In Defense of Judging

Today the church is commonly perceived to be full of judgmental people—a primary reason the “Nones” give for abandoning churchgoing altogether. Carl Jung said it best: “Thinking is difficult; that’s why people judge.” And, apparently, non-thinking is epidemic among Christian people. When Barna researchers asked young adults to describe Christians, nine out of 10 said they are fundamentally judgmental. One respondent explained: “Christians like to hear themselves talk. They are arrogant about their beliefs, but they never bother figuring out what other people actually think. They don’t seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something.”

These are embarrassing, even damning descriptions. No wonder the church is struggling to thrive—our reputation in the wider culture lives in the bottom of an outhouse. No sin is more disgusting to average people than judgmentalism. The only thing worse than committing a heinous sin is judging the person who committed the heinous sin. We’re fundamentally repelled by the arrogance of one person sitting in judgment of another, because it proclaims a hierarchy of virtue. No one wants to be around judgmental people, and no one wants to be labeled judgmental. Even more, Jesus explicitly warned us about the consequences of judging:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

So far, nothing about what I’ve described is surprising or upending… Judging is a weed that needs to be pulled from church culture. But not so fast… We think we know what this warning from Jesus is about—a condemnation of judgment—but that’s not what He’s really saying…

  1. Jesus doesn’t condemn judgment—he condemns hypocritical, unwise, and rash judgment. His teaching on judgmentalism has less to do with the offense of judging and more to do with our reluctance to expose ourselves to judgment first. If we don’t want to be judged by others, then we shouldn’t judge anyone. But leaders, by definition, are always exposing themselves to judgment by others. You cannot lead unless you risk the poor opinion of others. So the key is to judge well, and to live our life as a “lamp on a hill,” comfortably exposed to naysayers, because the source of the light that’s within you is Jesus.
  2. Jesus told us to pay attention to our “standard” of judgment, not to ban it altogether. If we’re willing to be judged by the same standard we use with others, then judge away. But it’s very painful to be unfairly judged, so don’t invite it by unfairly, rashly, and hypocritically judging others.
  3. Jesus didn’t deny that our “brother” has no speck in his eye—something that will seriously impact his ability to see well. He simply urged us to pay attention to our own “log”—something so big and obvious and debilitating that we can’t see well to perform the delicate operation of removing our brother’s speck. There are plenty of “brothers” around us who are desperate to get the speck out of their eye—their life is stuck, and they live with constant pain, because that speck has the power to debilitate them. And we’d be poor “removers” indeed if we attempt the challenge when we can’t see what we’re doing. This famous passage, used so often to blunt life-saving “judgment,” is really about the spiritual discipline of exposing our “eye logs”—the goal is to “see clearly,” not to wear a blindfold.

There is a deep hunger in our culture for wisdom—we see and hear it so rarely that it sticks out when we do. At the heart of wisdom is the ability to judge well, to say “this, not that” in a spirit of humility, surrender, and love. The thirsty “Nones” all around us aren’t longing for a “no standards” version of church—they’re longing for a strength that is sourced in the grace, mercy, and disruption in the heart of Jesus…

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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