December 19, 2012
Not long ago I heard a sermon to the effect that we are not to judge others and try to tell them how to live. In a similar vein, yesterday's Orange County Register featured a study of younger churchgoers according to which they want their churches to be less judgmental and more caring. Now there is something right about this, because in a sense to be clarified shortly, we are, indeed, not to judge others. But, given the current therapeutic culture in which we live and move and have our being, there is something seriously wrong with this perspective. Let me explain.
In Matthew 7:1-5 we find the classic New Testament text about judging others. Before we look at it, we need to distinguish two senses of judging: condemning and evaluating. The former is wrong and is in view in Matthew 7. When Jesus says not to judge, he means it in the sense that the Pharisees judged others: their purpose was to condemn the person judged and to elevate themselves above that person. Now this is a form of self-righteous blindness that vv. 2-4 explicitly forbid. Such judgment is an expression of a habitual approach to life of avoiding self-examination and repentance and, instead, propping oneself up by putting others down.
But there is another sense of judging that is central both to moral purity/holiness and to showing tough love to another: evaluating another’s behavior as wrong, pointing that out to the person with a view to their repentance, restoration and flourishing. This form of judging another may bring short-term pain in the form of guilt, embarrassment and a experience of the need to change, but its long-term effect is (or is supposed to be) the flourishing and uplifting of the other.
Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for another is to tell him or her something hard to hear. This form of judgment is absolutely biblical. In fact, in Matthew 7:5, Jesus basically says that after one has appropriately engaged in self-examination and personal repentance, he/she is now in a position accurately and helpfully to evaluate another. This very same form of judgment is commanded in Galatians 6:1-2. It is moral confusion and cowardice to eschew evaluating other’s behavior. It is moral clarity and courage not to condemn others.
Today it is more important than ever for the church to recover and proclaim judgment as evaluation gently yet firmly. As a case in point, think about how the media are processing the recent, horrendously evil shootings of innocent women and children in Newtown, Connecticut. The only categories being employed come from scientists (heath-care professionals, e.g., psychologists and psychiatrists) and they try to explain what caused the shooter to act in terms of his various environmental, psychological and psychiatric disorders. Now, these factors had their influence, but they were not coercive and the shooter was an evil person who did an evil act freely and with responsible agency, no matter what influences were present. But bringing such moral categories to bear on the incident involves judging, and when Christians refuse to judge others in the proper sense, they lose their credibility in a culture that is already slouching towards scientism, therapeutic justice, and moral sentimentalism.