Good Monday morning, and welcome to a new week on the podcast. Today we have a question from a listener, Scott, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Here’s what he wants to know: “Dear Pastor John, hello and thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast. My question is personal. A very close friend of mine, who has historically been strong in his Christian faith, has recently embraced a pop-theology in which God has no wrath, and there’s no hell for anyone.
“My friend now argues that the vengeful God of the Old Testament was a Jewish myth, not the real God, who is only found in Jesus. To him Jesus died mainly to demonstrate God’s patience with sinners. He now denies penal substitutionary atonement. In all these things, I have shown him his error from Scripture, but he will have none of it. Because he continues to claim to be a Christian, I have begun to treat him in accordance with 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15, not hanging out like we used to. Have I done the right thing? And should I tell him why?”
I think the answer is yes, you have done the right thing. And I think the answer is yes, you should tell him why. But let’s step back first for just a moment and get the bigger picture of the way the New Testament deals with those who claim to be Christian and have abandoned things essential to the Christian faith.
Warn a Brother
First, let’s clarify the verses in 2 Thessalonians that Scott refers to. The situation in Thessalonica is that some in the church have departed from Paul’s teaching about the second coming, and are so sure that it’s happening in the next weeks or months that they’ve stopped doing any work and are walking in idleness, he says, and mooching off of other believers instead of doing their work, because they think the Lord’s going to be there any minute.
So Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” And then eight verses later, this is what Scott refers to:
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:14–15)
Now, the problem with using these verses to guide Scott in the situation he describes with his friend is that the situation in 2 Thessalonians is not so serious that Paul considers the delinquent idlers as unbelievers. He tells the church to assume — for now, anyway — that they are brothers and that they should be won back as brothers by this temporary ostracism. “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother,” he says.
Withdraw from a False Brother
Now, I don’t think that’s the case with Scott’s friend. He has reinvented another Jesus than the one in the Bible, and another Jesus can only offer another gospel. His errors go right to the heart of the gospel, so I don’t think Scott’s friend should be considered a Christian.
Paul has very harsh words for those who claim to be Christian and reject the biblical Christ and the biblical gospel. He says, for example, in Galatians 1:8–9,
Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
That’s the situation for Scott’s friend, as far as I can see, and that kind of false teaching in a person who claims to be a Christian cannot help but stir up serious divisions among professing believers. Claiming to be a Christian while rejecting Christ can only split Christ. So both the apostles’ Paul and John have strong words to tell us to withdraw our fellowship from such a person claiming to be a Christian and yet rejecting the biblical Christ:
- 2 John 1:9–10: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ [which is what Scott’s friend has done; he’s moved on to a new Christ that he’s inventing out of his own head] does not have God. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
- Titus 3:10: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.”
- Romans 16:17: “I appeal to you, brothers, watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
- 1 Corinthians 5:11: “Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.”
“Claiming to be a Christian while rejecting Christ can only split Christ.”
Now, that last list from 1 Corinthians 5 focuses mainly on blatant behavioral sins that we don’t repent of, but the reference to idolater in that list points to a much wider application than just a few behavioral sins — like creating a new Christ that is not the Christ of the Bible and claiming to worship that false Christ.
Make the Meaning Clear
So, from these seven passages that I just quoted, I would say that Scott has made the right choice in pulling back his fellowship from his friend who claims to be a Christian and has rejected the very heart of Christ’s saving work — namely, his taking our condemnation on himself on the cross, according to Romans 8:3. And I would say, Scott, that you most definitely should explain to your friend why you are pulling back. It won’t do any good otherwise; he won’t know what’s going on.
“It would not be loving to carry on as if his view of Christ were unimportant.”
Your hope is that your action will help him feel the seriousness of his walking away from biblical truth, and his reinventing his own Christ. You’ll tell him that you love him and that it would not be loving to carry on as if his view of Christ were unimportant, when in fact his soul hangs in the balance. You’ll promise to pray for him, and from time to time, you may communicate with him precious things about Christ that you pray will awaken a longing in him for the true biblical Christ.
Go to the Church
And I would say one more thing, Scott. Without going behind his back, you would say something to him about his church relationship, or you would ask him about his church relationship — I’m just assuming that if he claims to be Christian, he’s going to church somewhere, probably — and you would ask him if his pastor knows what he believes. And you might even offer to go with him to visit his pastor, and you would explain that it’s a matter of integrity.
If you belong to a church, it’s dishonest, it’s cowardly not to be upfront with the church leadership if you come to reject some of the central teachings of the church. And if he gets his back up maybe and says, “What? You want to get me kicked out of my church the way you’re kicking me out of my relationship with you?” — well, you might say to him, “You are the one who has changed — not me, not the church. You’re the one who has turned on Jesus and kicked him out of your life. You’re the one who has kicked out of your mind and heart what the church has believed about the Lord Jesus and the wrath of God and the atonement of Christ for two thousand years. I think you should own up to what you have done and stop pretending that you’re a Christian.”
Now, I don’t know, Scott, whether those words are appropriate for your friend or not. I know I’m putting words in your mouth, but it seemed to me that I ought at least make an effort to say the kinds of things that might be said. And I’ll pray for you that the Lord will give you love, give you wisdom, give you courage to speak the truth with your friend, and that he may receive it the way you mean it.