“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1). In our largely biblically-ignorant culture, I’m fairly certain that these famous words of Jesus are the most often quoted Bible verse, yet also the most misunderstood verse in all the Bible. We’ve collectively turned this admirable warning on its head to say something completely different than what Jesus intended. If you haven’t quoted this verse before, I’d wager that you’ve heard someone else use it to deflect moral criticism from himself. Jesus has been reinterpreted to be THE MAN WHO WILL NOT JUDGE YOU, and by example we all should do the same. But this is not at all what the Bible teaches about judging or judgmentalism. Instead of defending ourselves from the judgment of others, let’s begin by taking a look at our own judgmental hearts.
“Judgmentalism begins,” writes Jerry Bridges, when “we equate our opinions with truth.” There is a difference between a preference for something (a certain kind of food, for example) and a Bible-based conviction. When we elevate personal convictions concerning an issue to the level of biblical truth—even when the Bible is not clear on that particular issue–the sin of judgmentalism quickly follows. We’ve all been in the presence of someone who is overly sure of himself and judgmental toward anyone who sees things differently. We say they are judgmental (when in comes to morality or religious issues) or narrow-minded (when referring more broadly). I am susceptible to this sin as well. How do I guard against it without relinquishing convictions that may in fact be biblical (and therefore right)? The answer is simple, but not easy to follow. The difference between my preferences and my (biblical) convictions is that my biblical convictions need to have biblical warrant—either explicitly or by good and necessary deduction from what is explicit. If I prefer pipe organs or electric guitars, I must regard this as a personal preference unless I can make a case from the Bible that my preference is actually an objective standard. But this is truly difficult to do because we are prone to cloudy thinking in our zeal to impress our preferences on others for more than what they are. When this happens, we alienate people from ourselves, we turn them off to the desire to examine the Bible to read what it says about a particular issue, we bring reproach and disgrace upon Christ insofar as we claim to represent him, and at worst we blaspheme God when we venture to argue he has said something that he has in fact not said. Remember it was the false prophets whom God condemned—not for their sincerity, but for their presumption upon the mind and word of God. When the Bible speaks to but is not clear on a particular issue, we have a tendency to go with the interpretive option that most pleases us, and instead of holding our belief in our interpretation loosely, we judge those who come to other conclusions.
I’ve see this happen in my own life. When my wife and I first became convinced of the Doctrines of Grace (otherwise known as the Five Points of Calvinism), we excited shared our newfound knowledge with many of our friends and family. Some of those we shared with were skeptical about this teaching that was new to them. Most were very gracious to us and allowed us to leave the “cage stage” of new believers in Calvinism behind. We made relational blunders when sharing these precious Bible truths, and I’m sure we misrepresented a few Bible passages in our eagerness to find support for the five points under every bush. At one point some family members gave us a book that slandered John Calvin and Christians in the Reformed tradition of the Church, advising us that we’d better consider its contents because we were treading into dangerous false doctrine. Unfortunately, the way I responded to our family set our relationship back a few notches. Instead of graciously accepting the invitation to read the book and consider its message, I instantly went into argue-mode because I wanted to defend the Truth! I wonder, years later, if I had been more humble if fruitful and honest doctrinal discussions centering on the Bible could have been possible. I regret my sin of judgmentalism, and pray that God would use me in spite of my tendency to judge. Even more so I pray that God would continue to sanctify me and change me to be more attuned to the sin of judgmentalism so that I may guard against it in the future.
Paul faced judgmentalism head-on (Rom 14). One group in the church at Rome ate only vegetables and thought they had the moral high ground (Rom 14:3); another group ate “anything” (presumably meat) and thought they had superior knowledge because what they ate made no difference to God if it was received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). And each group judged the other. In addition, some believers observed certain days as holy days, and other believers did not. In Romans 14:4-5, Paul is taking a peace-keeper’s tone by reminding two parties of the Lord’s servants who is their master and judge. It would have been obvious to the Roman Christians (who were familiar with the customs of the institution of first century slavery) that servant are in no position to judge a fellow servant. A servant is accountable to his own master alone, not another servant. This is obvious on the face of it, for a servant’s place is defined by his title: servant. Who does a servant serve? His master. The Christian’s master is the Lord, who, Paul says, is able to make his servants stand. Therefore each servant should be thoroughly convinced in his own mind that he is indeed serving God (his master), and should not pay heed to a fellow servant unless the fellow servant is clearly speaking for their common master.
Furthermore, Paul’s position on personal convictions regarding diet and holiday observance is that each should do what he does to the glory of God. He likens observing and partaking to “living”, and abstaining to “dying”. Because we are to live and die to the Lord, and none of us lives and dies to himself, we are free to live (observe and partake) or die (abstain) as long as we honor the Lord in or living and dying. Therefore we must not judge a Christian brother or sister who is honoring the Lord by following their personal convictions in ways that God has left free to them.
“Because we do believe so strongly in the importance of sound doctrine,” Bridges writes, “we can easily become hypercritical of those with whom we disagree.” Is there a proper balance between (a) standing up for key biblical doctrine, and (b) expressing disagreement with advocates of unsound doctrine in ways that do not degenerate into character assassination? Again, this is fairly simple to do in principle, but much more difficult to put into practice. If it were an agreed upon standard what are the key biblical doctrines, then our job would be easy. But alas, God has left the key biblical doctrines list out of the Bible, so the Church is left to determine from reading the Scriptures in the format in which they are received to discern what doctrines are key and which are up for honest interpretation. For the record, I wholly subscribe to the three ancient ecumenical creeds, and to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards (as outlined by the Presbyterian Church in America). But I am also aware that good evangelical Christians (and many regenerate believers who stand outside the evangelical tradition) disagree about a great many doctrines. So unless I am speaking to another Christian who subscribes to the same confessional standards as me, I must be a little more willing to accept disagreement in the spirit of Christian tolerance. However, it is never allowable to let doctrinal disagreements degenerate into slander, gossip, and character assassination. I believe the line that cannot be crossed is the “personal line”. We must be free to disagree doctrinally—sometimes vigorously as we jealously guard the Bible’s teaching—but we must never address the person’s character (when discussing doctrine) except to humble urge him to repent of false doctrine or prayerfully reconsider disagreeable (but non-heretical) doctrinal positions. Admittedly, this is a hard thing to do, but we have the examples of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the NT writers to emulate. We can learn much doctrine from a careful study of the Bible, but we must not forget that we can also learn how to deal with doctrinal disagreements among confessing Christians from the same Bible.
One of the great problems with the sin of judgmentalism is that it rarely confines itself to the heart. Judgmentalism usually manifests itself through sins of the tongue. How do we know that God takes “respectable” sins of the tongue seriously (see Matt 12:36-37)? Because Jesus says so. God doesn’t just judge our actions. He judges our words and thoughts as well. With this in mind, we ought to carefully consider our words before we allow them to cross our lips. And when sinful words do spring up from the dark wells of our hearts, we should recall that Jesus died for sinful of the tongue as well, and that repentance of these “respectable” sins is the order of the day. If we do not repent and confess because we think our words are “respectable” and acceptable to God because they are merely trifles compared to the big sins that are the real problem, we must take heed of the condemnation on judgment day that Jesus promises as just recompense for our words.
“Any speech,” Bridges writes, “that tends to tear down another person—either someone we are talking about or someone we are talking to—is sinful speech.” In the NT era, believers fight a spiritual war. The battles of the OT were concrete and earthly, but they were meant to typify and point us to the spiritual battle that rages in the heavenly, spiritual realm (see 2 Kgs 6:15-18 for evidence that the spiritual realm intersects and is co-present with this earthly realm). I say this because Paul teaches that in the NT age we are to fight by demolishing every argument that raises itself up against Christ (2 Cor 10:3-5; Eph 6:12). Any battle (even of words) that deigns to tear down another person is being fought according to the standards of the OT, an era that has passed away with the coming of Christ. Let us as new covenant believers follow the lead of our Lord Jesus who has assigned us spiritual weapons to wage war in the heavenlies.
God (through Paul) tells us to do something in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” This verse relate to the “put off/put on” principle Paul mentioned earlier in verses 22-24. In other words, Paul is saying that when our words do not build up and give bless our hearers, they have a corrupting influence on our hearers as they receive and respond to our hurtful speech. Our words are to be gracious and full of blessing. Our words are not to be formulaic, but should be tailored to those we speak with and appropriate to the situation in which we speak. To speak with these words of grace and blessing to actually to put off the old man and the sinful natural flesh that we were born into and have the proclivity to return to, and to put on the new man and the regenerate nature that God has graciously given to us and has called us to live like. Paul effectively says that by words we can put off the old and put on the new! Words are powerful indeed! As the saying goes, the pen (words) is mightier than the sword.
Paul is not the only NT writer to address sins of the tongue. James uses imagery to illustrate the tongue’s power and sinful effects (Jas 3:1-12)? In this passage, James uses several images to illustrate the power and effect of the tongue. The tongue is like a horse bit, a ship rudder, a small fire, an untamable animal. The tongue is full of poison. It is like a water spring, a tree, and a vine in the sense that it produces something. What will your tongue produce? Salt water good for nothing? Unseemly fruit? Poison? How will you use your tongue to set the direction of your life? Will you steer your rudder and yank your bit into the habitation of sin? Or will you steer and yank toward righteousness? Be careful, for your tongue is small, but it sets the course of your life (as it inevitably expresses what is in your heart). Don’t try to tame your tongue through self-discipline or sheer will power. It cannot be done. No one ever has. That is James’s point. He wants us to realize that the tongue is a powerful member that sets the course of our whole life. We must not be hypocrites, allowing our tongues to sin and bless. This is unnatural and must not be. We are called to declare spiritual war against the world, the devil, and the flesh—in this case, the fleshly member that is our tongue. Use it for the glory of God, and do not underestimate its power to bless or to curse. Its sins are not respectable or acceptable in God’s sight.
When I am with someone who continually practices judgmentalism (having a critical spirit and finding fault with everyone and everything), I feel very uncomfortable, and not just for me but for everyone who is in the general proximity and whoever is bearing the brunt of the criticism. Such people have a way of stifling any happiness within a one-mile radius. They act like a black hole that sucks up the life of everyone and everything they are near. This sin of judgmentalism is so damaging because it robs people of hope, happiness, humility, and friendship. People who are judgmental in the extreme set themselves up as a god, pontificating on every issue as if they are some sort of expert and meting out judgment on people for others’ assumed motives. When we judge in this way (even if it is done politely) we effectively remove God from his throne and enthrone ourselves. Judgmentalism is idolatry!
Judgmentalism is most often expressed through spoken word between people, which become sins of the tongue. I am most tempted to critical speech behind closed doors with those who I am frustrated with. It is a terrible sin when done in a spirit of malice rather than genuine godly concern for people. With my children I struggle with harsh words that erupt from my lips when I am frustrated with my agenda not being met, or when I am not being listened to. Thankfully, God has given me a wife who gently reminds me that harsh words do not help anyone, and I know they are sin. And I thank God that he has revealed my sins of the tongue to me so that I can confess them and begin to change by the power of the Spirit. Bridges writes that “the tongue is only the instrument that reveals what’s in our hearts.” Based on this biblical principle, my heart is still home to much sin. The Holy Spirit has recently been prompting me to confess, repent, listen to the counsel of my wife, and take practical steps to address myself when the temptation to be judgmental or to speak sinfully arises in my heart. One thing you and I can do is to ask ourselves whether what we are about to say useful for tearing down or building up others (both who we speak to and who we speak about). I’ve noticed that a simple question like this can act as a censor on what comes out of my heart, but even better it acts as a change agent to obey God’s word to edify rather than sinfully judge others.
Lord of my life, including my mind, heart, and mouth, I confess that I do in fact indulge in judgmental attitudes, and nearly every day! Ugh! How much work you still must do in my heart to change it, molding and remaking my life into the image of your son Jesus Christ! God, forgive me of the sin of doctrinal judgmentalism. Help me to realize and remember that honest Christians may differ on many of the finer points of doctrine (the non-essentials) that may be precious to me, but should not be dividing lines separating believers and unbelievers. Please prick my heart when I am tempted to look down my nose and the practices of others in their worship and life when they are not acting according to my preferences but are living in the freedom that you grant your children. Guard my heart from expressing such thoughts, whether they are conceived in arrogance, anger, or thoughtless reasoning. Change my heart by your Spirit so that judgmentalism and the sins of the tongue become a vanishing remnant, a part of me that is dying and disappearing. Make my heart fit for heaven. Amen.