Counseling Carnal Christians (Part 1: The Predicament)

By Dr. Fred Chay
Among the many "hats" the local pastor wears, the counselor’s hat is one that must be donned with confidence, compassion and capability. The "ministry of counseling" is one that the pastor can ill afford to neglect. Most of his counseling is not clinical in nature, nor does it require a deep knowledge of pharmacology. At times there are cases that require a clinical expert and he must refer these sporadic cases to competent Christian psychologists, psychiatrists, or counseling centers.  These more serious issues should be “outsourced” to experts more trained in the areas of clinical help for these people.
For the most part, though, the pastor is faced daily with the problems that plague the progressing Christian. However, much of his strength, stamina, and schedule are monopolized by dealing with what the apostle Paul has labeled the "carnal Christian". How is the pastor to deal with believers who have not only stopped growing and have become stagnant, but also have begun to indulge in seriously sinful behavior?  Dealing with carnal Christians in the local church is the subject of this series.

A Present Pastoral Predicament

The problem lies in the fact that Christians, born again by the Spirit of God, still struggle learning to "trust and obey", as sung about in that great hymn of the faith. The theology of this great hymn is biblical to the core, but there is the human factor called "the flesh” that we believers find a great hindrance to its implementation. It is the "Traitor in the Gate", the old self, flesh or sin nature which exists within us, that often stifles and sabotages us from growing to maturity in Christ.
The result often is carnal, sinful, behavior that not only astonishes the Christian community but many times the Christian who is committing the act as well. The church has been rocked in recent years by various scandals among the shepherds as well as among the sheep.  Financial sin of many types, sexual sin of all kinds, relational sin of various stripes and more harm believers, the church, and the reputation of the church to a lost and dying world which is reticent to turn to the church for help.
The solution that is often employed in the church when faced with carnality is two-fold depending on the severity of the sin. If it is sin that is seen as part of growing up, or maturing, one that has little community hindrance, the remedy is often a "Christian coddling" or mild "talking to." These kinds of sin might include gossip, or lying, or anger.  When a Christian is found to harbor grudges the pastor might normally take such a person aside and talk to them and that is all.
If, however, the sin is of a more serious nature such as adultery, immorality, homosexual activity, or idolatry, then often the questioning of the sinner's salvation comes into play. This process of dangling a person over hell by calling his salvation into question seems to be a reflex reaction that finds its roots in Puritan theology.  Several passages of Scripture (notably in Hebrews 6 and 1 Corinthians 6) seem to speak of a deep sense of loss experienced by those who perpetually and unapologetically commit these kinds of sin. 
However, it remains to be seen whether there is a more effective means of motivation for those who have made a profession of faith in Christ.  It must be granted that there are many people in the pew who believe they are Christians who are not. However, the problem of validation has to do with the content of their belief rather than the consistency of their behavior.
Any pastor or serious servant of Christ knows the heartache of dealing with the carnal Christian.  This person has professed personal faith in Christ, but in one or more areas their life contradicts their profession.  These people maintain that they trust Christ for their eternal life and yet their life does not exhibit a death to sin or any “upward trend” of personal holiness or “fruit” which might give secondary evidence to their conversion.
How do we deal with people like this?  How have you dealt with them in your pastoral or personal experience?  What are the biggest areas of concern that you face with people living in consistent sin in your midst as believers in Christ?
As evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures and believe that the Bible governs us in all matters in regard to faith and practice in the church, we will look next at a case study recorded for us by the apostle Paul dealing with just such a pastoral predicament.