Judging Christians

Judgmentalism is unattractive in modern, liberal, western culture.  After the accusation that all Christians are hypocritical, the notion that Christians are judgmental (and its frequent companion, closed-minded) is one of the reasons I have most frequently heard for why non-Christians have no interest in Christianity.  Some of the cleverer non-Christians, and many of the more liberal Christians, have even learned to cite Jesus himself, who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  So judging is always wrong, right?

The issue of Christians exercising judgment is not so simple.  While the criticism that (most) Christians are too judgmental has merit, I think it is rather that Christians sin by judging in the wrong direction.  Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  Not only does Jesus command not to judge, he also commands Christians to exercise judgment correctly.  Hateful judgmentalism makes obvious a lack of love, but what judgment’s “cultured despisers” often fail to realize is that refusal to condemn sin can itself be a failure to love fully.  But what does it mean to judge “correctly”?
Some readers may object.  The two quotes above are not all that Jesus said against judging others.  Perhaps most famous is the dictum to the crowd wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).  Slightly later, Jesus even claimed not to do any judging himself: “You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one” (John 8:15).  Shortly before his arrest and condemnation, at the end of his public ministry, Jesus declared, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).  Nor is the rejection of judgment exclusive to the Gospel of John.  In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the servants are told not to pull up the weeds, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:29).  This seems to exclude condemning others, for the harm that it may cause to those whom God has planted.

If many people read Jesus as rejecting judgment (which I shall evaluate more fully below), Paul seems to send mixed messages.  Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul exhorted them to accept one another despite differences in convictions about what constitutes sinful behavior: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:4) and “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13).  Also to the Christians in Corinth, Paul wrote, “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Yet the Corinthian Church needed a good spanking, and Paul knew it, for divisiveness, for proud boasting, and for some scandalous behavior.  Against the person sleeping with his mother-in-law, Paul wrote, “I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this” (1 Corinthians 5:3).  He followed that up with instructions about maintaining purity within the congregation:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Turning to the case of disputes at law, Paul chided the Corinthians for going before non-Christian judges, but what he says goes beyond a local issue to an eschatological view of Christian judgment: “Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?  Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).  Paul exhorted Christians to judgment.  Did he contradict himself?  And did he simply contradict Jesus, taking Christianity in a different direction from that of its first founder?

(As a minor note regarding how to read the Bible: the Greek verb used by Paul in all of these passages as “pass judgment” or “condemn” is the same as in 1 Corinthians 4:5, cited above.  Some people treat each word in the Bible as a magic talisman with its own unique meaning, but a word study will not help crack this nut.  We must interpret words in context.)

In fact, Jesus’s supposed rejection of judgment was not as unilateral as many suppose.  Jesus also spoke of his own future judgment of the world (John 5:22, 27), even describing judgment as the purpose of his coming (John 9:39).  Does this contradict what I quoted above, when he said that he came not for judgment but to save?  In John 9, Jesus gave sight to a blind man, and spoke as a warning about judgment coming to those who see (spiritually) and yet do not believe.  In John 12, Jesus immediately followed his statement that he did not come to judge with the assertion, “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (John 12:48).  It seems that Jesus is emphasizing that judgment will not be personal and arbitrary, as many ancient judges were, but instead the judgment will be impersonal and objective.  These words were given by God (John 12:49), and his command leads to life (John 12:50), so Jesus does not preclude his own role in judgment by emphasizing that his God-directed words will do the condemning.  Similarly, immediately after saying, “I pass judgment on no one,” Jesus clarified, “But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (John 8:16).  The issue in John 8 is the validity of Jesus’s testimony about who he himself was, and the rejection of that testimony by the Pharisees.  In this context, the “judging” is about evaluating testimony, and Jesus is saying that he is not “judging” anyone, not rejecting anyone’s testimony as the Pharisees are rejecting his.

Not only did Jesus make clear his own role in judgment, Jesus even commanded his followers to exercise judgment of sin themselves.  In John 7:24 he commanded his followers to “judge correctly.”  Without using the word “to judge,” Jesus commanded his followers to deal with sins by other Christians by pointing them out, first privately, and then with witnesses, and finally before the whole congregation (Matthew 18:15-18).  Failure to repent would result in the sinner being excluded from the church.  The language of “binding” and “loosing” in Matthew 18:18 is not the clearest, but occurs also in Matthew 16:19 with regard to Peter’s keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus also foretold that “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne,” the apostles would  “also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).  It is not clear, then, that Jesus’s criterion, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” was to be universally applied (if he even said it, since it occurs in a rare passage which even many faithful Christians regard as of uncertain authenticity).  There is a clear tension between the instruction to deal with sin in the church (one of the rare uses of the term “church” by Jesus) and the parable of the wheat and the weeds, but this tension can be a productive tension, since it is not a clear contradiction.

It is clear from these biblical passages that judging is a problematic pastime, and most people are clearly doing it wrong.  We are very good at condemning others.  Which ways we are most inclined to condemn other people may be determined by our political affiliations, but the practice of judging others is universal.  Those who advocate “toleration” seem, to me, to show no greater toleration toward those who disagree with them than others.  Instead, we are all good at setting ourselves up as the final judge who is most difficult to satisfy.  This is pure arrogance.  We are not the final Judge.  His name is Jesus.  In the words of a 1960s Disney movie, “The position ‘as been filled.”  (Compare James 4:11-12.)

Yet harmful judging continues among Christians almost as much as among outsiders.  Many Christians are quick to complain about the immorality of non-Christians around them, yet Paul makes explicit that we have no business judging outsiders.  “In that case you would have to leave this world,” he said.  What do you expect?  If you expect non-Christians to live like Christians, you are very silly.  Many Christians are also quick to establish rules where God did not, for example regarding unacceptable clothing or body decorations such as piercings, unacceptable consumption of alcohol or cigarettes, unacceptable media options, and unacceptable political views.  This is the variety of judging that Paul condemned for the Christians in Rome (Romans 14:1-5).  Many Christians, and not only conservative ones, are quick to condemn people on the basis of prejudices regarding race, gender, and socio-economic class.  James, the Lord’s brother, had some strong words for such Christians (James 2:1-7).  Some Christians are quick to talk about sin real or imagined, and such gossip destroys more relationships than whatever was actually done.  These forms of judgment fail to express God’s transforming love to a broken world.

As bad as these forms of judgmentalism are, there is a form of judgment even more insidious, which not only expresses human hatred, but undermines God’s redeeming love.  This is the form of condemnation which does not believe repentance, which says, “That person was a notorious sinner, and so is not welcome to become a Christian.”  Such a view implicitly doubts whether even God is powerful enough to redeem such a sinner.  This is the beauty of what Paul wrote to Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:11: notorious sinners “is what some of you were.  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.”  Hence our Lord commanded, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).  But many Christians choose instead to disobey God by thinking to themselves, “Let’s wait and see whether this person is good enough to join us, and if they pass, we will forgive them.”  Many Christians use their judgment about the “cleanness” or “respectability” of repentant sinners as the threshold about whether to extend God’s grace and mercy.  But most of us are all too quick to let ourselves off the hook without any severe judgment.  Thus we make the Gospel, the good news of God’s free grace to all humanity, into a partisan possession, and we all too easily slip into hypocrisy by judging incorrectly. 

And because the world judges the God of the Christians based on what they see of Christians’ own behavior, outsiders conclude that the God of the Christians is not loving, as Christians say, but hateful, as Christians do.  In this way “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Let’s be very clear: God’s grace does not come to those who are already cleaned up, but to those who are still messy, to clean them up.  “When we were still powerless… while we were still sinners… while we were God’s enemies,” that is when “Christ died for the ungodly… Christ died for us… we were reconciled to him through the death of his son” (Romans 5:6, 8, 10).  [A recent book by Sinclair Ferguson just reminded me of these temporal clauses.]  The good news is not that God thought the world worthy of receiving his conditional acceptance, as long as it followed through on its promise to clean up its act.  The good news is that God shamelessly loved this shameful mess, us, and sent his cleaning crew to transform us into creatures worthy of his love.  That cleaning crew was his only Son, Jesus Christ, who died a horrible death “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) so that we too may become children of God (John 1:12).  Judgment has no place in preaching God’s invitation to sinners for salvation; that is all God’s grace.

But a metaphor may point out a complementary truth.  Parents love their children not because their children are well-behaved, good-looking, smart, or funny.  Parents love their children simply because they are their children.  This is a picture of God’s love for us.  Yet parents also teach their children that some things are right and some are wrong.  Parents teach their children not to run out into the street, and not to stick things into power outlets; if they don’t, they are putting their children at great physical risk.  Parents teach their children to control their anger instead of hitting other people; otherwise, they are not preparing them for life in a larger society.  Parents love their children, and so they teach them what is right and what is wrong.  Parents judge their children all the time, and while some of that is certainly dysfunctional (parents, too, are sinful human beings), some of it is good and healthy (Hebrews 12:5-11).

How should we then judge sin?  We must do so in the context of our own tendency to sin (Galatians 6:1), in light of the fact that God has forgiven us (Matthew 18:21-35, immediately after the Lord’s instructions to confront sin within the church).  This enables us to do so gently and humbly, rather than arrogantly.  In humility we can confront sin with love, quick to offer forgiveness from God and from ourselves, for the sake of the person sinning.  For if we take seriously that sin causes damage, both to the sinner and to everyone around, then we will want to heal that harm and set people free from enslavement to that harm.  But having confronted sin, we must also be quick to accept the repentant sinner back into a fully restored relationship (Galatians 6:1 again, and in a specific case, 2 Corinthians 2:6-8).  The goal, after all, is reconciliation and a freer life in God’s love and grace.

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