5) about “not judging" lends itself more to the purpose at hand...that is, the purpose of trying to deflect criticism concerning personal sin. So, if your main objective is to dodge criticism and keep sinning, then certainly you could use Matthew 7:1-5 for that purpose to much better effect: “I’m a sinner; you’re a sinner – so just leave me alone and we’ll both keep sinning.”

    But then that’s the whole problem. And that is the main point of my post – people who try to do this, people who make excuses for their sins by hiding behind Biblical passages such as these are misusing Scripture. And they are avoiding a serious discussion about what is sin and what are its consequences.

    Jesus did not say what He did about the “wooden beam” and the “splinter” as an easy-out to avoid confronting personal shortcomings. In fact, He said these things precisely so that we WILL examine our shortcomings. In grappling with our own sins (the beam in our own eye) we will be better equipped to attend to our brother’s needs: “...remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's eye.”

    So again Jesus is NOT forbidding us to point out sin in the lives of others (in fact, he says to do so); what He is doing is reminding us that we are all in the same boat. No one is perfect. We will never be able to approach a fellow sinner and be blameless ourselves. We all have splinters and beams because we are all sinners. But as I said before, even Paul admitted to being a sinner (he had his own wooden beam in his eye) yet he pointed out the sins of fellow Christians. And the passages I cited make it clear that we are to admonish one another just as Paul did, even publicly pointing out sin. We are all supposed to call one another to repentance. We cannot truthfully evangelize if we leave out the need for turning away from sin, and that means we must call sin what it is and tell sinners that they need Christ’s forgiveness.

    I would draw attention here to an important part of the passage you cite: “...the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” – We must always be mindful that we will all receive judgment from God - He will "measure out" what we receive for our actions. With that in mind, if we approach a sinner and say, “You are going to hell, and God hates you.” Then we are in a heap of trouble – who wants that kind of “measure” measured out to himself? But if we approach the sinner (having first acknowledged our own “wooden beam” in our eye) and we say, “You are steeped in sin and in need of God’s grace and mercy. Let me show you a better way,” then I see no reason why we cannot admonish fellow Christians and call out sinners in no uncertain terms when we see them acting against God’s Will. God’s Love and Mercy is a “measure” I would have no problem receiving in my own due course.

  4. Anonymous:

    This is an excellent question, and I know how difficult the topic can be for a Christian who is unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine and practices. It can certainly seem like idolatry from the outside looking in.

    I will take some time to compose a reply. I will answer as a new post, because I think it deserves a full treatment. I will be as brief as possible, but I will try to answer thoroughly. Any questions you may have can be posted in the comments below that new post.

    I should have it up in the next day or so...


  5. Unfortunately there are too many Catholics who admonish their fellows and call out sinners not in an attempt to bring them to repentance, but more from an almost pathological need to boost their own ego and shame others. They certainly do not do it out of love and mercy, and no doubt they have not done the necessary examination of their own shortcomings to enable them to rightfully do so. The act then becomes self-serving and Jesus uses the same term for them that he uses for those who do not keep up their appearance when they fast and make an overtly public display of their worship, hypocrites.

    To your point, I would argue that using biblical passages to support one's practice of this would be just as much a misuse of Scripture. Really what it comes down to is wisdom, which sadly is in short supply these days. Before calling someone out there should be enough wisdom in understanding the nature of sin, the guilt of the person involved, and most importantly in understanding the difference between doing so out of love rather than out of pride.

    The accused needs wisdom just as much as the accuser. Wisdom enough to judge whether the accuser is coming from the right place in pointing out the sin, and is not acting out of pride or hypocrisy. Wisdom to tell whether they have the requisite authority or knowledge to be able to lead them away from sin and to repentance, and most importantly wisdom enough to be honest and admit to themselves when they have sinned.

    Put simply, all of it can be used just as much as a defense against hypocrisy and false teaching as it can be a defense of sin and wrongdoing

  6. Jim,

    I agree with everything you said. Using the Bible to cloak oneself in a false righteousness, whether you are the accused or the accuser, is an abuse of God’s Word. It certainly cuts both ways. I could have written more emphatically on the other side (just as you are pointing out), but there are two reasons I wrote this piece from the angle I chose:

    1) In today’s culture the problem I see most prevalent is a denial of any moral authority whatsoever. It is common for people who are absorbed in the pop culture, or following popular trends, and coming into conflict with Christian moral precepts, to use Bible passages such as these against the Church. They claim that if all Christians are sinners then Christians have no right to teach with authority on any moral issue. If a Christian sins then that is enough to condemn the whole religion, and the Church’s voice is silenced.

    Moral relativism is one of the greatest threats to the Church today. The belief that “no one has the authority to tell me what is right and wrong” has even seeped into Christian circles. Using passages such as the ones we have discussed above, wayward Christians effectively deflect criticism of their sins, especially those Christians in public life who cause scandal to the Church when they defend immoral practices or misrepresent Church teaching.

    If I were to pound the drum on the other side of this issue I would only serve to bolster this great heresy of our time – the “dictatorship of relativism” as Pope Benedict has called it. I wrote what I did because it is the most salient point for our times. Certainly the things you say are true, but I think we need MORE people who are willing to stand up against sin and evil, not LESS.

    2) I tried to take an approach to these passages that looks at sin in an objective way. Take for example the woman caught in adultery from the original passage I cited. Objectively there is no question that she committed adultery. If she was sleeping with a man who was not her husband then that is the very definition of “adultery.” That act of sin is damaging to society. Likewise, for example, the case of abortion in our own day: The taking of an innocent unborn life is a sin. There are no two ways about it. We must speak out against that which is objectively evil. Calling a “sin” a “sin” in most cases is easy to do from an objective standpoint. As Christians we are all called to point out these sins. (That is my main point.)

    The difficulty arises when attempting to discern a person’s *motives* and *guilt*. Each case is different when it comes to “why” a person sins. This is why we cannot “condemn” (or “cast stones” at) the person sinning. Their motivation for sinning is subjective and hard for us to analyze. We should certainly tell others about sin, but do so with God’s love and mercy in our hearts, and with an awareness that we cannot know what is deep within them.

    In the same way, it is difficult for us to determine a person’s motivation for pointing out sin. Some people do it because of a self-righteous compulsion to always be right (like you said). But we cannot determine that if we don’t know their heart. I am not denying that it happens. (Such people should be warned of their own sin of pride.)

    But none of this changes the objective reality of sin, nor does it remove our obligation to confront sin and battle against it.

    Bottom line is this: The culture today has a serious problem with moral relativism and seems incapable of identifying “sin” and “evil” as objective realities. I purposely stayed away from analyzing the subjective motivation for sin (both of the accused and the accuser) and stuck to a description of the ideal model of Christian admonishment of sinners, and viewed sin in the context of objective reality.