Scripture addresses those who belong to Christ, and those who do not. There are those who possess the Spirit of God, and those who do not. But, is there a 3rd category? Many, especially in certain circles in American Evangelicalism, would claim there is a 3rd category commonly labeled a “Carnal Christian” or a “Nominal Christian.” This 3rd category is described as those who profess to know and follow Christ, but whose life does not reflect it. They would claim to follow Christ just enough to escape hell, but not enough for Christ to affect any aspect of their life. Some feel God is obligated to present a “get out of hell free card” as a result of a one time decision long ago that involved praying a prayer, or walking an aisle. The most common proof text for this position is found in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and the way Paul addresses the Christians there in the Corinthian Church.
The reason so many think Paul is addressing Carnal Christians in this passage is because of how he refers to them (3:1). He just explained that it is only the spiritual man who knows Christ and possesses the mind of Christ (2:16), not the natural man. Now, he addresses them as “brethren” (3:1) and writes but he, “Could not speak to them as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as babes in Christ (3:1).” Paul is not writing to the Corinthian church affirming there is this middle category of a Christian, but writes in this way to confront the clear sin in their midst that forces Paul to address them as immature in their faith.
Look back and read the first things Paul wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 1:4-6 was that, “The grace of God was given to them in Christ (1:4), they were enriched in Him (1:5), and that the testimony of Christ was confirmed in them (1:6).” Paul is in no way condoning a category of a Carnal Christian, but simply addressing Christians in Corinth who are not maturing in their faith as they ought. Paul implies their lack of pursuit to maturity is one reason there is division among them (1:10). They are remaining “Babes in Christ” (3:1).
Pastors, how do we deal with this type of person in our churches? Those who profess Christ, but whose lives do not reflect it?
1) Recognize there is no biblical category for a Carnal Christian. Just because there are those who meet the characteristics of a “Carnal Christian” in our churches, does not affirm this as a legitimate biblical category of a Christian. This person is simply deceived and needs Christ. There is no salvation without the cost that comes with it (full submission to Christ).
2) Try to discern whether someone is simply unconverted, or just immature in their faith. We are not God, so we must tread cautiously here. But, we can watch someone’s life and determine if there are evidences of grace in their life as they battle and struggle with an immature faith. Or, if there are no evidences of grace in them apart from simply their profession.
3) Involve solid believers in your church to evaluate those people with you. Because of #2, we must involve other mature, gracious leaders in our church in our evaluation of these people. This will also guard a pastor from concluding too quickly someone’s unregenerate state because of some personal hurt that person could have brought to the pastor.
4) Change the way you take in members into your church. The best, long-term solution to dealing with “Carnal Christians” is to make sure you guard the front door more closely for the future. Have an intentional process to take in members and do all you can to learn about their life, faith, conversion, and reasons they desire to join your church. This is not a quick solution, but the patient, wise decision for the long-term rarely is.
5) Preach the gospel. One of the greatest joys I have experienced is to watch church members converted. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but do not assume when you take a church all the members are converted. Preach the gospel for all those present. It will encourage the faithful saints, awaken the lost, and hopefully jolt some who may have been living a lie for years and would truly take hold of Christ. One of the greatest teaching moments in almost 10 years for me at our church was to baptize a few members as true believers in Christ who thought they belonged to Christ, but did not.
The power of the gospel is powerful. It is powerful enough to convert the lost, lift up the discouraged saint, and even powerful enough to awaken a “Carnal Christian” to swallow his/her pride and finally and sincerely admit the lie they had been living and turn to Christ.