Learning to Judge Again

Once I was with a fellow who was about to speak at an important meeting in front of about 50 people. He was wearing a tie with slacks and a sports coat. He looked rather spiffy. That is, with the exception that he had tied his tie way too short without noticing. As he went by a mirror and stopped to double check his appearance he finally noticed that his tie made him look a little bit like Bobo the clown trying to get into GQ. He quickly fixed his tie after which he turned directly to me, who had been with him for about 15 minutes, and asked, “Why didn’t your tell me how goofy I looked before I almost embarrassed myself in front of all those people?”

I can’t say that I didn’t notice his tie, but I also wasn’t sure whether I should say anything or not. It was short, but I wasn’t sure if it was too short for his tastes; and I didn’t want to point it out for fear of offending his own possible fashion sensibilities. He wasn’t pleased. Basically he said that I should have pointed it out because he would rather be embarrassed in front of just me rather than 50 others. More or less he was disappointed that I didn’t show enough concern to risk offending him in order to save him from even worse potential embarrassment.

It has long been a fairly common assumption in society and even in many Christian circles that the worst thing we could do is ever judge anyone. Once in a sermon I stated some of the things that I disagreed with regarding some of the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afterwards a man approached me and said that I was being too “judgmental” and that “it just wasn’t Christian”. Lost on him was the irony that he was “judging” me for being “too judgmental”! I have even seen people wearing T-shirts that say, “Only God can judge me”, which just seems to be another way of saying to anyone who may be critical of their actions, “Shut up!” And that I think is really the point behind much of the selective judgmentalism regarding judgment.

Who are we to judge anyway? After all didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not lest you be judged”?

Yes he did, but he also said a few other things that undeniably show that he didn’t mean that we should never say that certain actions are wrong or that we should never point out fault in another person’s life.

Luke 17:1-4 (NLT)
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting! 2 It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin. 3 So watch yourselves!
“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. 4 Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”

An expanded version of this same admonition appears in Matthew 18:10-21. The context shows that it’s God’s heart for the church to diligently go after straying and wayward sheep. Immediately following the parable of wayward sheep, Jesus points out the duty of disciples to “point out the fault” (v. 15 NRSV) of one who may have sinned against them. It is a loving, but relentless process with an abundance of forgiveness required where there’s repentance. It is so relentless, even when excommunication takes place, because the goal is always reconciliation of sinners to God and the body of Christ. The reason quite simply is because “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt 18:14 NRSV).

lost sheep

If this seems unloving it is only because you may not have quite the same definition of love that Jesus operated with (see Timothy Tennent’s article here on the importance of knowing your Biblical vocabulary). Jesus summed up (not abrogated) the entire law of God with two commandments found in the law itself. Love God (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

The context of the former makes clear that to love God is to obey all of God’s commandments (see Deut 6:6). It’s no accident that the love command follows the restating of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.

Likewise the context of Leviticus 19:18 makes clear that to love one’s neighbor is not out of sync with pointing out a neighbor’s fault.

Leviticus 19:17-18 (NRSV)
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

The permissiveness that the world defines as love is defined by the Bible as hate. To not reprove one’s neighbor is not to love one’s neighbor. It is not loving to stand by while a fellow disciple acts contrary to the word of God any more than it would be loving for me as a parent to stand by while my 9 month-old precariously enjoys playing with an electrical outlet. That’s why Jesus insisted on accountability among his people, not in spite of love but because of it.

So disciples of Jesus are called to make judgments, but we must be careful to only make the judgments that Jesus has commanded us to make, and to carry out that judgment in the right way.

A friend of mine became a volunteer firefighter as a teenager. One day I ran into him somewhere and as we were talking he told me how excited he was because he was going to get to help burn down an old abandoned house with some other firefighters for training. A little pyromania for sure! The reason they got to burn down the house is because it was condemned by the proper authority.

God is the only proper authority who can pronounce final and everlasting condemnation, not the church. Moreover, only God can see the motives and intentions of someone’s heart. Nonetheless, the church is called to judge fruit, the actions someone takes. And actions indicate the direction of a person’s life. Blatant disobedience is a sign that someone is headed in the wrong direction; and if someone seems to be headed for, or even seems to be turning toward, the destruction that Jesus (Matt 7:13-14) and Paul and the other apostles’ warned about, the loving thing to do is to warn them. That’s why Paul warns that those who practice what he calls works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God as he juxtaposes them with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-22). Although we are not called to determine anyone’s final destination, we are called to warn about bad fruit that indicates that someone may be going in the wrong direction.

Yes we are called to make judgments, but with the goal of redirection rather than pronouncing final condemnation. Hence, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to not shy away from judging one another within the church (1 Cor. 5:9-6:11). This he discussed in the context of a man who was unrepentantly, defiantly, and arrogantly engaged in an incestuous affair with his stepmother, of whom Paul judged that he should be excommunicated. This was not for purposes of final condemnation, which is only God’s prerogative, but with a view toward redirection so that the incestuous man might be saved on the Day of Judgment (6:3-5). Thus, the purpose of judgment should be discipline that hopefully leads to redemption, which is the purpose of all Divine temporal judgment, whether it was carried out against the nations of Israel and Judah through the Armies of Assyria and Babylon or whether it is carried out with regards to individuals through church accountability and discipline. And make no mistake, it is all about love because God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6; Rev 3:19).

It is important, however, to note that it is also important that the judgment to which we are called is to be carried out with the proper spirit, which is humility. When Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” he went on to discuss the manner in which we should actually point out the fault of a fellow disciple.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NLT)
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.
3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Notice the warning is really about judging hypocritically. Also notice that Jesus doesn’t say just forget about the speck in your neighbor’s eye altogether. No. He simply reminds us about the log in our own eye, which we need to attend to first. He doesn’t tell us to ignore specks or logs, but to attend to both, but in the proper order. First remove the log in your own eye and then you will be able to help with the speck. We are all sinners, yes, but that is no excuse to ignore sin in our own lives or in the lives of others. From what we already saw above Jesus obviously couldn’t have meant that. Judge we must, but only in a spirit of humility and gentleness not one of arrogance and hypocrisy. Hence, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:1-2 for believers to hold each other accountable “in a spirit of gentleness” and to bear each others’ burdens in order to fulfill the law of Christ, which is the law of love.

Among the many strengths of the early Methodist movement were a commitment to be Biblical Christians and to holding one another accountable to the word of God in love. Their loyalty to Scripture was not coincidental to their commitment to accountability. This commitment was inherent in the meaning of Methodist membership. As a result in the early days Methodist worship attendance far outnumbered Methodist membership. Today the reverse is the case, which is an indication of the loss of both our commitment to be faithful to Scripture and, not coincidentally, to genuine accountability in love. We need to recapture both of these commitments if we are ever to become a vital and transformative movement again.

We need to learn how to judge again; and to learn to judge again is to learn to love again. In this case to not judge places us under the rightful judgment of God as pronounced in the Word. Judge not and we will be judged, and found wanting. As Leviticus 19:17 says, “you will incur guilt yourself.” And it will involve more than a little embarrassment over a stubby tie in the presence of a few strangers, but, according to Jesus, shame at the coming of the Son of Man in all of His glory (See Dan 12:2 & Mark 8:34-38). Let us repent therefore and seek the Lord while he may still be found and we will find forgiveness through his blood and empowerment for obedience and right judgment by His Spirit.

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6 thoughts on “Learning to Judge Again

  1. Mixed feelings about this Cliff…I think Jesus (Matthew 7:1) and Paul (Romans 14:10-13) make it clear in many ways that we are not to “judge” one another, because we have already been judged (by the only one qualified – God), and we have ALL been found wanting. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7 NIV). Obviously, that’s why we ALL need grace and forgiveness. At the same time, He also makes it clear (as you point out) that we are responsible for loving our neighbors and this would include helping them to see their lives in the light of Christ’s light. The difficulty is that we tend to shine that spotlight only in specific places while ignoring others, hence Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy. God’s Word is the standard of righteousness (not church discipline) and only God’s Spirit (not my opinion) can convict people of their sinful behavior. I just don’t think that works outside of a mutually accountable relationship. Pointing fingers from across the road (i.e. Westboro Baptist Style) certainly does not help, and the corporate church has lost its right to cast stones at individuals or groups because of the many embarrassing planks in our own collective eyes. Only in the context of a relationship can we help each other to “see” what we have each missed due to our own spiritual shortsightedness.

    • Howard, really I can only say amen to what you have said. I think the difficulty lies in the different senses in which the word “judge” is used. There is a sense in which we are not to judge and there is a sense in which we are to judge as I tried to demonstrate. We can call it “accountable discipleship”, but still it will involve discernment and judgment. We all make judgements all the time, and that is inevitable. You just did, and I appreciate your thoughts and insight. I used the word judge for rhetorical effect mainly to counter the blanket idea that we should never judge anyone else. As you indicate, ‘in many ways that we are not to “judge” one another’, but there are ways in which we are to judge one another. A general proclamation of the word of God should inevitably contain elements of reproof and correction, which is two thirds of the word according to 2 Timothy 3:16, and for those who accept the invitation to discipleship and take the baptismal vows should be responsibly held accountable to what they have said they will do as we all should. I think we have lost that because we have a church culture where we don’t even hold members accountable to even showing up very well, much less anything else.

      Also when I say “church” I don’t mean that in the abstract institutional sense, but in the local church family of brothers and sisters who know each other first and foremost and are committed to caring for one another. This is already done in some respects. I’m not saying that I have all this figured out because I most certainly don’t. I just think we have almost given up on this altogether, and we should make strides to think about how to reclaim some of it in a faithful and responsible way. Thanks for your input. Blessings to you!

  2. Cliff, great word. Providentially, perhaps, I had been toying with the idea of an article for sometime with a working title, “We don’t need less, but more, judgment.” You’ve captured the heart of what I was going to say so I won’t say it again. I think much if not all of our current difficulties in the church are due to lack of judgment – right judgment.

    One verse that needs to be mentioned I think is Jesus’ words in John 7:24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” It’s not that we are not supposed to judge, but that we are to do it in a right manner, a way prescribed by God through His word. As you point out, 1 Cor. 5 gives us instructions to judge those in the church, and in Matthew 18 Jesus tells us how to enact church discipline – judgement.

    When we are more concerned with offending man we are probably offending God.

  3. I think Chad captured the right words – right judgement. I Corinthians 13:1-3 shows us that a lot of good—and great things we (can) do, when done out of love (God’s love in us) looses all substance. Maybe we can use the word ‘correction’ to clear the air.

    But like Cliff pointed out, we can not definitely say we are walking in love when we see someone going the ‘broad way’ and choose to be non-judgemental.

    Ephesians 5:11 says, “take no part and have no fellowship with the fruitless deeds and enterprises of darkness, but instead [let your lives be so in contrast as to] expose and reprove and convict them. (Amp)

    Sometimes, our silence in the face of evil actually screams our solidarity to it.

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