One of my favorite performers is a multi-genre composer/singer/instrumentalist named Susan Werner. She’s ambivalent about church, but perceptive about faith. On her latest album – a foray into folk/gospel – she takes pulpit-pounders to task in the lyrics of Why Is Your Heaven So Small?:
You say you know; you say you’ve read
that Holy Bible up on the shelf.
Do you recall when Jesus said,
“Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself?”
For I know you’d damn me if you could,
but, my friend, it’s simply not your call.
If God is great and God is good,
why is your heaven so small?
I am awful about judging people. Awful about doing it. Awful in being qualified to do it. I can blame part of it on the “vote-’em-off-the-island” culture I’m in, but not completely. As Randy Harris is fond of saying, “We all think we’re right.” Too often, I think I’m righter than everyone else.
And more times than I like to remember, when I have tried (sometimes tactfully and lovingly; sometimes not) to remind someone of what Jesus said, I have been thoroughly trounced with all kinds of doctrine about the commands to correct the doctrinal heresies of others – even to the permissibility of being judicious, sarcastic and even insulting.
So let’s get to the bottom of it, shall we?
When should we judge and when should we abstain?
What should be the object of judging, and what should be the purpose for it?
I want to keep this brief rather than comprehensive, and I very much want to hear from you. So I’m going to bullet-point what I perceive about a few different scriptures – and I apologize that these are excerpts; I’ll let you be responsible for examining them in their respective contexts:
- Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37 – “Don’t judge.” The unspoken word here is “others,” I believe. There are acts that we should judge; some we should condemn. Don’t judge others. We’re not qualified to determine their eternal destiny. Leave it to Someone who is.
- Luke 12:57 – “Judge for yourselves what is right.” That’s an action, not a person; otherwise He would have said “who is right.” Right? Judge for yourselves – as a community, plural – not one for another; not one against another. This was spoken to a crowd, remember. The advice was to sort out disagreements without requiring the need for civil judging authority.
- John 7:24 – “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” Jesus healed someone. It appeared that He was doing work on the Sabbath, and the conclusion was that He had therefore sinned. By healing someone, for goodness’ sake. How twisted and un-right was that judgment? In trying to judge Him, they ignored the significance of the act itself, which was righteous.
- Acts 4:19 – “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (See comment directly before this bullet.)
- Romans 14:1; also Colossians 2:16 – “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” There are disputable matters – matters of conscience. They cannot be limited to eating meats or celebrating holidays, for if logic were truly applied, matters of conscience would have to include any matter about which one strongly believes, but on which scripture is completely silent. On these matters we we are not to impose our beliefs on others as law, nor to judge them as if they could somehow violate our personal consciences!
- 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.” Things, not people. And this is not a get-out-of-court-free verse. It simply says that the spiritual man recognizes that God judges him.
- 1 Corinthians 4:3-6 Here Paul disdains the kind of judgment (favoritism) that Corinth was showing toward himself, Apollos and Christ. He reminds them not to judge before the appointed time, when “each will receive his praise from God.” And he adds, “Do not go beyond what is written,” so that they will not try to out-do each other in pride and side-taking. This is a question of judgment about who is better than whom – and it has no place in the family of Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 – Don’t miss the context of these verses: the whole chapter. We’re talking about grave, wicked sins within the church, committed with impenitent impunity: sexual immorality, greed, slander, idolatry, drunkenness, swindling. These are wicked acts. These verses are NOT about differences of opinion on how to win souls or worship God or when/how God is required to apply salvation. They are NOT about dining in the building, having a building, spending the church budget, having a paid full-time minister, or … you get the idea. But let’s get this right: neither a difference of opinion nor a conviction of conscience regarding a matter on which scripture is silent makes a person wicked in and of itself. Yet far too many have let their confidence in their conviction grow to arrogance and judgment of others that can result in their own destruction – and suck their target right down the same bitter hole. It’s how Satan works: Divide and conquer.
- 1 Corinthians 6:2 – “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?” The phrase “will judge the world” is in future tense. Don’t jump the gun. The instruction here is the same that Jesus gave in Luke 12:57 – settle differences between brothers outside of civil court. Can it be any plainer?
- 1 Corinthians 11:31-32 – “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” This is not talking about the judgment of favoritism (1 Corinthians 4:3-6), but of making self-assessments and looking after each other as well. Once again, “ourselves” is plural. We’re talking about the community of Christ. Jesus talked about how to look after each other’s souls many, many times (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20; John 13:34-35; et al).
- I Timothy 1:3 – “…command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer ….” And what were these false doctrines? Paul described them in the next verse as “myths and endless genealogies.” They were lies. Probably pre-Gnostic fables that some were trying to merge with the truth of Christ, diluting its power. They were not about the kind of things that so many folks have turned themselves inside-out (and scripture, too) in order to condemn as “false doctrine” – which, too frequently, is man’s doctrine and not God’s. Opinions, matters of conscience. Not scripture. Not the heart of Christ.
- 1 Peter 2:1 – “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” Not every difference of opinion is a heresy. Carousing in broad daylight – that’s heresy. Slandering celestial beings – that’s heresy. Denying the Lord – that’s heresy. A different style of worship; a different method of discipling; a different way of using material advantages to God’s glory – chances are good that these are not heresy. Do you see the difference in scale and size and scope? (See final remark in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 above.)
- Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2; Matthew 23:33 – Sarcasm and insults had their place in the repertoire of God’s spokespersons who were dealing with those who directly opposed God, and did it in His name. Whether they were Pharisees insisting on the letter of the law devoid of its Spirit or sheep-in-wolves’-clothing among early Christians insisting on Jesus-plus-circumcision or Jesus-plus-secret-Gnostic-wisdom to be saved, Jesus and Paul let them have it – and so did others. If you can be as absolutely certain of your doctrinal perfection and personal piety and spiritual insight – and of the ultimate hypocrisy/moral depravity of your target – as they were, I say, let ‘er rip.
Insult them and make snide comments about them and damn them to hell just as if you could.
– But if you really want to reach souls, persuade hearts, turn sin-scorched people to God’s healing (as opposed to just changing their mind about your opinion or interpretation or item of conscience), maybe it’d be more productive to lovingly share a message of grace; a confession of having been seared by sin, too; an appeal to heart and soul as well as head and hands.
Otherwise, you may get bitten in the butt (as I have) by the lyrics of a Susan Werner song or two.