Degrees of Judging by Trevor Bowen


Degrees of Judging


When considering the question of proper Biblical judging, we often turn to this familiar verse:
Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
While seeking to understand this passage as it was originally intended, we must be careful that subtle prejudicial needs do not bias our first impressions. Therefore, to vindicate our integrity and to truly ascertain God’s meaning, we should ask ourselves, “Was Jesus’ command generally prohibiting all judgment?” Many people teach Jesus was condemning all human judgment. Maybe you have heard this teaching since you were young and have never seriously considered any alternative? Therefore, let us test this conclusion with this challenge: “Does the verb, ‘judge’, always refer to the same kind or level of judgment in every instance throughout Scripture?” If there are various kinds or multiple degrees of judgment discussed in the Bible, then Matthew 7:1 may be limited in its prohibition, which would require closer examination of the context to determine which judgments are prohibited. If some judgments are mandated for Christians in other passages, then logically Matthew 7:1 must be interpreted as a limited prohibition. Given the obvious importance of these questions, both asking and answering them is essential for a clean conscience before God, especially if we take a dogmatic or public stance against judging in general.
Elsewhere we intend to examine the remote and immediate contexts to determine what kinds and degrees of judgment are condemned in Matthew 7:1. The purpose of this article, however, is to simply show that there are indeed multiple degrees, levels, or stages of judgment mentioned in Scripture. Moreover, this article will show that there is a spectrum of judgments — some of which Christians must make — that vary in nature by personal specificity and reversibility. Yet, there is a boundary line on this spectrum, a point beyond which Christians must not proceed. The degrees of judgment discussed in this article are:
  1. Discernment - Knowing Right from Wrong
  2. Internal Application - Transforming to Right from Wrong
  3. External Application - Recognizing Right from Wrong
  4. Patient Application - Teaching Right from Wrong
  5. Division - Separating Right from Wrong
  6. Ultimate Verdict - Saving Right from Wrong
Our study will begin at the most basic and fundamental of all Christian judgments and move toward the most personally specific and irreversible judgments, the ultimate verdict.

A Brief Word Study Review

The Greek words, which are translated in the New Testament as “judge” and “judgment”, are studied in more detail in a separate article. Summarizing from that word study, although the word for “judgment” is most often used in reference to negative judgment, these words are otherwise unspecific regarding who is judging, what is being judged, how the judgment is formed, and what are the results of the judging process. Therefore, to assume any aspect and build it into the definition regardless of context ignores the varying usage, is presumptive, and will surely lead to misunderstanding of God’s Word. In other words, not all judgment is the same. We must examine the context of each usage to determine the specifics of each instance. Beyond this observation from the previous word study, and to help further substantiate that there are multiple degrees of judging and judgment, most of the verses cited in this survey use the same Greek words (or a very closely related variation) as used by Jesus in Matthew 7:1.

Discernment - Knowing Right from Wrong

All spiritual judgments — we are concerned with no other type in this article — must begin with properly understanding the standard, the Word of God. Before we can make any judgments, we must first know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, holy and unholy. When studying the Bible, we use some measure of judgment, discernment, and wisdom in deciding what God’s Word condemns or commends. This should be an entirely objective process (coincidentally), as we seek to identify what is the objective truth, what is right and wrong as defined by God in His Scriptures. This requires diligent study as well as patient application and practice.
James used the exact same word, “judge” (κρίνω, or krino), as did Jesus in Matthew 7:1, except to refer to James’ process of forming a conclusion based on Scripture and related facts. Furthermore, his inference was corroborated by the Holy Spirit. Please note the following logical conclusion and its basis as emphasized by James:
And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written ... Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge [κρίνω (krino)] that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God ... For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: (Acts 15:13-28, see also: Acts 16:4; 21:25)
If Matthew 7:1 is forbidding all forms of judgment, then both James and his example of analyzing, examining, discerning, determining, and judging the truth of God’s will is condemned - and for us! (For additional examples, please see: I Corinthians 2:2; 14:29; II Corinthians 5:14.) ... Now, some might argue that James was inspired; therefore, his example is not applicable to us. However, please notice that James did not decree God’s will by fiat from the Holy Spirit, instead by the Holy Spirit he left us an example of determining God’s will by logical inference from the Scriptures and the facts thereby sanctioning the reasoning process. Furthermore, inspired saints were not the only ones who either demonstrated or were expected to apply this same degree of judgment:
These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched [ἀνακρίνω (anakrino)] the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
I speak as to wise men; judge [κρίνω (krino)] for yourselves what I say. (I Corinthians 10:15)
Now, using such judgment does not necessitate that we may always reach the correct conclusion. In discerning the Bible, we may condemn that which God approves and approve what God condemns, as did even some first century people:
“Why should it be thought [κρίνω (krino)] incredible by you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge [κρίνω (krino)]. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
One person esteems [κρίνω (krino)] one day above another; another esteems [κρίνω (krino)] every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5)
However, the possibility of mistaken judgments does not excuse us from diligently seeking to understand God’s Word (II Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17), neither does it excuse us from the eternal condemnation promised to those, who “twist to their own destruction ... things hard to understand ... also the rest of the Scriptures” (II Peter 3:15-18).
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern [διάκρισις (diakrisis)] both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
God’s Word can be understood, and given enough time with it, He expects us — even without inspiration — to have learned how to properly judge between “good and evil”. This is the first degree, stage, or level of judgment that all Christians must make before any other action can be taken. This realization not only obligates us with some degree of judgment, it necessitates that Matthew 7:1 must not be understood as a general prohibition against all forms of judgment, since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2).

Internal Application - Transforming to Right from Wrong

After one understands God’s Word and can then “discern both good and evil” on a given matter, he is obligated to first apply that truth to himself. At this stage, God’s objective will has already been determined, but it still remains undetermined whether we as individuals have violated or obeyed God’s Word on a given subject. This level of judgment is essential for our own salvation!
Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn [κρίνω (krino)] himself in what he approves [δοκιμάζω (dokimazo)]. But he who doubts [διακρίνω (diakrino)] is condemned [κατακρίνω (katakrino)] if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22-23)
This passage references three degrees of judgment. First, one judges, discerns, or “approves” a given behavior (the eating of meats in this case), which is the degree previously discussed. Second, having made this judgment, he then so eats without his conscience judging, “condemning”, or informing him of any error. This person eats in a clean conscience. In applying God’s Word to himself, he considers himself to be guiltless, and he is therefore “happy”. However, someone who “doubts” — continuing in the judgment process and unable to come to an honest conclusion — is guilty of “sin” if he eats, and he is therefore “condemned ... before God”, which is the last degree of judgment to be discussed in this article and observed in this passage. Therefore, we must examine ourselves and respond to our conscientious understanding of God’s Word; otherwise, we place our soul in jeopardy. Consequently, Matthew 7:1 again cannot be condemning all forms of judgment; otherwise, we would be inviting eternal condemnation from our Lord for failure to judge ourselves as required by Romans 14:22-23!
Furthermore, please consider this scripture:
For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment [κρίμα (krima)] to himself, not discerning [διακρίνω (diakrino)] the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge [διακρίνω (diakrino)] ourselves, we would not be judged [κρίνω (krino)]. But when we are judged [κρίνω (krino)], we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned [κατακρίνω (katakrino)] with the world. (I Corinthians 11:31-32)
This passage alone mentions four separate sources of judgment! Consequently, how can one believe that all judgments are the same and reason that for Jesus to have condemned one judging was to condemn all judging? In this passage we see that one must “discern the Lord’s body” — thinking, reasoning, and judging through the various implications of Jesus' great sacrifice. This is the first degree of judgment again, to identify God’s will for all. In light of God’s will as expressed through Jesus’ body, we must secondly and continually “judge ourselves”. (He gave His body completely for us. Are we sacrificing our bodies completely to him? Please also see: Romans 12:1-2.) Otherwise, we risk the last degree of judgment, eternal condemnation by the Lord.
Only briefly mentioned in the above passage, the Lord has provided intermediate sources of “chastening” and “judging” to help us recognize what we have yet to see in ourselves (Hebrews 12:5-11). Theses other sources of judgment are apparently less pleasant than self-judgment, which is preferred. Yet, these unpleasant sources of judgment may be avoided, if we will but only examine ourselves continually in light of God’s Word (Psalm 32:8-9; Proverbs 26:3; II Timothy 3:16-17). If we reject self-judgment and judgment from these other sources, then we will proceed to God’s eternal judgment rebelliously and without comfort — to “be condemned with the world”. Continuing with our primary theme, what other approved source of “judgment” and “chastisement” has the Lord provided, which lies on the spectrum between self-judgment and divine judgment?

External Application - Recognizing Right from Wrong

As one grows in his ability to judge both in understanding God’s objective will and in applying it to himself, his ability grows to help others do the same; likewise, so does his obligation grow (James 4:17). It is self-evident that this degree of judgment is less pleasant for everybody involved. It would be happier for everyone, if each person would be diligent both in studying God’s Word and in self-correction. Recognizing that the ideal is not reality, how can one, who truly “loves his brother”, not seize every opportunity to “turn a sinner from the error of his way”, “save a soul from death”, and “cover a multitude of sins” (I John 3:14-17; James 5:19-20)? Jesus Himself recognized that it was right and proper for this degree of judgment to be exercised:
“... Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged [κρίνω (krino)].” (Luke 7:42-43)
“Did not Moses give you the law, yet none of you keeps the law? Why do you seek to kill Me? ... Do not judge [κρίνω (krino)] according to appearance, but judge [κρίνω (krino)] with righteous judgment [κρίσις (krisis)].” (John 7:19-24)
Elsewhere we will seek to better understand this “righteous judgment” of others, but suffice it to say here, Jesus not only approved but commanded that we perform some kind of “judgment” in reference to others, but He also declared it to be “righteous”! How can we therefore conclude that all forms of judgment — even judgment against others — is condemned, since Jesus mandates some form of such judgment here? Here upon the rock of John 7:24, all claims that Jesus condemned all forms of judgment in Matthew 7:1 — even against brethren — must be dashed, because here in John 7:24 Jesus not only commanded such judgment, but He commanded it must be performed thoroughly (“not according to appearance”)! Therefore, we must be open to interpreting Matthew 7:1 as something less than a general prohibition, lest we pit Scripture against Scripture and Jesus against Jesus.
Please consider this additional passage:
And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged [κρίνω (krino)] me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. (Acts 16:15)
Lydia, this first century convert begged the apostle Paul and his companions to stay at her house, and she constrained them based upon her plea for their judgment of her faithfulness! Please notice that Paul did not correct her. He did not teach her that Jesus had prohibited Christians to make such judgments based on Matthew 7:1. Instead, he was “so ... persuaded”. He implicitly made such a judgment and complied with her hospitality. Now, some may propose and argue that only Jesus and His inspired apostles and prophets could make such judgments, but please notice that all of Paul’s traveling company were “so ... persuaded”. Furthermore, looking back at John 7:19-24, we see that Jesus’ command to perform righteous judgment was not given only to His holy apostles and prophets, rather it was given even to an unrepentant mob, who would eventually crucify Him! Therefore, the grossest of consciences are not excused from such judgment, even though they may have become incapable because of their blindness. Others may argue that the judgment of Acts 16:15 was positive and approving. However, if one is able and authorized to make such positive judgments, then it is implied that occasionally some negative judgments will likewise be made, given that not everyone wearing the name of Christ is “faithful to the Lord”. One cannot make positive judgments without the ability to make negative ones, neither can he communicate positive judgments without the ability to also communicate negative ones, even if by absence of the positive. The ability and meaning of each is inseparable from the other, since one is the negation of the other.
Likewise, in Romans 3:7; I Corinthians 10:29; and Colossians 2:16; Paul corrected various people “judging” him or his readers. However, in each case he never corrected the fact that judgment was made or even that the judgment was negative. He always corrected the basis of the judgment. Why would he only correct the basis of such judgment, if every basis for judging another was always wrong?

Patient Application - Teaching Right from Wrong

When approaching someone ensnared in sin, there is yet another degree of judgment that must be made. Not everyone should be treated the exact same way, even if they are committing the same sin! Please notice Jude’s instruction:
And on some have compassion, making a distinction [διακρίνω (diakrino)]; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23 NKJV)
And have mercy on those who doubt [διακρίνω (diakrino)]; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23 ESV)
As the two above translations indicate, it is difficult to know in the first case whether the person making the judgment or the person being judged has doubts and therefore warrants additional “compassion” and “mercy”. Regardless, Jude indicates that we must make some form of judgment upon others as in how we correct, rebuke, and rescue them.
Likewise, Paul makes a similar observation:
Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. (I Thessalonians 5:14)
Although the above verse does not use any form of the word for “judge” or “judgment”, some judgment of others is necessarily implied in the above command. Who are the “unruly”? Who are the “fainthearted”? Who are the “weak”? Just because one is “weak”, we cannot assume he is “unruly”, neither can we assume that the “unruly” are “fainthearted”. Since we must treat each type of person differently (“warn” versus “comfort” versus “uphold”) based on these traits, we necessarily must judge others to see if they fit into one of these categories. Again, if Matthew 7:1 is taken to be a general prohibition, then we are prohibited from making such distinctions in our treatment of people, and we must treat all the same, regardless of their sin, history, attitude, desire, and response! Who can justify a general prohibition against judging, especially in light of Jude 22-23 and I Thessalonians 5:14?
Please note that in none of the above passages are Christians encouraged to turn a blind eye to sin. In every case, the sinner is to be treated patiently (“be patient with all”), but yet some corrective action must be taken. That is predetermined for all cases. It is the exact timing, wording, setting, and urgency that determines the expression of patient corrective love.

Division - Separating Right from Wrong

After learning God’s will, applying it to oneself, teaching it to others, and patiently working with them, there regrettably comes a time when one more degree of judgment must be measured, recognized, and met. Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians’ reluctance to execute this judgment is instructional for us:
And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged [κρίνω (krino)] (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. ... But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging [κρίνω (krino)] those also who are outside? Do you not judge [κρίνω (krino)] those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges [κρίνω (krino)]. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (I Corinthians 5:2-13)
Using the exact same Greek word that Jesus used to prohibit judging, κρίνω (krino), Paul commanded the Corinthians to “judge” the unrepentant brother in their midst, put him outside their midst, and to “not even eat with such a person”. How can we reason or conclude that Jesus was condemning all judgments against a brother, when Paul condemns the Corinthians for having not already rendered and executed the needed judgment against their brother?
Some might observe and rightly argue that Paul was using inspiration to make such a judgment. However, this ability is connected to his ability to make such a judgment remotely without firsthand knowledge of the facts (“I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged as though I were present ... In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one”). Furthermore, Paul did not chastise them for not seeking his judgment or some other apostle’s inspired wisdom, rather he criticized them for not having already judged and acted (“you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you). Moreover, he provides them generic instruction, basis, and rationale for them to “judge those who are inside” and “to put away ... the evil person”. This is not a mysterious process that we are orphaned to perform without guidance and instruction. Paul told us who to “deliver to Satan” and why it must be done.
Some might propose that only the sins specifically mentioned here are subject to church discipline through public judgment and withdrawal of fellowship. However, Paul points to at least four generic principles, which extend well beyond these few sins:
  1. “Deliver such a one for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” — Are these the only sins that threaten the salvation of our soul? Are not the wages of any sin death (Romans 6:23)? Is not every sin a transgression of Christ’s law, and does not every transgression make us guilty of all of God’s law (I John 3:4; James 2:10-11; Matthew 7:21-23)? Therefore, how can we turn a blind eye to any sin, if we truly love our brother?
  2. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven” — The public persistence of any sin weakens the resolve of the whole. The longer sin goes uncontested, the deeper the discouragement, despair, and apathy permeates into the heart of a community (Ecclesiastes 8:11). And, so it is in the church. Sin spreads among people, just as leaven spreads in a lump of dough until the entire church is eventually leavened. Or, is this cancerous aspect of sin unique to these six sins?
  3. “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” — Again, do these six sins comprise the totality of “malice and wickedness”? Would other sins not defile “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”?
  4. “Do you not judge those who are inside? ...Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” — Paul concludes with a most generic instruction. Does our responsibility to “judge those who are inside” stop at these sins? Or, can no other sin make someone “evil”, which would therefore require “putting away”?
Given these broad principles, which would bring every individual sin within the responsibility of the whole to judge, confront, and even discipline, it is no surprise that we elsewhere find other Scriptures requiring public judgment to be taken toward a broad range of other sins not mentioned here:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. ... If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector”. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. (Ephesians 5:11-12)
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. ... And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. (II Thessalonians 3:6-14)
Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. (I Timothy 5:20)
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, ..., lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (II Timothy 3:2-5)
For a bishop must be ... holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, (Titus 1:7-13)
Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
Given this consistent, inspired Bible theme of Christians holding each other to the standard of God’s Word and disciplining those who are belligerent and unrepentant, how can we then continue to cling to any shred of integrity, while proclaiming that Jesus denounced all forms of human judgment in Matthew 7:1?

Ultimate Verdict - Saving Right from Wrong

Even though a local congregation may gather to put away one of its own, there is a limit on such judgment, which is imposed by God’s Word:
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. ... And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (II Thessalonians 3:6-15)
Although such public action fundamentally changes the relationship between every member of a church and the one put away (“not even to eat with such a person”), there remains yet hope! His eternal fate is not yet fixed. He is not to be regarded “as an enemy”. Moreover, as Paul observed in I Corinthians 5:5, one purpose of such withdrawal from the erring is “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Corinthians 5:5). Consequently, any such judgment by men that presumes to fix another’s eternal judgment has gone too far. It should be clear that if any sin jeopardizes man’s standing before God, then every sin does (I John 3:4; James 2:10-11; Matthew 7:21-23); however, that final standing is ultimately determined by God:
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge [κρίνω (krino)] the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges [κρίνω (krino)] according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; (I Peter 1:17)
In addition to behaving in hope toward our erring brother, leaving an open door through which he might return and repent, we are strictly forbidden from closing this door for eternity. Only such judgment belongs to God:
There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge [κρίνω (krino)] another? (James 4:12)
Beside being agents of hope, we are simply unqualified to make such judgments of eternal destiny:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged [ἀνακρίνω (anakrino)] by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge [ἀνακρίνω (anakrino)] myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges [ἀνακρίνω (anakrino)] me is the Lord. Therefore judge [κρίνω (krino)] nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God. (I Corinthians 4:3-5)
Even though the Corinthians were commanded a few verses later to “judge those inside”, here they are told to “judge nothing”. Is this a discrepancy? Actually, the context explains what initially seems inconsistent. They were instructed to “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes. This forbidden judgment went far beyond self-examination, self-judging, and self-correction, because even the apostle Paul was unqualified to perform this forbidden judgment (“I do not even judge my self. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this.”). This forbidden judgment extended into the realm in which only God is qualified to operate (“Then each one’s praise will come from God”). Incidentally, some have advocated broader fellowship and unity by first presuming which sins God will be willing to overlook in the final judgment. This passage indicates the folly of any such doctrine that would seek to operate from a basis of advance knowledge of God’s eternal judgment, regardless of the conclusion or motivation. We simply are unqualified to work from that perspective, except where God has already told us what He will do (I Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; John 3:5; Hebrews 11:6; I John 3:14-17, for example). We must focus on teaching and obeying what has been delivered to us, while leaving the rest up to God (Deuteronomy 29:29).


The broad usage of the words, “judge” and “judgment”, throughout New Testament Scripture indicate that there are multiple degrees of judgment progressing along a spectrum from the objective, general, impersonal, honorable, pleasant, and trivially reversible toward the ultimately specific, personal, shameful, horrific, and eternally irreversible. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to thoroughly and meticulously judge the context of each usage to ensure a scripturally consistent understanding. This broad usage not only destroys the false notion that Jesus generally prohibited human judgment in Matthew 7:1, but our survey has also shown that some judgment of our brethren is not only permitted — it is even commanded of us! Will we recognize this broad, varying usage? Will we accept this burden of love and responsibility to obey? “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged; but, when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (I Corinthians 11:31-32).
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The idea for this article came from a comment made by Jim Everett on the “Three Stages of Judging” during a class on James. His book, Practical Living: A Workbook and Commentary on James, contains this explanation:
4:11 — The Greek word “krino” (judge) involves stages of thought. Its most basic meaning is that of “separation.” The first stage of thought is what we might call “discernment” — this refers to the ability to differentiate between good and evil. Note 1 Cor. 2:14-15, where “anakrino” is translated “discerned” in v. 14, but “judgeth” in v. 15. Consequently, one who discerns is a judge. The second stage of thought is that one who properly differentiates between good and evil, approves of the good and condemns the evil — that condemnation is judging. And finally, the third stage is that of a final separation which involves an assignment to an eternal state. (Everett, Practical Living, p. 60)
Trevor Bowen

"THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS" God's "Second String" (4:7-18) by Mark Copeland

                     "THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS"

                      God's "Second String" (4:7-18)


1. We have stressed throughout this study of Colossians that we are
   "complete in Christ" - cf. Col 2:9-10

2. To be "complete in Christ", or "perfect in Christ" (Col 1:28), is
   certainly to be the goal of every Christian
   a. Does this mean that those who are in Christ are to be exactly
      alike in every way?
   b. Should we expect every mature Christian to be duplicates of one
      another in ability and service?

3. No, it does not, and that becomes especially clear as we consider
   Paul's closing comments concerning several individuals who were
   instrumental to the success of Paul's ministry

4. Reading Paul's comments about these individuals reminds me of the key
   to any successful sports team:  the strength of the "second string"
   that supports the key players

5. So as we come to this last section of the Book of Colossians, I hope
   we do not consider these closing comments of Paul as something to
   quickly gloss over
   a. There are important lessons we can glean from these verses
   b. We are reminded of the need and the value of "God's Second String"

[First, we are introduced to...]


   A. TYCHICUS (7-8)
      1. Described as "a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a
         fellow servant in the Lord"
         a. We read of him in Ac 20:4, as one of those who accompanied
         b. Again in Ep 6:21-22, where he performed the same duties as
            outlined in Col 4:7-8
         c. And also in Tit 3:12 and 2Ti 4:12, where he continues to
            serve Paul as a messenger
      2. He might have been one of the brethren referred to in 2Co 8:23,
         who were called "messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ"

   B. ONESIMUS (9)
      1. Also "a faithful and beloved brother"
      2. Who was from Colosse (cf., "who is one of you")
      3. We learn from the Epistle to Philemon that Onesimus was a
         runaway slave converted by Paul and sent back
      4. He, too, was serving as a messenger for Paul

[Because of men like these, the influence of the apostles was able to
spread much farther than if they were by themselves.  And that also
means the influence of the gospel spread much farther!

Next, we read of...]


      1. A "fellow prisoner"
      2. He also had been a fellow traveler of Paul - Ac 20:4
         a. Who nearly lost his life to the riot in Ephesus - Ac 19:29
         b. Who sailed with Paul to Rome - Ac 27:2
      3. And was now in Rome with Paul, sending greetings

   B. MARK (10b)
      1. The writer of the second Gospel, he was the cousin (nephew) of
         a. The church in Jerusalem met in his mother's house - Ac 12:12
         b. Started out with Paul and Barnabas on their first journey,
            but then turned back - Ac 13:1-13
         c. He later became a bone of contention between Paul and
            Barnabas - Ac 15:36-41
         d. But eventually proved "profitable" to Paul for service -
            2Ti 4:11
     2.  Even now, he is included with those who Paul said "proved to be
         a comfort to me"

      1. Little is known of this man, except that he was a Jew ("of the
         circumcision") and a "fellow worker for the kingdom"
      2. He, too, was a comfort to Paul

[No man can produce what they are capable of producing, unless they
receive the right kind of encouragement.

Just as Barnabas (the "son of encouragement" - Ac 4:36) had been the
one to encourage a young man who made a mistake (i.e., John Mark) and
made him profitable, so now that young man with two others were
comforting the apostle Paul in his trials.  With such comfort, Paul was
able to continue his work while awaiting trial before Caesar.

Now let's notice...]


      1. He was from Colosse ("one of you")
      2. He cared deeply for them and those in Laodicea and Hierapolis
      3. He too was a "fellow prisoner" (Phm 23); what could he do
         for those so far away?

      1. He could at least pray for his brethren!
      2. And pray he did...
         a. He prayed "constantly" ("always")
         b. He prayed "fervently" ("laboring fervently")
         c. He prayed "personally" ("for you")
         d. He prayed "with a goal in mind" ("that you may stand perfect
            and complete...")

[Just as one does not have to be on the court to contribute to a team's
success, one does not have to be present to be a blessing to others!
So Paul himself realized, and often solicited the prayers of others on
his behalf (e.g., 2Th 3:1-2).

On a bittersweet note, we now consider...]


      1. A fellow traveler with Paul on a number of his journeys 
         - Ac 16:10; 20:5; 27:1 (note the personal pronouns "we", "us")
      2. He was used by the Holy Spirit to write over half of the New
         a. He penned both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts
         b. In total volume, they constitute the majority of the New
      3. He was faithful to Paul to the end - 2Ti 4:11

      1. At the time Colossians and Philemon was written, Demas was a
         "fellow laborer"
      2. But not long after, it was said of him, "Demas has forsaken me,
         having loved this present world" - 2Ti 4:10


1. Demas serves as a sober reminder of the need to remain steadfast to
   the end - cf. also Re 2:10

2. But the others in this passage remind us that the spread of the
   gospel during the first century was not accomplished through the
   efforts of great men like Paul and the twelve apostles alone

3. It was greatly assisted by humble men and women willing to serve as
   "God's Second String"
   a. Who served as messengers, comforters, prayer warriors, and
      servants to those in positions of greater influence than
      themselves (7-14)
   b. Who opened their hearts and their homes to the service of the
      church, as did Nymphas (15)

4. If the gospel is to spread today, there is also a need for "God's
   Second String"!
   a. Are we willing to do whatever we can in service to the Lord,
      whether it be great or small?
   b. Then let Paul closing remarks to a man named Archippus serve as an
      admonition to us as well:

      "Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord,
       that you may fulfill it." - Col 4:17

5. Whatever our calling, whatever our ability, let us be faithful to the

As Paul closed his epistle to the Colossians in his own personal
handwriting (18), so we close this series of sermon outlines:

                 "Grace be with you.  Amen"

If we truly let Jesus be our "All-Sufficient And Pre-Eminent Savior",
then God's grace will certainly be with us!

Executable Outlines, Copyright © Mark A. Copeland, 2016

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"Technicalities" by Dave Miller, Ph.D.



by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

“Are you telling me that just because I don’t belong to your church, or just because I haven’t been baptized into the remission of sins, or just because I use the instrument when I worship God, or just because I don’t attend every worship service, or just because I don’t partake of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday—that I can’t make it to heaven? I can’t believe that God would condemn me on a technicality! Besides, that’s legalistic!”
Many, many religious people are characterized by this attitude. Their perceptions of God and His grace serve to minimize the necessity of being overly concerned about strict obedience to every command of God. This attitude is manifested in the idea that arriving at correct doctrine is irrelevant to establishing a right relationship with God. But this is precisely what the Bible teaches. Doctrinal purity does not necessarily guarantee a right relationship with God, but a right relationship with God is impossible without doctrinal purity. Both “spirit and truth” (i.e., proper attitude and proper adherence to truth—John 4:24) are essential to a right relationship with God. Even if some religious individuals give the impression that they have gone “overboard” on truth, yet with insufficient attention to proper attitude, no solution is achieved by abandoning, compromising, or softening adherence to truth in an effort to accept those who are determined to remain unconformed to truth.
The very nature of God and truth is at stake in this discussion. Truth, by its very definition, is narrow, specific, fixed, and technical. God is a God of truth Who operates within the parameters of truth. Since He is God, He does not, and cannot, vary from truth and right. Man’s definition of what constitutes a “technicality” rarely matches God’s definition. More often than not, the very items that humans brush aside as unimportant and trivial, are those things upon which God lays great importance. Herein lies the crux of man’s problem. We decide what we think is important, and then proceed to structure our religion around those self-stylized premises, assuming divine sanction and “grace.” Never mind the fact that “it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). Never mind the fact that “the wisdom of this world” is foolish to God (1 Corinthians 1:20). And never mind the fact that such an attitude and approach betrays great arrogance.
In everyday living, we understand very well the principle that those things that appear to be trivial or mere technicalities can be crucial to survival. The incorrect dosage of medicine in a medical emergency—even milligrams—can mean the difference between life and death. One or two miles over the speed limit can secure the offender a ticket. Accidentally putting gasoline into a diesel engine can ruin an automobile. I suppose one could label each of these examples as “technicalities,” but doing so does not alter the magnitude of their importance or the extent to which they impact reality.
In biblical history, the same principle holds true. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from one piece of fruit from one tree (Genesis 3). Nadab and Abihu—the right boys, at the right place, at the right time, with the right censers and the right incense—nevertheless were destroyed for incorporating foreign fire into their incense offering (Leviticus 10:1-2). Moses was excluded from entrance into the Promised Land because of his one mistake at Kadesh—striking a rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:7-12). Saul was deposed as king for sparing the best sheep and cattle, and the life of one individual out of an entire nation (1 Samuel 15). Uzzah was struck dead for merely reaching out and steadying the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:6-7). God rejected Uzziah because he entered the temple, merely to burn incense (2 Chronicles 26).
Many more examples could be considered. These are no more “technical” or “trivial” than New Testament regulations pertaining to vocal (as opposed to instrumental) music in worship (Ephesians 5:19), unleavened bread and fruit of the vine at the Lord’s Table (Matthew 26:26-29), and the qualifications of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13). We must refrain from attempting to second-guess God, or deciding for ourselves what we think is important to Him—“that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). We need to be attentive to “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)—even those portions that humans deem unimportant or peripheral. When people are clamoring, “Those matters are not salvation issues,” we need to reaffirm the words of Jesus, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).

"Radical" Distortion of the Scriptures by Caleb Colley, Ph.D.


"Radical" Distortion of the Scriptures

by  Caleb Colley, Ph.D.

The As Good As New version of the Bible, translated by former Baptist minister John Henson, and subtitled “A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures,” was released in June 2004 by an English group of self-confessed radicals who call themselves “One.” As Good As New might have gone largely unnoticed by the religious community, had England’s archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams (the leader of the Anglican church) not given the translation his enthusiastic stamp of approval (see “New Bible Translation...,” 2004). A press release from “Ekklesia,” a London-based theological think tank that supports the “One” translation, revealed the following:
The translation by John Henson from the organization “One” aims at a “new, fresh and adventurous” translation of the early Christian scriptures. It is designed both for mature Christians and for those who have limited experience of traditional Christianity or “may have found it a barrier to an appreciation of Jesus” (“The One Translation,” 2004).
However, it is apparent that Henson’s focus was not on giving his readers an accurate translation, but on making his radical readers feel comfortable, even if it compromises the real meaning of the Scriptures. One retailer wrote of As Good As New:
It also follows the cultural translation, where for instance “demon possession” becomes what it is as understood today, “mental illness.” It follows “contextual translation,” following the sense over longer sections. It is also “inclusive,” following the principles which Jesus adopted in relation to his culture. It is women, gay, and sinner friendly. Other radical departures reflect the need to demythologize in order to translate adequately into our own culture. For instance “Kingdom of God” thus becomes “God’s New World” (“A Radical and Readable...,” 2004).
The archbishop has praised Henson for replacing “the stale, the technical, the unconsciously exclusive words and policies” of the Bible, with modern phrasing (not to mention modern teachings, which differ from the plain teaching of the original Bible authors) [“New Bible Translation...,” 2004]. Few have a problem with those who merely want the Bible to be understandable (though it certainly is understandable in more traditional versions), but after considering the lengths to which Henson went to morph the Bible into something he considers “readable,” reasonable readers will reject it. Keep in mind that a “community” of random religionists, who happened to take interest in Henson’s translation process, provided contributions to this work. Apparently, the group of contributors in translation was not composed strictly of Greek or Hebrew scholars, but of “whoever” happened to contribute.
Henson and company have not given readers merely an English “translation” from the original Bible languages. (As Good As New is a translation only in the sense that “One” calls it a translation. Henson did not seem concerned about the actual original words themselves [see “The One Translation,” 2004], but only the “sense” of various collections of those words, so “paraphrase” would better describe what “One” has produced.) In short, Henson has attempted to rewrite the Bible.
For example, in an attempt to include only what “One” deems to be “the selection of books which were held in the highest esteem by the early Church in the first two centuries,” the book of Revelation has been excluded, and has been replaced by the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (“A Radical and Readable...”, 2004). In their efforts to eliminate all “big words” from scripture, this vaguely defined group of translators has given modern nicknames to many of the Bible’s characters. For example, the apostle Peter is “Rocky,” Mary Magdalene is “Maggie,” John the Baptizer is “John the Dipper,” Aaron’s name is shortened to “Ron,” and Nicodemus becomes, simply, “Nick.”
“One” has subverted plain Bible texts in order to make the Gospel more politically correct. According to London Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill, “Instead of condemning fornicators, adulterers, and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ [as Paul did, through inspiration, when he wrote 1 Corinthians 6:9—CC], the new version of Paul’s first letter to Corinth has Paul advising Christians not to go without sex for too long, in case they get ‘frustrated’ ” (as quoted in “New Bible Translation...,” 2004). Instead of properly translating Paul’s command (recorded in 1 Corinthians 7:1-2) that, to avoid fornication, every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband, As Good As New has Paul writing: “My advice is for everyone to have a regular partner” (quoted in “New Bible Translation,” 2004).
The perversion does not stop there. “Heaven” becomes, in the new translation, “a world without time and space.” “Parables” are called “riddles.” In an effort to find favor with women, the contributors to As Good As New chose to render “Son of Man,” a title Jesus often called Himself, as “The Complete Person,” and “Father,” one of God’s scriptural titles, as “All Loving God.” Also in order to please women, Jesus is not called the “Son of God,” but rather “God’s Likeness.”
Such perversion is what one might expect from an organization that lists in its top five priorities, not to teach or defend the truth, but to “challenge oppression, injustice, exclusion and discrimination,” to “accept one another, valuing their diversity and experience” (“Who We Are,” 2003). Members of “One” commit themselves to accepting one another “in Christ,” to “support actively those doing Christ’s work inside or outside this institutional church,” and to combating “poverty, racism, and oppression through social and political action” (“Who We Are,” 2003, emp. added). One does not have to examine much of the “One’s” published material before he realizes that the primary purpose of the group is not to teach people how to be saved, but rather to push a leftist agenda down the throats of religious people. For “One,” a major step toward accomplishing that purpose would be widespread acceptance of As Good As New.
Accordingly, archbishop Williams hopes the new translation will spread “in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike.” However, reasonable people will realize what As Good As New is: a twisted perversion of the Holy Scriptures. Henson, Williams, and the members of “One” and “Ekklesia” should fear for their souls, because they not only are teaching things that are contrary to plain Bible teaching (even though they do so by attempting to deceive people into thinking just the opposite), but also promoting exactly what the inspired apostle John forbade: “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him he plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).
The truth is that we can know, without a doubt, what books belong in the Bible (see A.P. Staff, 2003) and that the Bible is understandable. Because of the work of respected Greek and Hebrew scholars, we can understand, in English, just what God wants us to know. For example, the King James Version is on a 12th grade reading level, the New American Standard Bible is on a 10th or 11th grade level, and the New King James Version on an 8th or 9th grade level (“English Bible Translation...,” 2004; “Reading Levels of Various...,” n.d.). Religious people do not need a dangerous distortion of the Bible in order to overcome a perceived problem in comprehending the Gospel. People have been reading, understanding, and obeying the Bible for almost 2,000 years, with no help from John Henson or his makeshift group of translators.


“A Radical and Readable New Translation” (2004), John Hunt Publications, [On-line], URL: http://www.o-books.net/goodasnew.htm.
“English Bible Translation Comparison” (2004), International Bible Society, [On-line], URL: http://www.gospelcom.net/ibs/bibles/translations/index.php.
“New Bible Translation Promotes Fornication” (2004), [On-line], URL: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=39114.
“Reading Levels of Various Bible Translations,” (n.d.), [On-line], URL: http://www.bridgebuilders.4mg.com/bibles_reading_levels.htm.
A.P. Staff (2003), “The Canon and Non-Canonical Writings,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/1972.
“The One Translation” (2004), [On-line], URL: http://one.gn.apc.org/Translation.htm.
“Who We Are” (2004), The “One” Council, [On-line], URL: http://one.gn.apc.org/whoweare.htm.

"Not Under Bondage" by Dave Miller, Ph.D.


"Not Under Bondage"

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

“But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
A current misconception with regard to divorce and remarriage is the notion that 1 Corinthians 7:15 is a “later revelation” that “modifies” or “clarifies” Matthew 19:9. It is argued that 1 Corinthians 7:15 permits the Christian, who is deserted by a non-Christian mate, to remarry on the sole ground of that desertion. On the other hand, it is suggested, Matthew 19:9 (which permits remarriage only on the ground of fornication) applies strictly to a Christian married to a Christian, and therefore is not to be considered applicable to the Christian who is married to a non-Christian. Several factors make this position untenable.
First, the context of Matthew 19 is divorce (Matthew 19:3), while the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is not divorce but the propriety of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1ff.). Jesus applied God’s original marriage law (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6) to the question of divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:9). But Paul applied God’s marriage law to several different questions that related to celibacy and the legitimacy of marriage for widows/widowers, Christians/non-Christians, and singles.
Second, it is incorrect to hold that if 1 Corinthians 7:15 pertains to a Christian married to a non-Christian, then Matthew 19:9 must refer exclusively to a Christian married to a Christian. Matthew 19:9 was uttered in context to a group of Jews seeking an answer to their question concerning Jewish divorce (Matthew 19:3). Jesus gave them an answer that was intended for them, as well as for those who would live during the Christian age. He appealed to Genesis 2, which resides in a pre-Jewish context and clearly applies to all people—i.e., the totality of humanity. Genesis 2 is a human race context. It reveals God’s ideal will for human marriage for all of human history—pre-Mosaic, Mosaic, and Christian.
Though divorce and remarriage for reasons other than fornication was “permitted” (epetrepsen—Matthew 19:8, though not endorsed) during the Mosaic period, Jesus made clear that the Jews had strayed from the original ideal because of their hard hearts. He further emphasized (notice the use of de—“but” in Matthew 19:9) that the original marriage law, which permitted divorce and remarriage for fornication alone, would be reinstated and would be applicable to all persons during the Christian age. Prior to the cross, ignorance may have been “unattended to” (huperidon—Acts 17:30), that is, God did not have a universal law, like the Gospel (Mark 16:15-16), but with the ratification of the New Testament, all men everywhere are responsible and liable for conforming themselves to God’s universal laws of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. God’s original marriage law was, and is, addressed to all people (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). Christ’s application to the question of divorce was implied in the original law, and is addressed to all people (Matthew 19:9). Paul’s application to questions of sex, celibacy, and non-Christian mates is addressed to all people (1 Corinthians 7). Scripture harmonizes beautifully, and God treats all impartially. Thus the phrase “to the rest” (1 Corinthians 7:12) cannot be referring uniquely or solely to non-Christian marriage relationships, since Jesus already referred to all marriages (whether Jew or non-Jew, Christian or non-Christian).
Third, 1 Corinthians 7 does not address different “classes” of marriages. The Corinthian letter was written in response to correspondence previously sent to Paul by the Corinthians (cf. 1:11; 5:1; 7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). Thus, 1 Corinthians amounts to a point-by-point response to matters previously raised by the Corinthians themselves. When Paul referred to the general question of sexual activity/celibacy (7:1), he was alluding to the method by which he organized his remarks in direct response to questions asked by the Corinthians. Thus, “to the rest” (7:12) refers to the rest of the matters or questions about which the Corinthians specifically inquired (and to which Jesus did not make specific application while on Earth). These matters (not marriages) are easily discernible from what follows. The “rest” of the questions would have included the following:
  • Should a Christian male who has a non-Christian wife sever the relationship (vs. 12)?
  • Should a Christian female who has a non-Christian husband sever the relationship (vs. 13)?
  • Are Christians somehow ceremonially defiled or rendered unclean by such relationships (vs. 14)?
  • Are children born to such relationships ceremonially unclean (vs. 14)?
  • Is a Christian guilty of sin if their non-Christian mate severs the relationship (vs. 15-16)?
  • Does becoming a Christian mean that one should dissolve all conditions and relationships that were entered into before becoming a Christian (vss. 17-24)?
  • What should be the sexual and/or marital status of virgins and widows in light of the current period of distress (vss. 25-40)?
All of these questions may be answered in light of, and in harmony with, Jesus’ own remarks in Matthew 19. Jesus did not specifically make application to these unique instances (vs. 12—“to the rest speak I, not the Lord”). He did not address Himself to the application of God’s general marriage law to every specific situation (specifically to the spiritual status of a Christian married to a non-Christian). Yet, His teaching applies to every case of marriage on the question of divorce.
Fourth, the specific context of 1 Corinthians 7:15 relates to the person who becomes a Christian, but whose mate does not. The unbeliever now finds himself married to a different person (in the sense that his mate underwent a total change and began to live a completely different lifestyle). The unbeliever demands that his mate make a choice: “either give up Christ or I’m leaving!” Yet to live in marriage with an unbeliever, who threatens departure if the believer does not capitulate to the unbeliever (i.e., compromise Christian responsibility or neglect divinely ordained duty), is to be involved in slavery (i.e., “bondage”). But neither at the time the marriage was contracted, nor at the present time (the force of the perfect indicative passive in Greek), has the Christian been under that kind of bondage. God never intended nor approved a view that regards marriage as slavery. Christians are slaves only to God—never to men or mates (Matthew 23:10; Romans 6:22; Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:24; Philemon 16; 1 Corinthians 7:15). So Paul was saying that although a believer is married to an unbeliever (and continues to be so), the believer is not to compromise his or her discipleship. To do so, at the insistence of the unbelieving mate, would constitute slavery that was never God’s intention for marriage.
To suggest that dedoulotai (“bondage”) refers to the marriage bond is to maintain that in some sense (or in some cases) the marriage bond is to be viewed as a state of slavery. But God does not want us to view our marital unions as slave relationships in which we are “under bondage.” We may be “bound” (1 Corinthians 7:27,39; Romans 7:2), but we are not “enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15). So Paul was not commenting on the status of a believer’s marital relationship (i.e., whether bound or loosed). Rather, he was commenting on the status of a believer’s spiritual relationship as a Christian in the context of marital discord that is initiated by the non-Christian mate. Paul was answering the question: “How does being married to a non-Christian affect my status as a Christian if he or she threatens to leave?” He was not answering the question: “How does being married to a non-Christian affect my status as a husband/wife (and the potential for remarriage) when the non-Christian departs?” Jesus already answered that question in Matthew 19:9—divorce and remarriage is permitted only upon the basis of sexual unfaithfulness. Paul, too, spoke more directly to this question earlier in the chapter when he ruled out remarriage: “Let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband” (vss. 10-11).
To summarize: although God’s marriage law is stringent (for everybody), and although God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), nevertheless, there are times when an unbelieving mate actually will force the believer to make a choice between Christ and the unbelieving mate. To choose the mate over Christ would be slavery (i.e., “bondage”). Yet, the believer is not now, and never has been, in such enslavement. Thus, the believer must let the unbeliever exit the relationship in peace. The believer must “let him depart”—in the sense that the believer must not seek to prevent his departure by compromising his loyalty to Christ. Of course, the Christian would continue to hold out hope that the marriage could be saved. If, however, the non-Christian forms a sexual union outside of marriage with another, the Christian is permitted the right to exercise the injunction of Matthew 19:9 by putting away the non-Christian on the sole grounds of fornication, and may then marry another eligible person.
One final factor needs to be addressed. Verses 17-24 cannot be requiring an individual to remain in whatever marital state that person is in at the time of conversion. Paul used the examples of slavery and circumcision to show that merely because a person becomes a Christian, he or she is not absolved of pre-Christian circumstances. If a person is a slave prior to baptism, that person will continue to be a slave after baptism, and should not think that becoming a Christian gives one the right to shirk legal status as a slave. This is why Paul instructed Onesimus to return to his position of servitude (Philemon 12). Thus Paul was encouraging the person who becomes a Christian, but whose mate does not become a Christian, to remain in that marriage rather than think that becoming a Christian somehow gives him or her the right to sever the relationship with the non-Christian mate. Being married to a non-Christian mate is not sinful in and of itself (see Miller, 2002).
Paul was not placing his stamp of approval upon relationships, practices, and conditions that were sinful prior to baptism; nor was he encouraging Christians to remain in those relationships. Such would contradict what he later told the Corinthians concerning unequal yokes (2 Corinthians 6:17) and repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). Rather, he was referring to relationships and conditions that were not sinful prior to baptism, and was telling Christians that they still had the same obligation to conduct themselves appropriately (i.e., according to God’s laws) within those situations, now that they were Christians. Such instructions apply to any relationship, practice, or condition that was not sinful (i.e., in violation of Christ’s laws) prior to baptism. But it does not apply to any practice or relationship that was sinful prior to baptism (i.e., adultery, homosexuality, evil business practices, etc.; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
May God grant us the humility and determination to conform our lives to His will concerning marriage—no matter how narrow it may seem (Matthew 7:14). May the church of our day be spared any further harm that comes from the promotion of false theories and doctrines that are calculated to re-define God’s will as “wide” and “broad” (Matthew 7:13). May we truly seek to please, not men, but God (Galatians 1:10).
Miller, Dave (2002), “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/1802.