Pearls, Swine and the Problem of Forcing Character Formation

John ArmstrongBiblical Theology

Yesterday I wrote about Matthew 7:1 and Jesus' teaching on judgment and fault finding within the Christian community.

Paul writes: "For what have I to do with judging those who are on the outside? Is it not those  on the inside you are to judge? God will judge those outside. 'Drive out the wicked person from you'" (1 Corinthians 5:12-13, NRSV). The irony of our time is that the church judges those who are outside the church and accordingly fails to deal with sin on the inside of the church. The world notices and our witness is severely harmed accordingly. In this practice we are more like the Corinthians than mature Christians.

But in Matthew 7 the governing thought seems to me to be that God treats us in the way that we treat others. This is, in reality, a rather sobering thought. If we are judgmental and critical then we will receive the same. In Matthew 7:5 the word "hypocrite," used repeatedly for the scribes and Pharisees, is actually given to disciples of Jesus who ignore their own faults and pick on their fellow disciples. I cannot think of a condemnation of Christians that is stronger than this one.

But what does Matthew 7:6 mean? Jesus says, "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you." Dogs and swine were Jewish terms of contempt used for Gentiles. This saying could have been used in a Jewish Christian community first, especially since Matthew records it in this very Jewish context.

One of the first times this text became graphically plain to me was when I saw a pack of wild dogs in a context much more like that of the ancient world. These dogs were not friendly house-pets like my little Neo. They were animals who "mauled" their prey. They roamed around in packs and found ways to circle and attack their victim.

But who are the "dogs" in the text? They cannot be unbelievers, at least in any general sense, because of Matthew 28:18-20. Bible
The Message says: "Don't be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don't reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you're only being cute and inviting sacrilege." The sentiment behind this paraphrase is one that is supported by many commentators regarding this text. Jesus is warning us not to be flip with his truth before those who do not love it. This is a truism but I am quite persuaded that this is not what is actually in view here.

I think the larger context supports a reading like this—in a Christian community we must sometimes deal with an obstinately unrepentant fellow disciple. We should be very careful in how we do this. A way to grasp this, which gets what I think is going on in the text, is to see this verse as warning us against trying to force character change on people who are resistant to it. No matter how much a community seeks the well-being of its own members some will not desire to engage in the kind of  lifestyle that brings about real character development by the Holy Spirit. This is somewhat like the old phrase: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink!"

Not every member of your church wants to become more and more like Christ. We cannot force character change on all people. And a church that sets up a lot of rules to make this happen only falls into the error of verse one, namely judgmentalism. This leads to a critical spirit that destroys community. Churches with rigorous standards for spiritual formation very often leave out weak and struggling people who desperately need the community to love and accept them.

So what should those who are growing in grace do with those who are not? Be patient, help, love and seek to encourage. We are to "bear with the weak" and "cover a multitude of sins" wherever possible. When we engage in overly rigorous techniques, methods that have the appeal of legalism, we end up throwing precious pearls before disciples who are not ready to receive them. It should not surprise you that they will attack you in the process.

Given the context of Matthew 7 this does not mean the community never judges sin in the church. But this judging must not be the priority for every character problem a church faces. When we make "holiness" of character the goal, and then seek to force or compel character formation as an outcome, we damage the very nature of the community itself.

There are many who read these words who have actually been in churches where they have experienced this very problem. Such congregations are deeply committed to developing a holy people. This commitment is right and good. But the way they go about this is wrong in so many ways. They often talk a lot about discipline and character formation in terms that are quite specific and rigid. When people do not measure up then they either have to leave or turn against the community and its leadership.

Living in a time and culture in which Christians (in general) are not deeply concerned about godly character the dangers I speak about here are very real. This is all the more true since most churches do almost nothing to address the issue of character formation at all. Let those who teach the Word and care for people be exceptionally careful. Great wisdom is required and it is not easy to get. Young ministers are especially vulnerable here. They would all be wise to seek the counsel of those who have been down this road for decades.