Blogging Archives #2: “Christian Judgment: What it is and is not”

As I said previously, I will, from time to time, re-post articles from an old blog if I find them interesting enough (or at least, not too embarrassing).  Here is one from April 13, 2011, and I tackle the common complaints of “judgment” about Christians, from within and without the church.  I’ve expanded or made edits as necessary.

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When I was just a sarcastic, cynical, and skinny 18 year old boy (… I guess not much has changed), I went to my freshmen orientation at the grandiose University of Texas.  About 90% of it was a waste of time, to be honest, and one of the useless things we were forced to attend were these discussion groups that were to talk about “deep” issues that we may face in college.  During one such meeting, one of my orientation advisers read off this statement to start a discussion:  “All Christians are judgmental.”  I rolled my eyes.  “Here we go…,” I thought.

One of my fellow prospective freshman shot up her hand and started ranting about the “rich” Christian white boys at her school who tried to talk to her about her beliefs (ironically, she was white).  What was amusing about this rant is that she did not pinpoint a single instance where these guys looked down upon her, insulted her, or otherwise treated her like crap.  She was merely angry they tried to share their faith with her in the first place and took that as “judgment;” after all, they were implying that her belief system is wrong.  Other students there agreed and nodded their heads.  I then raised my hand and dropped this:

“Disagreement isn’t ‘judgment.’  Christians are free to disagree with other worldviews and express that disagreement, just as many here are free to express their disagreement with Christians.  That’s fair game if we are concerned about truth.”

After a period of awkward silence, the orientation advisers hastily moved on to a new subject.

As minor as this episode is, it does illustrate an important issue that is mired in confusion for both unbelievers and believers.  Virtually everyone knows Matthew 7:1, or at least the very first part of it, even if they have never picked up a Bible in their lives:  “Do not judge…”  For many people, they think it all stops there and anything under this word “judgment” is therefore off-limits.  However, this is a very sloppy and superficial way to look at the issue because it ignores the context of the word and the different meanings it can have based upon that context.  This can be easily seen by pointing out that if all “judgment” is wrong, then it is wrong to even point out that someone is being judgmental; after all, that is, in fact, a “judgment.”  Obviously, this is intuitively silly, and it is admittedly funny to point out to people who complain that “Christians are judgmental” that the statement itself is “judging” Christians, for they often look dumbfounded or get angry.  Unfortunately, a great many Christians have bought into this idea as well and try to shield themselves from any criticism, rebuke, or discipline by pulling the “Do not judge” card.  Small wonder why there is hardly any church discipline these days.

Words in Context

For Christians, this error is easily committed simply because many do not grasp the fact that words can mean different things in different contexts.  Some scholars even go so far as to say, “Words do not have definitions; they have usages,” and I would agree with them up to a point.  This can clearly seen with simple English examples: If I describe someone as “cold,” I could mean that he is need of a coat, unfriendly, or merely unemotional, among other things.  Context determines what I mean here.

Applying that to the Bible, it is plain silliness to just look up a definition of a word and then assume every single instance of it means the same thing in every passage.  Are lexicons important?  Of course; they provide the normal parameters in which a word is typically used, and they’re therefore useful in interpreting something.  However, they are not and should not be the final resource for determining meaning; that must fall upon a careful analysis of context.  After all, why else would dictionaries list several definitions of the same word?  Context is key.

From the brief discussion above, one can already see the folly of ripping the first part of Matt. 7:1 out of its context to make all “judgment” wrong.  We have to see, within the context, what Jesus meant and who he was addressing, and also see how the different concepts of judgment are addressed in the rest of the Bible.  In this Matthew passage, Jesus is concerned about hypocrisy and reciprocity.  Later on in verse 12, he states the oft-cited “golden rule,” and more immediately, he addresses the hypocrisy of not being self-reflective yet condemning others in verses 3-4.  Keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel carries a more polemical attitude towards the Pharisees, and they are likely who Jesus has in mind when he says, “Do not judge.”  What kind of judgment?  I think Matt. 9:10-13 provides a clue, particularly in verse 13 when Jesus says that he came to call the sinners and not the righteous.  Clearly, at least some Pharisees thought themselves righteous over and against the “sinners” like tax collectors; indeed, if this is true, they are in no need of a Savior.  However, Matthew is quite clear that they are most definitely sinners as well, which is why their attitude is so sad:  They are blinded by their own self-righteous condemnation of others such that they cannot see their own sin.  Thus, they are hypocritically condemning others when they have a giant plank in their own eye, and since they cast judgment from their imaginary high horse, God will judge them accordingly based on their own righteousness… which, unfortunately, will not be good enough when measured against God’s standard (Rom. 3:23).

This is a very important passage and two basic things can be learned.  One, Christians must not puff themselves up and cast judgment like God does; only He has final judgment on the hearts of men.  Second, Christians must not self-righteously criticize others and not have an awareness of our own sin.  The former is presumption, the latter is hypocrisy.  Thus, this is a highly useful passage and one that many Christians have violated (I know I have).  However, what it does not teach is that one cannot disagree with, criticize, evaluate, or rebuke another person or idea.  In fact, all one has to do is look at verse 6 and see that some “judgment” is needed.  While verse 6 can be a confusing verse, for present purposes it is enough to point out that to not giving what is holy to dogs and pigs requires some “judgment” to know what is holy and who are “dogs.”

Numerous other passages encourage the practice of judgment, either as wisdom (Prov. 3:21), evaluation of morality (1 Cor. 5), fair use of authority (Prov. 31:9), discernment of false teaching (1 John 4:1), and rebuke and discipline (Matt. 18, Gal. 6).  Clearly, Christians are to have critical minds and wisdom to discern what is consistent with God’s character and what is not, and when something is not, have the good sense to confront it.  The prohibition in Matthew 7 has to do with self-righteous hypocrisy, and it does not prohibit discernment, discipline, or even firm criticismFor sure, other parameters are given elsewhere; whenever rebuke is given, it should not be out of vengeance but out of the desire to correct the person and protect the community (Gal. 6:1, 1 Cor. 5:3).  Furthermore, superficial judgment based on mere appearance or on lies is strictly forbidden (James 2:3-4, 4:11).  However, as important as these passages are, they do not exclude the type of judgment that is expressly encouraged and commanded by Scripture.  Wise discernment of right and wrong, discipline of sin, and fair exercise of authority are “judgments” that Christians are commanded to practice.

Application

First off, it is very true that many Christians unfairly and illegitimately make judgments based on scant information, appearance, and self-righteousness.  I’ve seen Christians question the faith of others with almost no information, make pronouncements based on race, and even go so far as cast people into Hell as if they are God.  For example, one time a fellow Christian told me that he doubted the sincerity of those who asked whether not 10% tithing applied before tax or after tax (he scornfully thought such a question betrayed greed rather than honest inquiry).  When I told him that I thought that was being a tad judgmental, he looked at me with surprise, “What’s wrong with being judgmental?”  *Facepalm.  That is NOT something Christians should base judgments on so easily, and the fact that many conservative Christians do so is very sad because it merely reinforces the stereotype that Christians are nitpickers looking to condemn others rather than spread the message of love and grace through Jesus.  

Nonetheless, I have heard equally silly complaints from fellow Christians that when other Christians rebuke drunkenness or getting high off of pot, they are being “judgmental.”  Indeed, they are… and they are right to be “judgmental” in this case.  Drunkenness is explicitly forbidden in Scripture (Eph. 5:18), and as a fellow believer they are exercising their duty to teach against it and to address it when they see others getting wasted.  I must be frank here:  When I hear Christians complain about being criticized like this, I do not see a true concern about the biblical teaching on judgment; I see a cowardly and immature reaction to rebuke (oh no, did I judge here?!).  Seriously, it’s childish.  Discipline isn’t fun to receive, but Christians are wise if they take it to heart when it comes from God (Ps. 94:12) or others (Prov. 12:1).

In addition, many Christians immaturely react when their logic is exposed as faulty.  On the one hand, it is presumptuous to assume that, say, a married guy is sinning if you see him with a woman who is not his wife at Starbucks.  I would agree that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.  That said, it would be silly if he pulled the “legalist” or “do not judge” card simply because someone talked to him about it to make sure he’s being wise.  If he has good reasons and his wife knows about it?  Okay, I wouldn’t slap a blanket rule on him that he can’t do that; it is, after all, at a public place.  But if his reasoning is awful and he’s clearly being careless?  Well, it’s time for him to stop being an idiot.  Yes, that’s a “judgment,” but it’s a good one.

Thus, on the one hand Christians should show grace and not judge superficially, hypocritically, self-righteously, or presumptuously.  However, on the other hand, Christians should judge with wisdom and discernment and be prepared to issue rebuke to behavior that is inconsistent with Scripture or is devoid of good reasoning.  Those Christians who receive this rebuke must also be willing to take it with consideration and not resort to running behind a misapplication of Matthew 7:1, hardly behavior that shows any sort of maturity.  Love, grace, and humility must be present on all sides; when we must cast judgment, we must do so with caution and grace and with the good of others in mind; when we receive judgment, we must be humble enough to be willing to listen to fellow believers in the Spirit.

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