This post originally appeared as an article in the February, 2012 edition of New Wineskins.
Let’s cut to the chase.
Fellowship is a choice that we make; we choose whether to extend it or not. And to make that choice, we use our judgment.
Judging people is not acceptable. Jesus teaches this unequivocally in the sermon on the mount:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” ~ Matthew 7:1-2
The verses that follow are clearly relational; they are about relationships with others. We are not to judge others. It is just as apparent in His sermon on the plain:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37
These instructions are more specific iterations of the golden rule (Matthew 7:12), if you think about it.
Yet they are monumental challenges to us because …
We all judge.
We live in a culture of judgment. We elect government officials; we root for sports teams; we pull for beauty contestants, bachelors and bachelorettes; we try to guess the next decision by Judge Judy; we hope people will be voted off the island.
It’s been that way for a long time. Paul put it this way:
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” ~ Romans 2:1
Some believers – among them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Greg Boyd who builds on Bonhoeffer in Repenting of Religion – have proposed that a key element of Eden’s original sin was judging: God was judged untrustworthy with His warning about the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s difficult to argue with their logic.
It’s wrong, but we do it anyway. Judgment has become so integral to our culture, we have superimposed it on religion and many are convinced that man’s judgment of others is absolutely essential in order to be righteous and preserve righteousness. To a certain degree, that’s understandable, because ….
In scripture, we’re called to judge and use judgment.
“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” ~ John 7:24
We are, as was the crowd to whom Jesus spoke in this passage, expected to judge whether He is the Son of God.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” ~ Matthew 7:15-16
We’re warned to discern when people claim to speak for God and lie.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” ~ 1 Corinthians 5:1-2
We are adjured to put immorality out of the assembly.
“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?” ~ 1 Corinthians 6:1
We are challenged to adjudicate small claims within the church.
And on and on – to shun indolents and moochers (2 Thessalonians 3:6ff); preachers of gospels that aren’t (Galatians 1:9); deceivers and antichrists (2 John 1:7-11); obstructors and dividers (Romans 16:17, Titus 3:10); those who are guilty of any of whole litanies of sins that stain a church’s reputation (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
It sounds like there was a whole lot of judging going on in the church of century one.
How do we square that with what Jesus said?
Not all judging is the same.
Stay with me: this is not a matter of semantics, but of grammar. The verb “judge” requires an object. You don’t just judge. You judge something. Or someone.
When Jesus forbids judging as quoted above, He forbids judging people. He said that even He did not walk this earth for the purpose of judging people:
“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. 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 12:47-48 (See also Luke 12:13-15; John 5:22-30.)
There will come a time when His words will judge them, but while He walked among men it was not the right time. (Even though He knew their thoughts and the motives of their hearts – see Matthew 9:4 and Luke 9:47 – which we certainly cannot.)
There will come a time when believers will judge the world and angels, too (1 Corinthians 6:2-3) – possibly part of a reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:4-6), but not yet. Not in this world.
We, like Christ, walk this world to save others. We do so by leading others closer to Him.
Furthermore, He says that if we do not judge, we will not be judged:
“Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. ~ John 5:22-24 (emphasis mine)
When He tells people to judge, it is for themselves and to judge what is right (Luke 12:57 – in the context of recommending reconciliation rather than taking a civil court action).
So, may I propose that when we search the epistles and find instructions for us to judge, these are instructions to judge – not people – but their words and actions to determine whether wrong has been done.
In virtually every instance,* the things which are being judged in these cases are, in fact, things and not people. They are sins. They must be judged, weighed, considered, and identified as sin because Christ also did not come to bring law but grace (John 1:17; Romans 6:14; Galatians 2:21; and 5:4).
There was never an intention for the New Testament to be written, collected and regarded as new law. The concept is foreign to scripture entirely. So there was not a pair of stone tablets or even a collection of written scrolls in Jesus’ handwriting filled with commands, exceptions, qualifications, and encryption/decryption codes. Instead, He taught and lived every day what it meant to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All other applications could be deduced (with the assistance of His present Holy Spirit) and judged from that.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” ~ Matthew 18:18
Jesus isn’t talking just to Peter here. He did say the same thing to Peter a couple of chapters before (16:13-20), but here He is in the middle of a discourse about church discipline. He’s thinking ahead. He’s speaking to us, as well as the disciples around Him at that time.
We are called to judge what is sin in this world and what is righteousness; between wrong and right; between exclusive love for self and love for God and for others as surely as self.
We are not called to judge people. We’re not required to assess others’ moral character; just our own. We do not determine others’ salvation. Judging people is not our job. We’re not good at it. We’re not qualified to do it. We’re not authorized to do it.
Yet we must be competent and willing to discern right from wrong because we have a responsibility to fellow believers and to those who have not a clue about Jesus to help them understand Him better and know what He taught, lived, and died for. It’s not an option. Jesus instructs it.
If we are to judge correctly – make righteous judgments, as we are encouraged to do (Luke 12:57; John 7:24) – then we must judge for ourselves what is right (and therefore, what is also wrong). But Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 (above) and Matthew 5:23-24 also burden us with the responsibility to help others judge wisely, too.
How do we judge sin without judging people?
Have you ever heard the expression, “Hate the sin; love the sinner”? Our judgment must be like that; we judge the sin (whether acts and words are wrong) but leave judging the person to the Lord at the proper time.
First of all, be sure that you have judged correctly that what the other person has said or done is, in fact, sin. You can discuss a difference of opinion, but you can’t correct someone about a matter on which scripture is silent. Become overly familiar with Romans 14. Not every person who impresses you as wrong is morally wrong – or even necessarily holds a wrong opinion. Not all churches are Corinth or Sardis.
Investigate thoroughly those scriptures cited above which describe the sins and circumstances that require judgment. If the matter before you is one of those, you have good precedent to proceed. If it isn’t, you may not. If the severity of the matter doesn’t begin to approach the severity of those sins and circumstances, ask for the Spirit’s help in discerning (Luke 11:11-13; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
Second: be humble. None of us is perfect. None of us is sinless. Those whom we would lead closer to Christ are keenly aware of that. We need to be constantly conscious of it too: we are saved by grace through faith; forgiven yet still sinners. All of us – those who know Christ and those who don’t – will be judged by what we have done (Matthew 25) and what we have said (James 3:1; 2:12) — with the exception noted above: those who do not judge others.
If you judge a person — rather than the person’s actions or words — then the way you view them and the degree to which you are willing to love them changes. You’ve decided that they’re not good like you anymore; they’re bad. You begin to feel that you have God’s own authority to judge and your heart begins to crave that power for self over others. You begin to feel – in the words of the old Saturday Night Live character “Church Lady” – “a little bit superior.”
If you judge words and actions, leaving the person out of it, you are free to continue loving them as Christ loves. You can correct them in humility and grace — and probably in tears (Acts 20:31; 2 Corinthians 2:4). A different, more effective approach than berating and condemning. It requires a different heart; the heart of Christ.
Third: love others.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” ~ 1 Peter 4:8
By odd coincidence, so does bringing back someone who has wandered from the truth (James 5:19-20). I can’t help but think that the two belong together. Guiding the errant absolutely must be done – and done gently (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:25).
Applying discipline without love rather than correcting others who sin with love is the difference between telling your son he is a bad boy or telling him he is a good boy who did a bad thing. One destroys self-esteem and the other reinforces the child’s awareness of a parent’s deep love.
How do we leave the other person out of it and focus only on the actions and words that are wrong? We have to find a way, and it’s vital to remain loving, supportive and humble.
May I make a few suggestions – examples, really – about doing that?
- “It’s been said that you (said or did something). Is that true? The only reason I’m asking is – not to judge you – but because I care for your soul. If it’s true, something is coming between you and God.”
- “You know I love you, brother. And when I see or hear you (doing or saying this sin), I see it killing you a little bit more each time. And it’s killing me to see it.”
- “I struggle with (the same sin; or a similar one), sis. I know (or “I can only imagine”) it’s hard to deal with. But I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pray for you and you can pray for me.”
- “I know when people say, ‘Don’t judge me,’ what they really mean is ‘Don’t stop loving me.’ At least, I do! Please trust me: That ain’t a-gonna happen. I am not going to stop loving you. And even if I have a stroke and stop being me and start saying hateful things, God will never stop loving you. His mercies never end.”
These are just a handful of suggestions. You can probably come up with more and better.
No judgment about moral character, human worth, eternal destiny or fellowship in Christ is required to say these things. They are appropriate to say to those who believe and those who do not. And for the believer who loves others (whether they are in Christ or not) and cannot bear to see them hurt by sin, words like these should fall from their lips like gentle rain from clouds too full to contain it.
*The singular exceptions I have found are 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, where Paul is referring to specific people whose sins threatened the reputation of the church, and 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, where Paul has been judged by some at Corinth as an inferior apostle. The latter, obviously, is not something that he encourages.