A CIVIL JUDGEMENT: Can Christians judge others?
By Rev.Richard Baird
…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. Jesus (Matt 12:37)
A Civil Judgment?
It was at a youth meeting a while ago when I was showing the youth a series on prayer by Pastor Jim Cymbala. It’s not the first time I have done this series with a group, but it was the first time I had a particular reaction. In one segment, Jim Cymbala shares a story in which a couple approach him about wanting to get married, and it soon becomes clear that the couple were already living together. He pointed it out as sin.
And then the reaction happened. One youngster just put his hands out expressing confusion over what the big deal was, and another young lady was angry because Jim was ‘being judgmental.’
But that scenario is mild compared to what we find amongst Christians today. Social media has provided fertile soil for the growth of both perceived and real judgementalism. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that in the eyes of many, to cause offence and to be judgmental are ‘big sins’ nowadays, especially in a culture that values tolerance above all (ironically except with regard to Christian views).
The body of Christ is tragically suffering a pandemic of its own: disunity. This disunity is unfortunately characterised by deeply contentious disagreement (to use the words of James Emery White)[i]. The result of this division is the proliferation of judgements towards those not deemed to be in ‘our camp’ or aligning with our version of the Christian narrative. Judgementalism has become a Christian cultural norm, and of course the challenge for me is to not be judgemental in writing about judgmentalism! This scenario is not what Jesus prayed for in His High Priestly prayer prior to Calvary:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23)
In the light of this Scripture, the sobering implication is that the world has the right to not believe because of the example a disunified body is setting.
The waters are not easy to navigate. For example, I personally don’t go out of my way to cause offence because I’ve accepted that no matter how nicely or gently one may share truth, invariably someone will get offended because truth has that capacity when landing in a heart not ready to receive it. Such a heart will naturally jump to the conclusion that I was being judgmental. As a pastor I’ve often found myself on the receiving end of this charge. One case stands out for me in particular when I had to challenge a couple that were living together prior to marriage (and trust me I didn’t do it in a heavy-handed way as I am not a person who enjoys conflict). The guy got really angry with me and left the church. About two years later he came to see me to apologise and just simply say that I was right and he should have listened to me: the relationship had failed.
It seems to me that the issue of judging has become murky, and clarity is needed. I do think Paul Washer hits the nail on the head in his strong comment when he says: “People tell me, ‘ Judge not lest ye be judged.’ I always tell them, ‘twist not Scripture lest ye be like Satan.’ That’s undeniably a strong statement, but we have to appreciate the point being made: don’t misuse Scripture for your own ends, because that is precisely what Satan does. We need to go to Scripture for clarity on the issue. The following Scriptures are useful in understanding the issue: Matthew 7:1-5; Matthew 12:33-37; Matthew 18:15-35; Luke 6:37-42; John 3:16-21; John 8:1-11; John 12:46&47; Romans 2; Romans 12:9-21; Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 5 & 6:1-8; Galatians 6:1-10; James 2:13; James 4:11-12.
Can Christians judge? The short answer: yes and no. Two primary factors determine whether you have the authority to judge in a particular circumstance or not: the state and intent of your heart.
Let’s begin with the no.
The Scriptures are quite clear that we are not to judge others. What we need clarity on is what we mean by judging. To not judge does not mean to not make a moral evaluation – that is simply impossible. To live in a way that honours God is fundamental to our faith: to call sinners to repentance means that sin be identified as sin. Critics who want to accuse Christianity of being judgmental on the basis of the moral evaluations we make are ironically themselves guilty of judgmentalism by their own definition.
What we are addressing here is the spirit behind the judgment: the state and intent of the heart. In Ephesians 4:15 we are instructed to ‘speak the truth in love,’ because unfortunately we can speak the truth in a way that is unloving, slanderous and judgmental.
A popular Scripture which gets quoted about not judging others is taken from the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus in Matthew 7. Here Jesus clearly states: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Taken on its own we could settle the discussion about judging right now. But the reality is that Jesus didn’t make that as an isolated statement but provided a context to it. The context? Jesus paints quite a comical picture to get the point across: imagine you’re standing in a carpenter’s workshop and you’ve got a big plank of wood sticking out your eye, and you look at your mate and say “hey – you’ve got a bit of sawdust in your eye – let me help you get it out…” It’s absurd right? Surely the focus should be on getting the plank out of your own eye?
That is precisely the point Jesus was making: don’t judge others without an awareness of your own frailty, i.e. don’t be a self-righteous hypocrite. Self-heart awareness is critical.
In James 4:11&12 we have these strong words:
11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
This passage forces us to consider why we would speak against a brother or sister. To slander and judge is to belittle and condemn a person, and, as Tim Keller points out, in the light of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, this is not a sub-category of lying but of murder.[ii] When we slander and judge a person, we assume a position of moral superiority as opposed to a position of equality. This is clearly dangerous ground as each of us are in need of the grace of God. In Romans 2: 1 Paul emphasises the need to be careful in passing judgement, because we are guilty of sin ourselves.
So, if our heart condition is one where we presume moral superiority and fail to see our hypocrisy, then we have no authority to judge. If our intent in judging is to pull the other person down to size (in order to feed our own insecurities or self-righteousness), to punish them in some way, such as besmirching their character in the eyes of others, then we have failed to judge properly. We have sinned.
So when can we judge?
When the goal is relational redemption.
When you see a brother or sister in sin, and you are genuinely concerned for their welfare and fully aware of your own frailty (a repentant hypocrite as I remember one minister putting it), then the grounds for proper judgement is given. The goal here is to warn a person against the error of their ways in order that they may be restored to God and to their brothers and sisters. The “worst case scenario” in which this would play out is the context of church discipline.
The well-known passage in dealing with the sin of others is from Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus makes it so clear as to what is expected, that should the process not be followed then the proverbial red flags must be raised in our hearts and mind. The first person to speak to about the sin you are concerned about is the person himself. If there is no response after this, then you need to address it again in the presence of witnesses. Let’s stop here for a moment:
If you find yourself in a situation where a person is accused in the context of a group without prior one on one engagement, then you have to consider the probability of just plain nasty character assassination, even though the person bringing the charge may sincerely believe he or she is doing the right thing. Satan knows how to give the appearance of righteousness. If there is furthermore a lack of substantive evidence provided by others on the issue, especially in the case of a mature Christian or elder in the faith, then the problem is heightened, because a person’s character has been tainted and people now perceive the person in a different light, and it may simply be a false perception, but the damage has been done. Slander has a very slippery slope. The following story has a number of variations but it illustrates the point well:
Once upon a time, an old man spread rumors that his neighbor was a thief. As a result, the young man was arrested. Days later he was proven innocent. After being released, he sued the old man for wrongly accusing him. In court, the old man told the judge, “They were just comments, they didn’t harm anyone.” The judges, before passing sentence on the case, told the old man, “write all the things you said about him on a piece of paper.” “Cut it up into little pieces and on the way home, throw the pieces of paper out of your car window. Tomorrow, come back to hear the sentence.”
The next day, the judge told the old man, “Before receiving the sentence, I want you to go out and gather up all the pieces of paper that you threw out of your car window yesterday.”
The old man said, “I can’t do that! The wind spread them all over the place and won’t know where to find them.” Then the judge replied, “The same way, simple words and comments may destroy the honor of a person to such an extent that a person will not be able to fix it. If you can’t speak well of someone, don’t say anything at all. Let’s all be masters of our mouths, so that we won’t be slaves of our words.” “Gossips are worse than thieves because they steal another person’s dignity, honor, reputation and credibility which are impossible to restore. So remember this: when your feet slip, you can always recover your balance but when your tongue slips, you can never recover your words!”[iii]
However, if the person was engaged one on one first for actual sin (and not suspicion of sin) and then in the presence of two or three witnesses and there was no repentance, then, and only then, does it get brought before the community of believers. This pattern is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 in dealing with a brother who was not only unrepentant but boastful of his sin.
Is it possible for Christians to disagree civilly without casting judgement on one another? Of course it is. How?
The best way to get rid of judgmentalism is to allow the gospel to truly sink into your heart. We need to understand that God alone has the full right to judge, and it was His judgement on Christ on our behalf that enables us to be forgiven. The Judge became judged and took upon Himself what we deserve.
Look at others through the lens of Calvary, and then you will be enabled to speak the truth in love.
[ii] Keller, Tim : Communication – audio sermon on James 4:11&12 & 5:12