One of the charges often leveled against Christians today is that we are a judgmental lot. And the truth is…we can be. Folks will point to one of the many passages that call Christians not to judge others and accuse us of hypocrisy. And the truth is…sometimes they’re right.
But, before we lean too hard into the charges and move to the place that some have gone of refusing to pronounce any behavior or attitude wrong, we need to clarify some things. In the New Testament there are two different kinds of judgment. One is not good and we are told over and over not to do it. The other is actually one we are specifically called and even encouraged to make. If we get these mistaken, we can wind up doing or allowing more harm than good.
The first kind of judging is the pronouncement that someone is or isn’t a follower of Jesus. It is to declare with anything resembling certainty that we know the status of a person’s relationship with God and the location in which they will spend eternity. While we can say with assurance that no one who has not accepted Jesus as Lord will see heaven, and we can point to lifestyle evidence to suggest whether or not a person is a follower of Jesus and how devotedly so, ultimately a person’s relationship with God is between them and God. It should never be private, but it is personal. Whether or not someone is right with Him or is able to be right with Him is not our judgment to make. It is His. When we pass judgment on one another in this way, we err gravely by thinking we can sit in God’s seat and do much harm to the reputation of the church as a whole.
The second type of judgment is an evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a person’s behavioral choices. In this kind of judgment we are declaring moral or immoral the lifestyle choices another person is making. We evaluate their actions–not their worth or identity–as in or out of line with God’s character and expressed desires for His people. Because we have the Scriptures as our guide, this is a kind of judgment we not only can make, but should make in order to help folks who may not realize that they are not on a path that will lead them to life if they remain on it. Such judgments need to be made with humility, transparency about our own struggles to stay on the path of life, and a dogged determination to see them move in the direction of Jesus (that is, love), but they do need to be made. With the Holy Spirit as our guide we are equipped to make them.
Here’s where things can get thorny. Sometimes believers do this without any of those things in place and are drawing from the book of their personal preferences rather than the Scriptures. This is not good. It should not be done. This is a kind of judgmentalism that benefits exactly no one.
At the same time, in the eyes of our culture with its passion for a twisted understanding of tolerance in which all behavioral and lifestyle choices must be uncritically accepted and even celebrated as normal and beneficial, even this second kind of judgment is wrong and usually receives an intensely harsh reaction. That we would dare to claim there is a standard of behavior to which people are called to adhere makes us judgmental, bigoted haters. When we make the second kind of judgment they accuse us of making the first. And yet, while we must not make such judgments in the wrong spirit, not making them at all isn’t an option either. So what do we do?
We make absolutely certain that while the world may not like being called to account for and to leave behind behavior that is not right, that is the only thing not-likeable about us. If we are in a place in which we need to make the observation that someone’s behavior is out-of-sync with what is right, we need to do it with a spirit of humility, love, and gentleness. We do it best from out of the context of a relationship. That doesn’t mean we can only call our friends to right behavior, but it does mean we must put the other person first and treat him like a person rather than an object of condemnation.
It means we first get the log out of our own eye. But, lest you think otherwise, this doesn’t set an impossible-to-meet standard before judgment can happen. Rather, it calls us to be honest about our junk with both God and them.
It means we remember that movement toward Christ is the goal and if either the judgment we are going to offer or the spirit in which we are going to offer it will stand in the way of that for the other person, we don’t do it until we can address those two deficiencies.
This may seem like a lot of criteria to satisfy before this second kind of judgment can be passed on another person’s behavior (again, not, mind you, another person–we are called to judge behavior, not people), but when we get there (and we can get there), we not only can, but should pass it. We should pass it because as unloving as judgment may feel, leaving someone cluelessly mired in sin and hopelessly separated from God is worse. We should pass it because inviting someone to embrace the Gospel involves helping them see that they need it, which, for some folks, means helping them see that they are lost.
The world is right that we can’t judge it. But not in the way it thinks. We are to help call people to a different lifestyle than they are currently living. This sometimes involves gently helping them see that they are not on the right track. This is judgment of their behavior. We are judging it to be out-of-sync with God’s character. More simply, we are judging it to be wrong. But if we don’t, their path won’t end in life. That’s not something we’re willing to abide if we can help it. So, yes, judge when you must. But always do so with love as your guide and Christ as your goal.