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Spirit-Filled … and Wrong?

How Jesus taught believers to confront error in the Church

Is it possible to be Spirit-filled and wrong? Of course it is. As Spirit-filled people, we all know from experience that we have been wrong.

Sometimes we make bad decisions, misunderstand, or commit a sin for which we should repent and seek forgiveness. We know being Spirit-filled does not make one immune from doing wrong or being wrong.

Paul dealt with this issue head-on when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church. Though Paul applauded their spirituality and devotion, he also chastised the Corinthians for their lack of order, division over which leader to follow, tolerance of sexual sin inside the church, lawsuits among believers, etc.

The Corinthians were Spirit-filled people, but they were wrong. They weren’t wrong in every area of life, but they were wrong in some. And how did the Corinthians respond to an exhortation from another Spirit-filled believer? According to 2 Corinthians 7, they realized their error, repented, and changed.

This past year highlighted many differences of opinion in the Church. It showed us that even within an orthodox, Spirit-filled church, individuals can come to different, and sometimes opposite, conclusions on a whole host of issues.

Some of those issues are about how to interpret Scripture on a given subject, and others relate to how people of the Kingdom should live and operate in a fallen world. In some cases, it’s easy enough to just agree to disagree.

At other times, the disagreement can be over an issue that appears so important, so fundamental, it seems there are only two options: right and wrong. And, of course, we all think the way we believe is the right way. In other words, I’m right and you’re wrong.

However, what happens when the people on both sides of the right/wrong debate are Spirit-filled believers who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and who love the Church? If it really is an issue of right and wrong, then one of those Spirit-filled believers is right and the other Spirit-filled believer is wrong.

But when both are citing Scripture and appealing to the nature of God to support their point of view, who is to say which of them is right?

The fact is there’s no surefire way to know who is right in every instance. That’s what makes this topic an ethical dilemma. However, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us two helpful principles to live by in our relationships with other Christians.

Matthew 18

The first principle is a process for holding one another accountable. If you believe your brother or sister has sinned, Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18:15–17 is to “go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

And how did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? He ate with them, ministered to them, and loved them. In other words, even when someone has been disciplined by their church, they are to be treated graciously, with the hope that the gospel will win them over again.

The goal is restoration, not humiliation, so we must follow a process graciously.

Similarly, Paul said in Galatians 6:1 that “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” The overriding attitude here is one of grace.

Neither Jesus nor Paul left room for us to publicly castigate a fellow believer on social media or by any other means. The goal is restoration, not humiliation, so we must follow a process graciously.

Matthew 7

The second principle is self-criticism. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed the issue of judging other believers when he said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Jesus acknowledged our brother may indeed have a speck in his eye. In other words, he may be wrong, or have a fault. But Jesus’ primary concern is that each individual take responsibility for his or her own faults before pointing out the wrongs of others. Jesus issued His harshest rebuke, “hypocrite,” for those who get this backward.

The principles in Matthew 7 and 18 may, at times, seem contradictory. In reality, both are true and, taken together, provide a balanced framework to guide areas of relational tension. Jesus gives us a remedy when we feel a brother or sister is in sin, but He also pairs it with a strong warning to examine our own lives before judging others.

When you find yourself at odds with another believer over an issue of politics, ministry practices, or anything else, remember that Satan would love nothing more than to separate Christians and cause division in the Church. So before you confront others, accuse them of wrongdoing, or write them off as backsliders, try these things instead:

  • Pray for wisdom to see the truth and for God to reveal any faults in you.
  • Believe the best about the other person, just as you want him or her to believe the best about you. Give other Christians the benefit of the doubt.
  • Sit down with the other person and truly listen. Listen with your ears and your heart. Listen with love, remembering that this person is a brother or sister in Christ.
  • Truly consider whether you might be wrong, or at least partially wrong, about this issue.
  • Prioritize unity. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:18 is critical: “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” So, be a peacemaker, and resist division.
  • Let it go. You don’t have to respond to everyone with whom you disagree. Nowhere does Jesus instruct us to right every wrong.
  • Use your words carefully. Proverbs 18:21 says the tongue has the power of life and death, and Paul adds that it is in speaking the truth in love that we become like Christ (Ephesians 4:15). We can disagree with others without personal attacks and harsh words.

We have to realize not every thought or idea we have originates from the Spirit. Part of being people of the Spirit is walking with the Spirit or keeping in step with the Spirit. That means being open to hearing from the Spirit, being corrected by the Spirit, and being nudged by the Spirit in areas where we are wrong. And sometimes, as uncomfortable as it is, the Spirit shows us we are wrong when we interact with another who is right.

As a believer, it is wise to keep an open mind, especially when interacting with other believers who think differently than you do. I am not talking about allowing yourself to be coaxed into sin or persuaded by evil. Keeping an open mind and holding your opinions loosely should not put you in a position of compromise, but in a posture of learning.

Spirit-filled people can and should be both firm in their beliefs and open to being wrong at the same time. Being Spirit-filled should be synonymous with both confidence and humility — confidence in God’s Word as the ultimate measuring stick of right and wrong, and humility in our ability to fully and faithfully live according to it.

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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