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We have all heard a casual condemnation of someone as a false teacher or a heretic. More often than not, such statements mean, this person teaches something that I personally think is wrong. In contrast, when Scripture talks about false teachers, it often locates their definition in specific and publicly observable ways. 

In brief, a false teacher publicly denies something true about God and Christ and preys on the weak with greed and sensuality (Jude 4; 2 Pet 2:1–3; 2 Tim 3:6; Rom 16:18). Since many follow sensual desires (2 Pet 2:2), discovering a false teacher then often follows from evidence of their vile, sensual lust. One does not have to look far to discover that many professing Christians have exposed themselves by their deadly greed and insidious sexual exploits. 

Evidently, someone can be very wrong about a particular point of doctrine and still be a Christian. Paul after all said that Peter did not walk in step with the Gospel but did not question whether or not God had called him unto salvation (Gal 2:14). So then: how can we, to use an intentionally provocative word, judge other’s faith well? 

Our default ought to be to judge one another charitably.

In a word, we must use “charitable judgment” as John Calvin advises in his Institutes of Christian Religion. Love believes, hopes, and endures all things (1 Cor 13:7). And our default ought to be to judge one another charitably. 

The marks of a true Christian are, as Calvin will note, apparent. The marks of a false teacher are equally apparent and undeniable. While false teachers can hide themselves for some time, when they reveal themselves, it is obvious. A false teacher is not simply someone who holds to an incorrect opinion.

Here then let’s follow Calvin’s train of thought to discern how to judge each other charitably because we need to regain the capacity to do so. If we do not, we will harm the body of Christ (Acts 9:4).

Charitable Judgment

John Calvin speaks of a “certain charitable judgment whereby we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us” (Inst. 4.1.8). Calvin here provides three concrete, publicly accessible ways to discern someone’s faith. Do they confess the faith? Do they live lives that match up with their confession? And do they partake of the sacraments? 

Such outward signs tell us how we can know someone is a Christian. Shortly after these comments, he also proposes a triage of doctrine. Necessary doctrines include: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like” (4.1.12). So the three outward signs of faith, life, and sacraments also involve some basic doctrines of Christianity: God, Christ, and salvation by God’s mercy. 

Calvin’s view that clear outward signs signify faith seems to follow from Calvin’s view of the church. Calvin says, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (4.1.9). Calvin views the church primarily as “a multitude gathered from all nations” but then divided into various places—what we might call local churches. Hence, wherever the outward signs of true preaching and rightly administered sacraments exist, there the true church is too. 

Calvin’s charitable judgment of others extends to the church as well (he cannot separate the two although he does distinguish individuals and the body as such). Of the church, Calvin argues that the pure ministry of Word and sacraments are a “sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist” (4.1.12). 

Here is the most significant point to make here. God understands that we are weak, and so he, according to Calvin, accommodates himself to our capacity (4.1.8). Our capacity then to know someone’s faith requires outward signs that are obvious and clear since we are in the flesh. We cannot know the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Hence, God provided concrete signs: faith, life, and sacraments so that we might judge one another charitably. 

We must believe credible confessions and entrust each other to God. Someone who wrongly understands a doctrine or disagrees with you is not automatically unChristian—or else Peter who walked out of step of the Gospel would have been out of the faith (Gal 2:14). Instead, we have to entrust certain differences to God’s illumination: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil 3:15).

Uncharitable Judgment

To make further sense of what Calvin means, we can trace the opposite sort of judgment in Calvin’s thought: namely, an uncharitable judgment of others. Remember that Calvin uses public and outward signs of faith to guide his charitable judgment of others. On the other hand, public and outward signs of schism and division show an uncharitable judgment since such behaviour attempts to find a church purer than the signs God gave it and is often rooted in pride that exposes itself clearly and demonstrably by spurning other Christians.

Calvin advises allowing for differences of opinion on nonessential matters (4.1.12). When that does not happen and when people try to live ultra-pure lives, they attempt a Christianity that is purer than the definition of the church. However, we must, Calvin says, bear “with imperfections of life” and so be “more considerate” (4.1.13). People who have not borne with imperfections have become “imbued with a false conviction of their perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature” (4.1.13). In short, the ultra-pure separate away from anyone in whom they find a spot of impurity. They are the true and real Christians. The rest are hopeless compromisers with impurity. 

“There are others,” explains Calvin, “who sin more out of ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of that insane pride” (4.1.13). They may have a legitimate complaint with others. But they wound Chrisitans with weak consciences by their “immoderate severity.” Calvin continues: “Indeed, because they think no church exists where there are not perfect purity and integrity of life, they depart out of hatred of wickedness from the lawful church, while they fancy themselves turning aside from the faction of the wicked” (4.1.13). This ultra-purity mindset does not account for Jesus’s words in Matthew (Matt 13:47–58, 24–30; Mat 3:12). In other words, the church is a ship full of sinners and saints until the resurrection. There will be no perfectly pure visible church until the day of judgment.

He continues by speaking of a similar group, namely, the overscrupulous. Of them he says: “But though this temptation sometimes springs up even among good men from ill-advised zeal for righteousness, we shall perceive that this overscrupulousness is born rather of pride and arrogance and false opinion of holiness than of true holiness and true zeal for it. Therefore, those who more boldly than others incite defection from the church, and are like standard-bearers, have for the most part no other reason than by their contempt of all to show they are better than others” (4.1.16). 

Put simply, due to scruples, the ultra-pure and ultra-scrupulous Christians cast shade on impure people in their midst. They then call on the pure to leave the impure. And so the cycle of schism goes on. Calvin finds this movement towards schism as traitorous. 

Since the church is the body of Christ, then Calvin has a high view of the church (4.1.2–3). He understands leaving the church without sufficient reason (i.e., where the Gospel and sacraments exist) as a monstrous act, apostasy even. “For the Lord,” writes Calvin, “esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. [The Lord] so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished” (4.1.10).

Charitable Judgment Still Means Judgment

Calvin does not advocate for allowing blindly believing an exploiter of women or schismatics. His charitable judgment means judgment but one that believes the best of someone on the basis of their faith, life, and use of the sacraments. It follows from trusting the basic signs God gives to his people without judging someone’s heart—we often do not know who might be wheat or tare in the field of the church. What we do know is that someone confesses faith, lives well, and takes the sacraments. 

Someone who breaks that unity through ultra-pure acts of separation and so condemnation of the church falls headlong into disaster. “Not because of their hatred of others’ iniquities but because of hankering after their own conventions, these sons of evil strive to drag along or at least to divide all the weak common folk who are entangled in boasting of their own name. Puffed up with pride, mad with obstinacy, deceitful in their slanders, troublesome in their seditions, these evil persons feign a rigid severity so they cannot be shown to lack the light of truth” (4.1.16). 

When we have reason to correct someone, we should do so with moderate care.

Calvin instead argues that even when we have reason to correct someone, we should do so with moderate care. The rigid severity of those who love to correct others belies the “sincerity of love and unity of peace” that we must have. Such harshness in fact means that people cannot see “the light of truth.” It has the opposite effect of its intent. “This principle [of correction],” Calvin explains, “they prostitute to the sacrilege of schism and the occasion for cutting off the brethren from the fellowship” (4.1.16). 


If Calvin rightly understands Scripture and pastoral theology, then we need to seriously rethink how we talk about other Christians. When we dismiss others as false teachers and heretics without due warrant, I worry more about our own souls than the ones whom we attack. Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt 5:22). 

When someone disagrees with us on practical church issues, disputable matters of eschatology, ordination, and more besides, we need to triage carefully. We need to judge charitably in their favour if at all possible. Do they confess the faith? Do they confess God, Christ, and salvation by mercy? Do they live a good life, free of greed and sexual exploitation? Do they receive the true sacraments? These are the sorts of basic outward questions we must ask since we cannot know their inward spiritual condition—only God can (1 Sam 16:7). God kindly gave us basic signs. We should use them to judge charitably. 


This article parallels the “Into Theology” podcast where professor Ian Clary and I study great works of theology. Currently, we are podcasting through Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. Our most recent episode covers much of the same ground and can be found here

image: Museum Catharijneconvent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons