The world hates judgmentalism. The idea that someone would loo kat another person, assess their behavior or lifestyle choices, and enforce some sort of negative relational or social consequence on them absolutely makes our blood boil. And there is no institution in the world more associated with this kind of thing than the church. But what if this all-too-common image of the church wasn’t actually rooted in reality? No, I’m not saying the church hasn’t ever been judgmental in the past (or present). It has. A lot. We’ve worked hard to earn our reputation. But what if that wasn’t how things were supposed to be? What if Jesus hated judgmentalism just as much as – or more than – the world does? What if several of the common negative perceptions of the church fell along about the same lines? This week we kicked off a brand-new teaching series looking at this very question. Join me as we look at what the world thinks, what Jesus said, and what this all means for the church.
On Specks and Logs
Used to be, if you wanted to be someone in this culture, you needed to be a part of a church. It didn’t really matter much which one, you just had to have your membership in their record books and attend just often enough that people knew your name and thought of you as a member. Of course, if you wanted to really achieve something significant in the culture, you had to be more than just a member. You had to be an active member. You needed to be on a key committee or two. Bonus points were definitely given if you were a deacon. You also needed to be fluent in the language of faith. Now, whether or not you actually believed any of this was an entirely separate matter. In fact, it was often better if you didn’t, because then you could keep your eyes on the prize you were seeking without worrying about God coming along and messing things up by calling you in a different direction. Whatever level you wanted to achieve, though, being a part of the church was the entrance gate. Today…not so much.
Starting slowly in the mid-1960s, the reputation of the church in the broader culture generally, but especially in the upper echelons of high society, began to decline. We as a people decided we wanted to run hard in some directions the church didn’t support. If we were going to be able to pursue those ends in ways that didn’t leave us saddled with an extra load of guilt (since these were mostly things that most people, because of the impact of the church on the culture, understood intuitively to be wrong), we were going to need to put the church in its place. So, you started seeing more and more media portrayals in which the church was the villain in some form or fashion. Sometimes it was the overt, Bond-villain-like bad guy, but often it was more subtle than that. And with all of this public shaming coming at a time when the nation was becoming more and more influenced by various forms of visual media, it worked. Really well.
Bashing on the church soon became an easy applause line for anybody trying to advance some cause that didn’t gel with the majority morality. And suddenly, we had a whole generation grow up constantly exposed to the idea that the church and its restrictive moral codes were the villain of a positively progressing society. Not only were the church’s moral codes the problem, but the church itself and its members were the problem. After all, just look at how judgmental and hypocritical and discriminatory they are. Those kinds of things have no place in our culture, and so the church that is constantly producing them can’t either. All of a sudden, movies like Footloose or Pleasantville, in which people are just trying to have fun and be themselves if only the mean old church and its representatives would get out of the way, made sense.
The sum total of all of this is that today, this is mostly how folks who aren’t already a part of the church—and even a few who are in the church—tend to view the church. The thinking goes something like this: We hate these things. The church embodies these things. Therefore, we hate the church. But, what if all of this hatred, this suspicion, this bad feeling toward the church wasn’t rooted in reality? What if it was instead rooted in a misperception—one that followers of Jesus have far too often encouraged when we have lived down to the standards of the world rather than up to the standards of the kingdom—that in actuality had no basis in reality? What if the world was wrong in its hatred of the church because it didn’t really understand Jesus?
This morning we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series. When I was first thinking about a title for this series, I started to call it, What We Hate, because I wanted to look at some things our culture professes to hate, hates the church for supposedly not hating, but with whose hatred the church actually agrees when you look at the Scriptures. But as I was thinking and praying through the passages we are going to look at over the next few weeks, I was struck by the fact that not only does the world hate some of these things, but Jesus did too. So, I decided to call the series, What Jesus Hated, with the previous “we” crossed out and the “d” added to the end. For the next three weeks, I want to look with you at three things the culture around us professes to hate, what Jesus had to say about them, and why Jesus and His church are perhaps not quite so far removed from what the culture around us professes to value as it has previously been made to seem. In particular, we are going to take a look at the three vices I mentioned just a second ago: judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and discrimination. Then, in a bonus fourth part of our journey, we are going to look at something Jesus loved and which reveals He is actually what the world has been looking for all along.
If you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, I want you to come away from the next four weeks confident that while these behaviors and attitudes definitely have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus, perhaps the world’s criticisms of the church on these grounds are not so justified as they are often made to seem. If you are not a Jesus person, what I want you to understand is that the kinds of things you are very often told to oppose are some of the very same things Jesus Himself opposed. And if you agree with Jesus on these things, maybe there are some more things you will agree with Him about as well.
So, as I said, we are going to start our conversation this morning by talking about the charge of judgmentalism. Roughly defined—at least as the culture around us uses the term—being judgmental is the act of negatively assessing the worth or value of someone or something else on the basis of a given criteria. In other words, it’s when you think someone or something is no good and you don’t really have a good reason for thinking that. You just do. And the church is often accused of being judgmental.
Now, on the one hand, this accusation is not without merit. There have been not a few times in the church’s past…and present…when we have decided an idea or movement was out of sync with the Christian worldview, not on the basis of anything particularly inherent to the Christian worldview (much less informed by the Scriptures), but because the people making that decision had allowed a particular cultural or political position to influence their thinking more than the Scriptures themselves. But as is perhaps more often the case today, our charge of being judgmental comes because we are living out of a worldview that doesn’t gel with the prevailing cultural worldview. And, in the prevailing cultural worldview, anything short of a full embrace of an idea is generally treated as indistinguishable from being unfairly judgmental of it. And when the church is accused of this kind of thing, one of the first things the world will do is throw in our faces something Jesus said. I suspect you know what it is without my even having to tell you.
If you have a copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Matthew 7 and you can take a look at this with me. Matthew, the first document of the New Testament, was written by the Matthew who was one of Jesus’ original twelve followers we often call “the disciples,” and later “the apostles.” Matthew was originally a tax collector—one of the class of Jews who sold out their people to get rich off of Rome’s mistreatment of them. That Matthew wrote a reflection on Jesus’ life and ministry to which anyone paid any attention is a reflection of just how profoundly Jesus had transformed the world. Before Him, someone like Matthew was considered so bad that the title “sinner” was too good for them. Jesus often spoke of “sinners and tax collectors” because the latter group was so reprobate. In any event, Matthew includes a big block of Jesus’ teaching that we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” While Jesus probably did preach all of this at one time on the side of a Galilean hill, this was likely also a collection of Jesus’ greatest hits. These were ideas and themes to which He returned in His teaching everywhere He went.
Well, after spending some time unpacking some of the personal aspects of living in God’s kingdom, He shifts gears in the last third of the sermon to focus on some of its interpersonal elements. This begins with one of the more culturally famous (and misunderstood) things Jesus ever said. Look at this with me in Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” There it is. Judgmentalism of any kind has no place in the church or anywhere else in our society. No one has any rational basis for passing any kind of a judgment on the behavior or preferences of another person. Anyone who does do such a thing, should immediately be subject to their own withering stream of judgment. In fact, we can just go ahead and make this a bumper sticker, because it fits. But can I suggest that what Jesus says here just maybe needs a bit of a closer inspection than this?
For the last few weeks on Wednesday nights we have actually been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount. We haven’t quite made it this far yet, but in what we have seen, a bit of a pattern has begun to develop. Jesus will say one thing at the beginning of a smaller section of teaching that is intended to get our attention. It’s to get us thinking in one particular direction. He did this so that all of His audience would be nodding along with Him together, agreeing with where they assumed He was going. But then, once He got started on unpacking the idea—and Jesus could do more with a few words than I’ve ever been able to do with a bunch—He would do a kind of bait and switch on them. It wasn’t so much that what He said second was somehow in contradiction with what He said at first, but rather that it would force them—and us—to think about it differently than were at the beginning. This is where He would introduce the ideas that so challenged the way we might normally think about this or that issue. It is where He would help us see how the kingdom of God is just different from how the world works. I think He does something like that here in Matthew 7.
In that first statement we just looked at, He seems to be telling us not to judge anyone for anything. At least, that’s certainly how we are primed to hear Him. But then, in the rest of the passage, He seems to assume that we will in fact be passing judgments on other people, their ideas, and behaviors. Listen to the whole thing here: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”
Look at what Jesus does here. He starts by getting our attention with the idea that we shouldn’t be judging one another. Now, some of us struggle with just that. On the one hand, we hate it when someone to whom we have not given the moral permission to speak into our lives offers an assessment of something about us that is at all negative. We don’t want to be judged. On the other hand, if the people around us would just do things the way we know they should be done, their lives would operate a whole lot more smoothly than they currently are. And, given the level of confidence we have in our assessment of their behavior, why, it would be unloving of us not to share it with them…with the utmost of humility and concern for their well-being, of course. Then again, sometimes we’re honest enough to acknowledge our firm belief that we know better than them, and that if they would just stop being stupid and start doing it our way (which, of course, implies an acknowledgement of our awesomeness), they’d be better off. Thinking about it, it probably was a good idea Jesus started here.
But He didn’t stay here. After getting our attention, He seems to immediately say something different. But if you look closely, that’s not what He does at all. Instead, what Jesus is doing in v. 2 is rephrasing His original statement in such a way as to start to gently lead us in the direction He’s trying to get us to go. After opening with, “Don’t judge so you won’t be judged,” He follows that immediately with, “but if you do judge, keep in mind that the standard you use for others will be the standard they use for you.” He might have said something like, “If you are gracious and compassionate with the people around you, they’ll be that way with you. But if you judge them harshly, you’d better pull up your big kid pants because you’re in for a rough ride.”
Next, He says this thing about splinters and beams of wood, or logs and specks, as other translations a bit more memorably put it. If you’re not paying very close attention, what Jesus does here is easy to miss. After seeming to tell us not to judge other people, by the time He gets to v. 3, He has put us in a situation in which another person has something legitimately wrong in their life that needs our judgment. Don’t miss this. If someone has a splinter or speck in their eye, while it may be bothering them at first and then whenever they think about it, they’re not going to be able to see it on their own, and they might get so used to it that they cease to notice it at all. They need the help of another person to get it out. If they just leave it alone, it is going to cause them problems down the road. In order for another person to help them, though, that help is going to start with the observation that, “Hey, you’ve got a splinter in your eye.” My friends, that’s judgment. It is observing to the other person: There is something in your life that shouldn’t be there.
Yet this just brings us back to what Jesus said at first. Don’t judge so you won’t be judged. If you tell this other person there is something in her life that shouldn’t be there, meaning you are negatively assessing whatever it is (that is, judging it) how is she likely to respond? “Oh wow! Thank you so much for telling me this! Would you be willing to help me get it out?” Maybe in a perfect world, but not this one. We’re a whole lot more likely to receive something more along the lines of, “Oh you think so, do you? Well, Mr. Jerkface, you’ve got a few things in your life that shouldn’t be there either.” So then, which teaching from Jesus should we listen to? Especially in light of the fact that He seems to agree with the premise of the person we are perhaps genuinely, humbly trying to help with our observation about the problem in her life that she can’t see but which we can. “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye?” So, which is it, Jesus? Judge, or don’t judge? The answer, my friends, is a very confident, “Yes.”
Here’s what I mean. Although it seems like it at first, Jesus is not saying here that we should never offer negative assessments of the lifestyle choices and states of being of the lives of the people around us. That is, this kind of a blanket prohibition on judgment is not something we find on the lips of Jesus here or anywhere else in the Scriptures. And, for anyone who tries to claim such a seemingly high-minded position as this can be almost immediately revealed as a duplicitous fraud by simply observing for a few minutes how they interact with their children. The first time they rightly tell their toddler, “No,” when he reaches for the power outlet, they are negatively assessing—that is, judging—his behavior choices.
The truth is, we pass judgment all the time on everyone around us. And forget about trying to claim that keeping those judgments in your mind and heart instead of saying them all out loud makes you a non-judgmental person either. As Jesus made clear earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, God is not only concerned about, but knows about your inside stuff as well as your outside stuff. And forget too about trying to set up the impossible-to-meet standard that unless someone has fully assessed and dealt with all of their own junk, they can’t offer meaningful assessments on the junk of the people around them. That’s not quite what Jesus was getting at when He told us to “first take the beam of wood out of your own eye.”
So then, what is Jesus saying here? Well, while Jesus does want us to be honest in our assessment of our own lives before we even think about meddling in someone else’s life, and while He does oppose judgmentalism (a negative assessment that doesn’t go any further than that and which is often paired with an illegitimate social or relational rejection of the person being judged), He doesn’t stop there. Jesus wasn’t really one to say, “Hey, that’s wrong,” and move on. He pretty unfailingly went on to point us to what is right.
Okay, so what is right here? Well, look again at v. 5: “Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye…” That seems pretty much like just an indictment of being judgmental. Look at the next part of the verse: “…and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” Do you see it yet? There are a couple of things to be sure to not miss here. Number one, by referring to “your brother’s eye” instead of merely “your neighbor’s eye,” Jesus is implying a relational context that is critical to getting any of this right. He is not at all endorsing our making behavioral assessments of everyone around us. Like I said, we are going to do that by instinct, and we do need to keep most of those inside and work on our own junk, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about engaging in the lives of people with whom we have the kind of loving, trusting relationship that gives permission for us to speak into their lives when we see things that aren’t as they should be, with “should” there defined as in line with the kingdom of God, not our own preferences. In other words, He’s talking about our engaging in the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
And here’s the thing: we should be doing this. Jesus assumes that here. Yes, we need to be dealing with our own junk, we need to get the logs out of our own eyes. But at the point we’ve done that, at the point we are seeing things clearly, it just may be that we are enabled to recognize that our fellow follower of Jesus has some stuff going on that is pulling her away from the path of Christ. If we become aware of such a thing and she’s not, or even if she is aware but is struggling to deal with whatever it is, it would indeed be unloving for us to not involve ourselves in the matter, not for the purposes of judgment, but for accountability. And that, my friends, is where Jesus is going here.
It is totally natural for sinful people to be judgmental of one another. And Jesus hates that. He hates it because there is no love in judgmentalism. There is simply the negative assessment and the ensuing social or relational consequences. That’s not how the kingdom of God works. In God’s kingdom there is accountability. Accountability involves the passing of judgment—there’s no way around that. But it goes beyond that. It goes beyond that because it happens in the context of a loving relationship in which the person who has passed judgment on your behavior comes alongside of you with the compassion and humility of Christ to help you make the changes necessary for your behavior to fall more in line with the path of Christ so you can avoid the consequences of the former in order to better enjoy the rewards of the latter. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
But here’s the thing: Accountability is hard. It’s dangerous. If we open ourselves to accountability, that means we are giving someone else access to our inside stuff that we don’t like for other people to see. There is great fear in us of judgment and rejection. Those fears are not from God. They are the fruits of the very sinfulness which has left us in a place of needing accountability in the first place. But they can be a high hurdle to overcome to experience the full relational benefits of God’s kingdom. On the other side of things, getting involved in another person’s life sometimes means getting down into the mess with them in order to help push them out of it. We don’t much like to get messy if we can help it. As a result of this, regardless of which side of the line of accountability we happen to be on in a given moment, we will use a twisted misunderstanding of Jesus’ words here in order to justify our avoiding doing the very thing Jesus is here calling us to do. Instead of pushing toward the godly accountability that was Jesus’ goal for us, we’ll stop short at being judgmental. Because it’s easier. And because it makes us feel better about our junk. While we may still have junk, at least it’s not that junk. And in an effort to hide from our junk we go on a self-righteous crusade pointing out everyone else’s junk that justifies the world’s negative assessment of us. In other words, we make the world right about the church. Don’t make the world right about the church. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
Okay, but how do we do that? Here are a few things to consider. When it comes to the behavior of the world, assessing how well it does or does not fall in line with the kingdom of God is not our job. The people around us who haven’t signed up for the life of Christ can’t fairly be held to its standards. Just like Christians cry foul when the world tries to force us to live by their standards, the world cries foul when we do it to them. When it comes to the world, our job is to love like Jesus loved. We can be honest about what we think. When asked, we can lay out what we think the consequences of not living up to the standards of the kingdom will be. We can even use the legal and political tools available to citizens of all different worldviews in this country to seek to shepherd public policy in a way that makes kingdom outcomes more likely than not. But we should never be shocked when people who aren’t followers of Jesus behave like people who aren’t followers of Jesus. Neither should we judge them for it. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
Speaking of accountability, we all need someone in our lives who has the permission and authority to alert us when they see decisions or behavioral patterns in our lives that don’t fall in line with the path of Christ. The life of Christ was not intended to be a solo affair, and it’s possible to live it as a solo affair even as an active member of a church. Let me make that clearer: if this room is the only meaningful interaction you are having with the body of Christ, you aren’t where you ought to be in your faith journey. Unless you are engaged in a smaller group—and there are several to choose from here—you probably don’t have someone who can help hold you accountable like you need. And while your spouse should be on that list, he or she shouldn’t be the only person on that list. You need someone—guys for guys and girls for girls—who can speak into your life and into whose life you can speak so that together you are both growing to better reflect the kingdom of God. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
Jesus hated judgmentalism. The world is right on that. But He loved strong communities that are positively invested in one another for the sake of the advancement of the life of Christ into this world. That is, He loved accountability. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
2 thoughts on “On Specks and Logs”
So much to comment on here Pastor Waits. You are only a couple paragraphs short of a book.:) So I will make two comments. First, it is abhorrent to me how people who say the church (or a conservative) is judgmental when the reality is that it is the judgmental or guilty reality of the relativistic person calling that out that is in fact the judgmental accuser. This is reflective of a culture that takes their own flaws and superimposes them on others as a deflection of the very thing they are guilty of perpetuating. I will spare the infinitesimal examples. Second, I would submit that the present church has become so forgiving and tolerant that it may be losing the capacity to hold accountable. This was particularly evident during the pandemic when we canceled worship, masked up, distanced, placated neurotics, etc., etc, for far too long. Our institutional faith spine was too weak as a whole for my faith. Maybe we should be teaching how to hold ourselves accountable in the image of Christ, rather than just go along, forgive and forget?
Thanks for all of this, John. Yes, the hypocrisy of the world to accuse the church of being judgmental when judgment is all it is capable of is rather glaring (stay tuned for next week for an exploration of hypocrisy!). Every worldview has some concept of sin. The modern worldview, though, does not really have any concept of redemption and salvation. That’s what makes it so hard…and judgmental.
On the state of the church today, I think there’s a fair bit of hope for it. As the culture turns away from us and the social credits for being associated with the church continue to disappear, we will increasingly see it filled with folks who really want to be there, following Jesus together.
I’m not quite of like mind on the Covid piece, but our church here managed, by God’s grace, to navigate a middle way that did pretty well to keep all sides welcome and connected.
I don’t think (and I don’t get the sense you do either) that holding ourselves accountable to the image of Christ and pursuing forgiveness are mutually exclusive paths. As Chesterton once described it, the church is filled with both-ands and constantly balanced on the edge of a knife. To lean is to fall.
I greatly appreciate your insights, my friend!