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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