Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The non-judgmental Christian

Never before in history has the absence of judgment been glorified as a virtue—the virtue of non-judgmentalism. So says Thomas Sowell, a man I admire for his economic and political philosophy. I must confess, though, while it might make a punchy bumper sticker cliché, it’s rather lacking in judgment when it come to spiritual matters.

You see, Christians have been confusing the different connotations of the word “judgment” for centuries. One person quotes authoritatively, “judge not that you be not judged,” while another responds, equally authoritatively, “are we not to judge those inside the church?” Still another quotes with a smirk “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things.”

What a mess we’re in. We’re supposed to “judge righteous judgment,” but we’re not supposed to judge our brother. On top of this, we are supposed to set up the least esteemed brother to judge disputes between brothers. These all seem very contradictory on their face.

The confusion leaves me begging for an answer to the question whether non-judgmentalism is really a virtue. I must confess that I’ve intentionally become much less judgmental of other professed Christians in the last couple of years. Is that a good thing, or am I on the doorstep of heresy with one foot over the threshold? Does being less openly critical of a brother’s perceived faults equate to a suspension of all good judgment, as Sowell’s philosophy might imply?

Uh, no. Being a non-judgmental Christian, in the Biblical sense, does not mean we have to check our good sense at the door.

I think the golden key to the conundrum lies - fittingly enough - in the golden rule. Do unto others as you would like them to do to you. The correct approach to “judging others” will ideally produce mutual reform and appreciation, not mutual contempt and division. As you express your love for my soul by attempting to help along my thinking, I ought to try to humbly reform my errors as I “get” your point. If I don’t get your point, the relationship still stands and maybe you’ve added something to my thinking that will produce a change of mind at a later date when it fully sinks in. Hopefully the reverse is true as well, if it is in fact a mutually edifying relationship we have.

If I want to be pointed away from sin by a concerned brother in Christ (and I do), I need to learn to approach others whom I may think are sinning with the same humble attitude I would want to be approached with. If I don’t want to be condemned for my opinion on an understanding of scripture, I ought to be careful not to condemn someone for what I perceive to be their misunderstandings.

That doesn’t mean a person’s sincerity makes them A-OK, by any stretch of the imagination. The question is not whether the person I’m wanting to “judge” is right or wrong. Being fully persuaded someone else is wrong is not the same as being judgmental of them. The real question is if I am to “judge” them if I think they are wrong - and if so, in what way?

I am also not suggesting that I have to accept everyone’s wrong opinions without comment or an attempt at correction. The key is in how it is done. This is confirmed by the so called “love chapter:”

    1 Corinthians 13:1-3 - If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (NIV)
Try not to laugh as I assume for a moment an utter absurdity; that I personally “can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,” and that I have the kind of faith that can move mountains. What good is it without the golden ingredient of love? If I open my mouth, spewing all of my knowledge, even if accurate, but do not do so in love, I might as well be speaking to the wind. I am nothing, and I gain nothing.

One of the aspects of love that I haven’t always intuitively associated with it is patience. Longsuffering. Bearing with each others faults. Paul continues on about this in the “love chapter:”

    1 Corinthians 13:4-7 - Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (NIV)
Put another way, being loving in our “righteous judgment” of others would entail being patient, humble, not boastful, not rude or self-seeking, and not easily angered. Therefore, the godly kind of judgment, by definition, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not let out a shout of delight when a brother is caught in a “see I told you so” moment.

In addition, love always protects and trusts. If I am distrustful of my brother in my “judgment” of him or his opinions, (for instance, if I assume bad motives on his part) I don’t see how I can be exercising “righteous judgment.” It is much easier to be patient with someone if I always assume his motives are good, even in the face of what seems to be evidence to the contrary. My brother’s motives just aren’t mine to judge, after all.

In thinking about the relationship of patience to judgment, note that Paul did not simply tell Timothy to preach the Word, and to reprove and rebuke with all doctrine. Instead he elaborated and clarified:

    2 Timothy 4:2 - Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (NIV)
Integral to Paul’s instruction to Timothy about teaching others in the faith of Christ was that he was to do so with encouragement (exhortation) and great patience (longsuffering). This is a far cry from bashing one another and dividing over differences of opinion.

I know, I know, all differences of opinion are not created equally. This is no doubt true. Regardless, I should surrender the prideful desire to be the judge of those I disagree with, even if I am 100% correct in my opinion. My role is not to pronounce judgment on my brother, but to build him up. This means I am sometimes called to listen, sometimes to teach, sometimes to correct, but always to love and encourage. And yes, to be patient.

I would want to be treated this way when being corrected, and this brings into focus the true meaning of the words “judge not that you be not judged.” Isn’t that a pretty good restatement of the golden rule? Take a look at Jesus’ own words:

    Matthew 7:1-3 - Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (NIV)
Is the non-judgmental Christian necessarily condoning those with whom he disagrees? I hope not. According to the scriptures, we ought to be able to find a way to attempt to correct each other in love without sitting in judgment of the other’s scruples. Loving someone in the Lord should not be construed as condoning his wrong opinions.

I don’t believe for a minute that Christians are to simply accept everyone at face value so we can all sit around the campfire holding hands and singing Kum Bay Yah. On the other hand, some good campfire fellowship might be the precise remedy the Doctor ordered to cure us of the destructive kind of judgmentalism.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Christian Yom Kippur

I stumbled upon an interesting newspaper article about the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur this week. I was surprised to find that there are still some traditions in modern Judaism that offer a bird as a sacrifice for their sins—a chicken, to be exact. I was under the impression that all animal sacrifices had ceased since the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., but apparently not.

Of course, the newspaper article did not describe the chicken as a sacrifice. That would probably be too politically incorrect. Instead, the event was described as a ritual that involved waving the beheaded bird over the participants in the ceremony. It was loosely insinuated that the bird acted as a sort of atonement for past sins.

My curiosity got the best of me. I whipped out my New Bible Encyclopedia from Tyndale to find that Yom Kippur is the Hebrew name for the most solemn of Biblical holidays described in the Old Testament scriptures, the Day of Atonement. And its solemnity is for good reason. The day is spent remembering past sins, which were then figuratively transferred to the scapegoat in ancient times, and presumably to the chicken in this modern twist. (Apparently another modern angle has been added, in that the beheaded chickens are sometimes donated to feed the poor.)

Intrigued as I was about modern observances of real Biblical holidays, I immediately felt sympathy for those who have not yet realized who Jesus was and is, and what he came to do. I feel such joy and thankfulness in knowing that my sins have been tossed into the depths of the sea, never to be held against me again. The prophets in ancient times could only look forward with anticipation to the forgiveness that we believers in the Lord Jesus Christ experience every day:

    Micah 7:18-19 - Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

    Isaiah 53:2-6 - He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (NIV)

The atonement we have received in Christ bestows upon us one of the most treasured gifts from God that a Christian receives: a clean conscience. Purged from guilt by the blood of Jesus Christ in the “washing of regeneration,” we are free to approach boldly the throne of grace in a way that no Old Covenant believer could ever think of doing:
    1 Peter 3:20-22 - …once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. (NKJV)

    Hebrews 4:16 - Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (NIV)

As the writer of Hebrews states so well, the blood of bulls and goats (or chickens, for that matter) could never take away sins. To the contrary, those sacrifices were for the remembrance of sin, not the forgetting of them. One of the most important aspects of Jesus’ atonement under the New Covenant is that it was only necessary to be done once for all time.
    Hebrews 9:24-26 - For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. (NIV)
Only the pardoning act of a just but loving God could cause our sins to be forgotten and cast into the depths of the sea. He chose to accomplish this with the atoning sacrifice of a perfect lamb, without spot or blemish:
    1 Peter 1:18-19 - For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (NIV)
It’s no coincidence that Emmanuel means “God with us,” because communion with God under the New Covenant is exactly what was purchased by the atoning, singular sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross some 2000 years ago. As a result, we are far from needing an annual “Yom Kippur” or “Day of Atonement.” We should thank God that under the New Covenant we live in a perpetual age of atonement!

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Friday, October 14, 2005

George Barna research

For those not familiar with him, George Barna is considered the top pollster in the "big business" of the church growth movement. He has had his finger on the pulse of trends and demographic shifts among church-goers for years, and his research has been used by mega-church "entrepeneurs" to grow their enterprises through more effective marketing and communication than has traditionally been used by churches.

Of course, he has not escaped criticism for his role in the commercialization of pop-Christianity. But he is unquestionably in a position to report with some knowledge on demographic shifts in church-going trends in America.

His latest article, quoted below from his website, puts the spotlight on an interesting shift away from traditional "church attendence" at a denominational place of worship.

The full article can be found here. Following are some excerpts I found interesting:

    Relying upon national research conducted over the past several years, Barna profiles a group of more than 20 million adults throughout the nation labeled “revolutionaries.” He noted that although measures of traditional church participation in activities such as worship attendance, Sunday school, prayer, and Bible reading have remained relatively unchanged during the past twenty years, the Revolutionary faith movement is growing rapidly.

    “These are people who are less interested in attending church than in being the church,” he explained. “We found that there is a significant distinction in the minds of many people between the local church – with a small ‘c’ – and the universal Church – with a capital ‘C’. Revolutionaries tend to be more focused on being the Church, capital C, whether they participate in a congregational church or not.”

    “A common misconception about revolutionaries,” he continued, “is that they are disengaging from God when they leave a local church. We found that while some people leave the local church and fall away from God altogether, there is a much larger segment of Americans who are currently leaving churches precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church. They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience. Instead of going to church, they have chosen to be the Church, in a way that harkens back to the Church detailed in the Book of Acts.”

It's probably important for me to point out that I don't go along with the idea that Christians should remove themselves from the "local church." But does a group of believers meeting together in their homes constitute a forsaking of the assembly? Not in my book. So I do think it's valuable to realign our thinking with the Bible and stop thinking of the "local church" as only taking place in a building on Sundays.

Many of us have taught for years that the church consists of the people, not the building. But do we live like it?

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