Friday, May 21, 2010

Q&A: Call no one “Father”

Question: Why do Catholics call their priests “Father”? It seems clear that the Bible forbids this, as Jesus Himself stated: “And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9) When Catholics call their ordained clergy “Father” it is in direct violation of Christ’s command.

As with many criticisms concerning Catholic practices and teachings, this common misunderstanding stems from a poor interpretation of Scripture. Here we have an isolated verse that is ripped from its context and used to (supposedly) “prove” that Catholics are an unbiblical people who willfully disobey God’s Word. I suggest we examine the surrounding verses so that the original meaning is not lost:

“But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-11)

The Protestant argument, as stated in our question above, proposes that Jesus meant these words literally. When He said, call no one on earth ‘father,’ that means you should call absolutely no one on earth ‘father’ – (period) – end of story. Thus Jesus instituted an outright ban on the use of this title among Christians. Catholics are obviously in disobedience to Jesus’ clear command.

A few problems arise from this literalist interpretation. It would mean that Jesus also forbade anyone to be called “teacher” (in vs. 10, above). If we take this verse literally, then Jesus breaks his own command just a few verses later by calling someone other than the Christ “teacher”: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees…” (Matthew 23:13) Note that the word “teacher” is never avoided by Jesus after making this command; He uses it freely as a title for people other than Himself. Nor does the average Protestant avoid the use of this word. How many non-Catholic Christians – the very ones who criticize Catholics for calling their priests “Father” - call their Sunday school instructors “teacher”? This would seem to violate Jesus’ command every bit as much as Catholics calling their priests “Father.”

Surely there must be some other way to interpret this text. Jesus must not have meant to ban the word “teacher” since He Himself used it immediately after saying not to do so. He would not have made such a strict rule only to break it in His next breath.

Furthermore, notice in verse 8 of our passage from Matthew above: Jesus forbids the use of the word “master” (a form of which is “Rabbi”). But we all use a form of the word “master” whenever we say Mister or Misses. So do we violate this command of Jesus anytime we attach the word “master” to our own names? If Catholics are unbiblical then so are
Mr. Protestant and Mrs. Evangelical.

But what about father? Are there any biblical examples of this title being used? The answer is a resounding, yes:

Paul calls himself a “father” in the same spiritual sense that Catholics use the term: “For if you were to have countless tutors [also rendered “teachers” – notice Paul uses this forbidden term] in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father [‘I have begotten you’] through the gospel.” (1Corinthians 4:15) He even goes on to say in the very next verse, “Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.” (4:16) In his fatherhood, Paul is worthy of imitation. Paul often called those who were under his spiritual care his “children” implying his spiritual fatherhood.

In Acts, as Stephen is about to be martyred he calls the Jewish leaders “fathers”: “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” (Acts 7:2)

Also in Acts, we find a reference to “our father David” (Acts 4:25).
Not all Jews were directly descended from David; nonetheless the title “father” is applied to David because of his spiritual fatherhood rather than a direct biological connection.

Jesus calls Abraham “father”: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56) Often the Patriarchs (which is from the Latin for father – “pater”) of the Old Testament were referred to as “fathers” because of their great importance in the Jewish faith. Hebrews 1:1 does this as well: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways…”

Shockingly, Jesus even calls the devil a “father”: "You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth.” (John 8:44)

And of course, apart from the Bible, we cannot neglect to mention our everyday usage of the term. We all call our own male parent “father” and we use terms like “father of the country” or “founding fathers” for our secular heroes.

So why is it that Catholics are singled out, when clearly the Biblical and historical evidence shows that this passage from Matthew was never meant to be taken literally? Or more to the point, why did Jesus speak in such stark terms if He did not mean exactly what He said? How are we to interpret this passage from Matthew?

In Matthew 23:8-11, Jesus is using a rhetorical device called hyperbole – which means to exaggerate in an extreme way in order to make a point. We do this when we say things like, “I had to wait forever in line…” or “I’ve done this a million times…” No one takes you literally when you say these things, because everyone knows that you are overstating the truth in order to make a point. You are speaking in hyperbole.

So Jesus did not mean to forbid the use of certain words. Rather He intended to emphasize that our earthly experience of teachers and masters and fathers pales in comparison to the Teacher/Master/Father that is God.

Thus regarding teachers, Jesus’ point is this: Christ is the Ultimate Teacher. He is THE Teacher - above all other teachers. Just as Jesus is the most perfect of all human beings and deserves to be called Son of Man more than any of us do, so too does He deserve the name Teacher more than any earthly teacher does. Likewise, the word “Father” describes God as the Ultimate Father above all others. Anything we experience of fatherhood here on earth (even our own biological father) is an imperfect reflection of the divine paternity of God. The two are miles apart. And the same can be said of masters.

The reason Jesus is stressing this difference is not to ban these words from usage. The real reason is found in the final lines of our passage above: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus is telling us to avoid puffing ourselves up with pride concerning titles and official names. We may be father, master, or teacher to our fellow Christians, but these titles bear with them a humble acceptance of servitude, not a grand air of superiority. Catholics call their priests “Father” because as priests they accept the role of service and self-giving that is a reflection of God’s own gift of Self as Father to us all.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some final thoughts...on the media, politics, and the culture

Two previous posts have dealt with the media and the culture…
In one post (“We the Media…”) I explained that the mainstream news media gravitates to covering centers of political power while neglecting the most fundamental levels of society such as family, churches, local businesses and community organizations. This undue emphasis on the political has shaped our cultural outlook on politics and the power of the State, causing us to rely more heavily on government bureaucracy rather than personal freedom and the kindness of neighbor-helping-neighbor to solve social ills. We need a return to traditional social structures so that the State does not absorb the power once held by the people.
In a second post (“We the people…of God”) I continued on the same theme, using the “New Jerusalem” from the Book of Revelation as a reference point. The major idea being that our political aspirations are doomed to fail if we neglect God’s plan. We must base our government on principles that acknowledge a Creator and that recognizes certain inalienable rights are from God, not man. Any system that fails to acknowledge God and ignores natural law, which comes from God, becomes tyrannical as it assumes more and more power over life and death, freedom and equality. As Christians we must insist that religion and God be an integral part of our public discourse and help guide our political decision-making
Along this same line of thought, I just read a transcript of a talk given by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver Colorado for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. I encourage everyone to read the entire transcript. The talk (followed by a question and answer session) discussed the media’s coverage of the Catholic Church and the responsibility of good journalism.
The Archbishop expressed concern that journalists who cover religion are often not as informed about the subject as other journalists when covering issues such as economics or politics. In his words:
“No serious media organization would assign a reporter to cover Wall Street if that reporter lacked a background in economics, fiscal monetary policy and these days at least some expertise on Keynesian theory. But reporters who don’t know their subject and haven’t done their homework seem common in the world of religion reporting, at least in my life.”
I would submit that this makes worse the problem I mentioned in my previous posts. When the media attempts to cover religion it often causes more harm than good. Reporters get the story wrong because they do not understand faith, religion, and theology. The culture grows more spiritually impoverished because our sources of news fail to provide correct information or a balanced perspective.
The Archbishop also had this to say:
“Journalism is a vocation, not a job. Pursued properly, journalism should enjoy the same dignity as the law or medicine because the service that journalists perform is equally important to a healthy society. I really believe that. You form people; you form the way they think and the way they live their lives. So journalists have a duty to serve the truth and the common good – not just the crowd, not just the shareholders they work for and not just their personal convictions. In other words, your core business as journalists is to explain in an honest way, with honest context, the forces and characters shaping our lives – our common life – together.”
Journalism certainly does “shape our common life together” which is why it is so important that our faith (which is so essential to our lives and to our culture) is correctly portrayed in the media. The sad fact is that our faith is often trashed and vilified in the media, or at the very least portrayed inaccurately. This makes even more important our task as individuals to engage the culture on matters of faith.

From all of this, we can conclude the following: 1) the media has a natural tendency to augment political power over faith and family, thus diminishing the power of these basic structures in society; 2) our current culture has drifted away from God and away from natural law as taught by our Juedo-Christian heritage, this feeds the power of the State and threatens the freedom and dignity of the individual; 3) when the media does cover religion it is often inaccurate or outright false coverage, which further erodes the culture’s perception of the faith and vilifies the Church.
The only solution is to be a vocal opposition. Change the culture and people’s minds by representing the Truth of our faith in our own lives. Use the media to our own advantage and engage in public discourse. Use every avenue available (newspaper and print, email, blogs, and networking sites) to point toward the Truth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We the People...of God

In my previous post entitled “We the Media…" I explained that our culture is overwhelmed with news coverage that focuses on centers of political power. Journalists gravitate to politicians and political powers as the primary news-makers, and politicians use this media clout to accumulate even more control. This domination of the political above other segments of society has come to shape our cultural understanding of State power and the freedom of the individual within the private sector. We have been conditioned by the media to assume that “the government” needs to do something every time we are faced with some social problem or injustice. We are subtly influenced by this bias in the media to believe that politics is the driving force for our culture.

Unfortunately the mainstream media tends to neglect the local, private entities (i.e. family, churches, civic organizations, business and community leaders, etc.) which truly form the building blocks of society and the culture. The more the media focuses on the State and political power, the more society forgets the importance of the core cultural institutions at the local level. Instead the State becomes the end-all/be-all solution to our problems. To combat this, we must all remain aware of this tendency within the media to over-emphasize politics, and we must counteract it by shaping the culture in a Christian spirit. We must bring our faith to bear on the culture and give back to our families, churches, and local organizations the power they once held.

As a happy coincidence, after posting this piece on the power of media-driven politics, I attended a Mass where the celebrant preached along a very similar vein. As inspiration for his homily he focused on the Second Reading for this Sunday from Revelation (21:10-14; 22-23). Specifically, he zeroed in on the following verses:

“The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb...I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.”

Our priest pointed out that the New Jerusalem descends from Heaven – that is, from God – because we are unable to build the City for ourselves. This Heavenly Jerusalem is built on the foundation of the Twelve Apostles – which is to say, on their preaching, and on their testimony concerning Christ and God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. There is no Temple in the City because Jesus (the true Temple of God) dwells in the New Jerusalem with His people. In the Heavenly Jerusalem, the “Body of Christ” (the Church) will be complete and our worship will be truly IN Christ. There will be no need of a Temple apart from Him.

Our priest went on to explain that for centuries Christians have seen in this description of the New Jerusalem a pattern on which to model our own governments. In our political structures we must recognize God’s power and authority in our lives, and that we owe everything to Him. We must have as our foundation an acknowledgment of God’s Revelation of Himself. We must realize that God dwells in each of us and therefore every human life is sacred and all persons must be treated equally.

Father then mentioned our founding documents as an example of this historic pattern. Especially in the Declaration of Independence, our nation was established with the idea that we owe our existence and our freedom to a sovereign God, and traditionally we have professed as a nation, “In God we trust.” Our rights come from a Creator and are not generated by politicians or government mandate. At one time our nation respected the sanctity of marriage and of life, and the importance of family, because all of these things come from God. Our government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was established by a people of God and apart from Him our system will not succeed.

When too much power is granted to politicians and to the State, the fundamental structures within society can come under attack, as government assumes more and more power unto itself. Aided by the media, political power has grown so large as to threaten the family, attack the life of the unborn, and re-shape cultural norms that were once considered unalterable. We now turn to political power as the solution to problems that were once solved by “love of neighbor.” Love has been replaced by bureaucracy. We now assume that government programs can solve every injustice, yet our government has become alienated from the Author of Justice Himself.

Our priest ended his homily with a final thought… In the face of this political distortion we must insist on a return to God as the source of our rights and our freedom and as the foundation of our model of government. “To do so is not only the right thing to do as a faithful Christian, but also as a faithful American.”

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We the Media...

I just read a great post at Catholic Exchange

1) The mainstream news media presents a distorted reality that subtly shapes our perceived relationship between the individual and government. As the author (Charles Colson) brilliantly observes:

“We are succumbing to what French philosopher Jacques Ellul prophesied in the 1960s—the politicization of all aspects of life. Ellul foresaw the Information Age and the media’s need for a steady flow of information to feed the populace. Media therefore would gravitate to covering centers of power. Politicians would be willing accomplices, because they’d gain fame and clout.”

In other words, the news media of our day is designed to favor and encourage ever larger and more powerful centers of government. Whether conservative or liberal in ideology, the mainstream media will always “gravitate to covering centers of power” - because THAT is where the “news” is – but their coverage only serves to augment that power. From the media’s perspective the true movers and shakers in society are the ruling elites, and so journalists hit us with a constant barrage of images and stories that focus on those who hold political power. Our minds become so saturated with this over-emphasis on the political that we begin to believe that every facet of our lives has some political dimension. We begin to believe that every social ill and every cultural shortcoming must be solved with some new piece of legislation or government action or bureaucratic program…

“We’ve succumbed to what Ellul predicted—the idea that every problem has a political solution. This, he warned, leads to increasing dependence on the state and decreasing citizen control of government.”

The media-driven emphasis on politics and State power subtly influences our perception of reality. We take on their bias toward more government control and less personal freedom. As we absorb their message that the really important things in the world are political, we begin to look at politics and government as the solution to all of our problems. We assume that the government ought to act whenever a social crisis arises. Driven by the media, the government becomes the primary shaper of society and of the culture.

This distortion is damaging to the more fundamental structures of society, the structures that really DO matter most, like family, marriage, and local associations like churches and civic groups:

“…when government becomes all-intrusive, the intermediate structures that keep societies vibrant—families, churches, and voluntary associations—collapse and tyranny follows.”

2) What is the solution?

We should all be constantly on alert to this bias in the media and resist it. When the media offers wall-to-wall coverage of some breaking news story and reporters hang on every word spoken by politicians who offer bureaucratic solutions and more government action, we should ask ourselves: Is this the best answer? Is there anything I can do personally instead of turning to government? Is there anything we can do as a community before we ask the government to get involved?

Or as the author says:

“What’s the answer? First, we better recognize that politics is not the be-all and end-all. Politics is merely the expression of culture. Clean up culture—that’s our job—and politics will follow.”

Change the culture. That is not an easy task. But it is a task we must set about doing. Politics cannot do it. As stated above, politics is a product of culture; we cannot expect politics to fix that from which it comes.

To fix the culture, we must turn to the private sector, our community organizations, our local business leaders, our families and churches to lead the way. By addressing social problems at this local level we build up the culture at its most fundamental level. If instead we rely on government to solve our problems, then we do not build up the culture – we only build up more government – and as a result society’s most basic structures suffer.

The culture has suffered enough. We must act now:

“And there is no time to lose. If, as I believe, the political illusion has America by the throat, there are only two likely outcomes—revolution…(albeit peacefully), or tyranny.”

I suggest a peaceful Revolution. And it begins at home. Turn off the TV and build up the culture.

“God has acted again and again through His people to change history’s course. But for that to happen, the Church had better sober up, summon its spiritual resources, expose the political illusion, and begin to defend and live the Christian faith in our culture.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Q&A: On Mary, the Saints, and Statues

Question: I struggle with the Catholic religion because of the Saints, Mary, and the 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 Way, the Truth, 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.

Catholics worship God alone. It is important that we make this clarification at the outset. Any homage or honor shown to saintly men and women who have died before us is not the same as the worship and adoration given to the Father, Son, and Spirit – the Trinitarian God in whom all Christians believe.

The technical Latin terms used to express this difference are:

latria - which is the adoration or worship given only to God, in Whom we place our whole being as He is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sanctifier)

dulia - which is the honor and respect we show to the Saints, fellow humans who have achieved their Heavenly reward and are now in the presence of God.

All Christians including Catholics give latria/worship to God. But most Protestants/non-Catholics do not engage in dulia/honor shown to the Saints. The reasons for this are many, but from a Protestant perspective the answer seems simple: the Catholic practice is unbiblical and therefore either un-necessary or even blasphemous or idolatrous.

To answer this charge, we may find it simpler if we divide the issue into parts and answer each individually. As suggested by the wording of the question above, we can look at three aspects of the Catholic practice: 1) saints in general, 2) the uniqueness of Mary, and 3) the use of statues, carved images and iconography. In the end, we will see that the Catholic practice of praying to saints and Mary and the use of images is not only acceptable but has a biblical basis.

1) The Catholic practice of ‘praying’ to Saints

Since Catholics are not “worshipping” saints, then what exactly are they doing when they “pray” to those who have died? Can the dead hear us, and do they even take an interest in what is happening here on earth?

We know that the dead can hear us, and that they are engaged in what is happening in our lives, because the Bible gives us examples of this. In Jesus’ own life we see Him converse with the dead during the transfiguration:

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:29-31)

Now, Catholics do not expect a miraculous apparition, a vision, or a verbal response to our prayers when we pray to the saints. What we do expect and hope for is that the saints in Heaven will go to God on our behalf and speak to Him, as Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus, and that they will pray with us for whatever intention we wish to lay before God.

In Scripture we read that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) Those who have died and are in Heaven are certainly “righteous.” When we “pray to” Saints, what we mean is that we “send our prayers up to them” and ask that they make our prayers their own. Just as we would ask our friends and neighbors here on earth to pray for us, so too, we ask our Christian family and friends in Heaven to join us in prayer.

Even so, we know that our prayers will only be answered if God allows it. The saints do nothing apart from God. In the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared only because the Father allowed them to appear. The Apostles who witnessed this event were granted that vision as a part of God’s plan, not the plan of Moses and Elijah. God can allow or deny such intercession from the dead as He sees fit. (The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 might be an interesting passage to reflect upon in this regard. But in contrast we might read Matthew27:53, immediately after the Resurrection, where we see the dead participating in God’s glory: “They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”)

Since the Bible tells us of these miraculous happenings, we can be certain that the dead are alive in God, since He is “the God of the living” (Matthew 22:32), and that the Saints do participate actively in God’s plan. Most assuredly they bring our prayers
before God’s throne. In Revelation John tells us that our prayers are brought before God by those in His “Heavenly Court”:

“…the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8)

In fact, Revelation is filled with scenes of Heavenly worship, in which those who have died together with the Angels offer praise, worship and petitions before God. Since we know this to be true, then it only makes sense that we should offer our prayers to the Saints and Angels so that they can add their voices to our own.

2) The uniqueness of Mary

To explain the role of Mary in Catholicism would take more space than what I have here, so I will be brief…

If Catholics offer honor and respect to the Saints in the form of dulia, then we offer a heightened form of honor to Mary which is called hyperdulia. This is because Mary played such a unique role in salvation history. If the Saints are honored because they participate in God’s plan and they show forth His grace and love in their lives, then Mary does so beyond compare. She is the Mother of God, the Theotokos (God-bearer), the New Eve (to Jesus’ New Adam), she is the woman of Revelation with twelve stars on her head, clothed in the sun, and the moon at her feet. This woman was taken to a special place prepared by God and protected from the dragon (Revelation 12:6). Mary thus holds a special place for Catholics, because we see it reflected in Scripture.

No other woman bore God in her womb and raised God as her own child. If Jesus is our spiritual brother, then Mary is our spiritual mother. She is not equal to God; we do not worship her. But she points the way to God: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Her “yes” to God won us a Savior. We love her as any good son would love his mother, and we do this in imitation of Christ: “Behold your mother.” (Luke 19:27) We fulfill the words she spoke of herself: “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)

(Any further questions about Mary ought to be dealt with individually…)

3) The use of statues and other images

Now the charge of idolatry can be discounted rather easily. As I already clarified, latria and dulia are distinct. Catholics are not worshiping the saints – we are not expecting the saints to save us or to pour out graces or blessings of their own. They are people just like us and are subordinate to God.

Then why the statues, paintings, and stained glass?

As I said before, we honor the Saints as we would any great hero of the past. We erect statues and monuments for our secular leaders (Presidents, war heroes, the Founding Fathers) and we make trips to these monuments so that we can pay our respects, remember their accomplishments, and revel in history. Our children learn from these physical reminders of our past.

We even erect memorials to lesser figures, such as the tombstones we place at the gravesites of our loved ones. We adorn these sites with flowers and mementos; we engraved images on them and messages of hope and love. We spend time at these monuments silently pondering the meaning of their life and death.

No one worships a tombstone. No one worships George Washington. But we place these physical reminders in special places to remind us of what came before us. And we spend time at these places to collect our thoughts and focus our attention at that one moment in time. This is what Catholics do when we place statues and other artistic objects in our churches depicting the Saints and Christ.

(The use of art and imagery in worship is not foreign to the Bible. There are references to artistic expression in the Old Testament, for instance the angelic images that surrounded the Ark of the Covenant as ordered to be constructed by God in Exodus 25. As long as these images are not worshipped as gods then it is not idolatrous.)

The Saints are our family…

When someone says, “My mother died when I was very young, but I know that she still looks over me from Heaven,” or “My grandfather passed away years ago, but I still feel his presence, and find comfort in knowing that he is with me,” that is the way Catholics feel about all the Saints. The Saints are our family because we are all God’s children. The Bible tells us that those who died in Christ are alive in Christ and they intercede on our behalf; they offer our prayers as incense before God. Catholics recognize this Biblical truth and put it into practice.

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.