The “Christian” Abuser: Couldn’t He be a “Carnal” Christian? (Part 1)
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
In our discussion of whether or not an abuser can be a Christian, or a Christian an abuser, I have concluded that it is impossible, according to Scripture, that a person who is characterized by a mentality of entitlement, who lusts for power and control, who has a profound sense of justification in using whatever tactics are necessary to obtain and maintain that power and control, can be a Christian. He or she may have many outward appearances of being a believer, but it is only a facade.
There is a notion, often based upon a mishandling of 1 Cor 3:1-4, that teaches that a person can actually be a regenerate, saved, justified man who does indeed belong to Christ, but who is, nevertheless, “carnal.” That is to say, he is characterized by disobedience to Christ rather than by obedience to the one he professes as Lord. This teaching has been a plague in Christian churches for quite some time and it has sown much confusion among us. It is a dangerous teaching and really is a denial of the gospel. More recent examples of the “carnal Christian” teaching cropped up during the “lordship salvation” controversy which was at its peak in the 1980’s and which is still a very pertinent issue today. Numbers of pastors, teachers, and theologians such as Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges published books which taught that it is a distortion of the gospel of grace to include the preaching of repentance in our presentation of the gospel to the lost. These are the “anti-lordship” salvation proponents and they insisted that it is quite possible for a person to be genuinely saved in Christ, yet never obey Christ as Lord. Salvation being entirely of grace does not, they insist, include any requirement to obey Christ as one of His disciples. Hodges claimed that while many people are Christians, only some Christians are disciples. It is these disciples who truly “inherit the kingdom” while others simply go to heaven (see Hodges, The Hungry Inherit). To his credit, John MacArthur was a leading voice in opposing all of this. His book, The Gospel According to Jesus, argued that no one is a Christian who refuses to bow their knee in obedience to Christ as Lord as well as embracing Him as Savior. So this is a very contemporary and important issue. Can a person be a Christian, yet live a life characterized by disobedience to Christ, being for all appearances just like those who are still of the world?
This is a vital topic for any Christian concerned with this matter of abuse, and it is of particular importance for victims of abuse when their abuser claims to be a Christian, and certainly it is of vital relevance for pastors and church leaders and all Christians in helping us decide just how we are going to deal with the abuser. Is he a Christian who abuses? Or is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
In this first part of a four-part article, I am going to review for you just some of the many Scriptures that teach that a Christian’s real personhood simply cannot be characterized by the flesh. Remember, the carnal Christian position doesn’t merely maintain that Christians sin, or that they are capable of sinning over a period of time before repenting. This teaching maintains that obedience to Christ is not necessarily a fruit of salvation and that a person can live out their life as a Christian, yet still be fundamentally characterized by disobedience to Christ, never having repented of sin. It exalts what it calls “grace” and rejects any notion of a requirement for repentance being included in the gospel as an intrusion of “works” or of “the law” into the pure gospel of absolute grace.
Alright then, first let’s consider some Scriptures that teach us that a Christian will always be characterized by obedience to Christ as Lord as well as reception of Christ as Savior by faith. We are not talking about perfectionistic sinlessness, but of a heart that desires to obey Christ out of love for Christ, and of an increase in sanctification and holiness as the Christian grows progressively more like Christ.
Romans 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (2) By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
Romans 6:16-18 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Romans 7:4-6 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Romans 8:12-14 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Colossians 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Ephesians 2:1-10 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
James 2:14-17 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
And in particular, notice the following Scripture which is in the very same letter to Corinth that the carnal Christian “proof-text” is in:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
We could go on. We could cite virtually the entire book of 1 John for example, that plainly tells us that a person who says they love God but hates their brother is a liar. But this should be sufficient to convince us that the Bible simply does not allow for the existence of a Christian who does not obey Christ; who is still characterized by the sinful flesh. What, then, did the Apostle Paul mean when he told the Corinthians that they were “carnal”? We will turn to that question in part 2.