Didn’t Jesus say to “judge not”? This is Part 1 of a 5-part series in which UMAction Director John Lomperis examines the very important, but so widely misunderstood, teaching of Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:1-6.
Judgmentalism and the church is a hot topic. You don’t have to look very far to find some survey, article, or casual conversation in which people are denouncing American Christian churches for being “too judgmental.”
Behind a lot of this church-bashing are some real stories. Stories of people preciously created in God’s image who have been truly mistreated by the church, and are still carrying around a lot of pain. Stories that that we need to hear.
Stories like that of this one lady: “When I gave my life to the Lord, I was a stripper, and I made a decision to completely change my life. I had no idea where to go to church, what to do, how to dress. And one day I was sitting out at a coffee shop, and some girls were walking around, and they were telling everybody about their church! Well, I was so excited. I thought, ‘This is gonna be it! This is gonna tell me where I can go, and maybe they’ll be my friends….’; and instead, they took one look at me and the way I was dressed and how I looked, and gave me a dirty look and passed me over.”
For the record, that is not a story from some atheist group trying to make Christianity look bad. It’s from a Christian evangelistic website.
The same site tells about a young man who went to a Bible college to learn more about his faith. But there, he found no room for the questions he had. Instead he experienced school officials looking down on and rejecting him.
I recently read elsewhere of a young man whose Christian parents, when he was thirteen years old, found out that he was wrestling with feeling attracted to other boys rather than to girls. The son was desperately in need of love. But among other things, his parents reacted by telling the young man that they would have rather aborted him when he was in the womb than now have to deal with having a gay son.
I know of another man with some mental health issues. He attended a church. One young couple visited that same church one Sunday. This couple, professed Christians, decided to find this poor man’s presence so offensive that they made sure to never come back to that congregation. This was the reason they switched to another church of the same denomination elsewhere in town.
There are a lot of other bad cases of Christian judgmentalism that I think many of us have seen or suffered in some form. Gossiping in a way that really just serves to tear down rather than build up others. Even if we cleverly disguise our gossip as a prayer request. Sometimes church people can be really skilled at cloaking bad behavior in holy-sounding rhetoric. “Oh, my heart is heavy with concern for Sister Germentrude. Let me unnecessarily tell you all these bad things about her behind her back so that, um, you can remember to lift her up in prayer.” Oftentimes, people who are “still” single by their mid-30s or beyond are made to feel by some Christians like there must be something wrong with them. Never mind that the New Testament lifts up lifetime celibacy as a very high calling for many Christians.
More broadly, I have sometimes observed people in churches socially excluding and avoiding conversation, let alone friendship, with people simply because these other people don’t look like them, have a different background, are disabled, or simply are not part of the right social clique. Many people report feeling in church like they have to put on what the band, Casting Crowns, calls a “stained-glass masquerade.” They wear fake smiles, trying to convince other church people that they have it all together, for fear that their church friends would shun, dislike, or walk away from them if they knew of their brokenness and struggles. As if any one of us really has it all together!
Obviously, all the things I just listed are examples of Christians doing a bad job by judging people in a bad way. And those are certainly not the sort of things we want to happen in any of our churches.
But these two words of Jesus, “judge not,” are so widely, selectively quoted and so greatly misunderstood. We often see people cite these two words (without any sense of awareness of the entire passage of Matthew 7:1-6) as a sort of excuse or cover for all sorts of wrongdoing.
Any time Christians promote a moral standard that anyone else may disagree with, it is only a matter of time in today’s America before someone says, “How can you Christians say that this sort of action is morally wrong when Jesus himself said, ‘judge not’?”
If we are honest with ourselves, we quickly see that that no one can consistently argue that you should never, ever judge anyone’s actions as wrong, even if those actions involve harm to self or others.
Indeed, elsewhere in the New Testatment, 1 Corinthians 5, is rather strong in calling a whole list of things sinful. It even says that there needed to be church discipline for a church member who was engaging in an ongoing, unrepentant pattern of immoral behavior. It says in verse 12 that Christians are to “judge” those inside the church, using the same Greek word for “judge” as what Jesus warned us AGAINST doing in Matthew 7:1
So what’s going on here? Are we supposed to judge or not? Is the Bible irreconcilably contradicting itself here? Was that early-twentieth-century pioneer of theological liberalism, Arthur Cushman McGiffert of Union Seminary, correct when he accused Paul of promoting religious ideas “totally at variance with Christ’s”?
No. This simply reminds us of how we need to beware of building any major belief off of a single Bible verse. How much less two words within a single verse!