It was the year between when I finished my undergraduate degree and was about to begin my Master’s degree. The students around me were in the midst of writing their final papers and preparing for final exams. Or, at least that’s what one would expect.
However, on this particular day, I noticed everyone talking about a certain blog post that one of the students had written about something that had happened the weekend prior. Specifically, this student had noticed some of his fellow students scantily clad and dancing provocatively at a certain night club in downtown Toronto. His blog post was somewhat scathing, to say the least, and people were even starting blog accounts, just so they could comment on what he said (or on the discussion that he had started). Several of the responses, because everyone involved attended a Christian university, agreed with him (though maybe not with his somewhat colorful language, or the fact that his presence at said nightclub brought his integrity into question). But many others, coming to the defense of those young women (and some young men), made the writer of that post out to be the bigger sinner (for being “judgmental”), and quoted one of these verses at him:
Judge not, and you will not be judged. (Matthew 7:1 ESV)
Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the LORD comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness, and will disclose the purposes of the heart. (1 Corinthians 4:5 ESV)
OUT OF CONTEXT MEANING
Of course, we can all think of situations like this, where because we are expected to be “nice” and “tolerant” and to not “rock the boat” (Trust me – as a Canadian, we are known for having those as our prime cultural values), but we also see people who are doing things that are wrong, we struggle between saying something and appearing “judgmental,” or not saying anything and allowing whatever it is to continue.
There seems to be this attitude in North American Christianity where we are not allowed to correct anybody, or to hold offensive opinions that might hurt another person’s feelings, because we are told that the ideal for Christians is that we be seen as “nice,” or we have this notion that being “loving” means the same as being “tolerant.” Any attempts to enforce any type of moral or ethical standards are dismissed as being judgmental, bigoted, hateful or legalistic. All of this is because we are supposedly told in the Bible that it is wrong for us to judge another person, because we don’t know where the other person is coming from.
To be fair, though, in many ways this insistence on “tolerance” is very much a reaction to those who have taken the texts speaking of God as a judge and took it to the other extreme – such as protesting funerals and standing on street corners holding signs declaring, “God hates (insert hated people group here)”, and spewing hateful words at anybody who doesn’t belong to their particular brand of Christianity. Those on that extreme would be perfectly happy if verses like those quoted above would be completely removed from the biblical canon. Such an attitude is wrong, and needs to be corrected; however, the problem with “reactions” is that they can often over-correct and end up falling into the other extreme. To be precise, there are several texts within the Bible that do speak of God as judge, several of which can seem quite extreme to our offense-sensitive eyes (The Great Flood, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or the seemingly commanded genocide of entire people groups, such as the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, or the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 6, not to mention much of the imagery in the book of Revelation). And there are also texts, including much of the book of Joshua that, when mixed with the history of thinking of Canada and the USA as historically “Christian” nations and the unfortunate idolatry that comes when politics are mixed in with our faith, make it perfectly understandable why there would be such groups that would see themselves as the champions of “Christian culture,” all the time continuing many of the abuses and injustices done in the name of Christianity; which in turn also makes it understandable why there is such a backlash against it, not only in our wider culture, but also among Christians who would shy away from the image of God as an angry judge, just waiting to strike us down at the slightest mistake, and who very much want to make our faith more palatable to a more pluralistic society.
These two verses quoted above are only two of several verses that seem to say that we shouldn’t judge other people, but for the sake of space, we’ll only be looking at those two.
DANGERS OF READING OUT OF CONTEXT
One obvious danger, of course, is that we are confusing terminology. On the side of those telling us we should not judge, every bit of correction or exhortation to change as we pursue holiness is also included with what was probably meant by Jesus in the Matthew passage, which means that our Christian faith becomes a free-for-all, where nobody can hold anybody else to a higher level of accountability, in fear that we might come across as being too judgmental. So out of this, we become afraid to say anything or to correct those around us, even if the path that the person is on will eventually lead to destruction. Just for an example, if you were to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, his tone is very scathing in that letter. He also mentions in that letter a certain encounter he had with Peter and Barnabas, two respected leaders in the church. Paul was not too coy to rebuke them publicly. “Bad Paul,” we are tempted to say. “Quit being such a judgmental, closed-minded bigot!”
In a way, it’s also unfortunate that the attitudes expressed in calling for an end to all judgmentalism actually reflect more the attitudes of our decadent North American value system than they do the value system put forward by the Bible. By pushing tolerance at all costs, we are basically saying “I want to do what I want, when I want, with whomever I want, and there is nothing you or anybody else can say or do to stop me. I am above the law!” Forgive me if I seem out of line by saying this, but that certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus, or the values that he taught, at all. Now, to be the one who must struggle between rebuking someone who has such an attitude, despite claiming to follow Jesus, and to simply “tolerate” this can be difficult. I mean, tolerance could be seen as ignoring the offense or going our own separate ways and letting everyone do their own thing. The question we are forced to ask ourselves is, how does this cheap thing we call “tolerance” resemble the love that we are called to, which actually challenges us to engage with one another and to actively be involved in what Jesus wants us to be doing (representing his interests to the world as salt and light)?
Or here is another example, which unfortunately brings in even worse dangers. In the book of Revelation, there are seven letters to some historical churches. Leaving any interpretive issues aside, if we were to look at the fourth of these, you would see a letter to the church of Thyatira. The one complaint that Jesus had against this church was that they tolerated a certain false prophetess who is given the name Jezebel. See, if correction and rebuke are not allowed, false teaching, immorality, and false worship (referred to through Scripture as idolatry) would not be far behind. To have tolerance as our primary virtue, while it might mean the boat is never rocked and we are seen as accepting of everyone and every idea around us, it also means that we will accept all things, even the destructive; and truth be told, that actually flies in the face of this new life that Jesus has given us.
THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT:
Regarding 1 Corinthians 4:5, it’s actually not talking about judging in the sense of correcting other people’s’ behavior or thinking (even though it is in itself a rebuke, of a sort). Among other issues, the primary subject throughout this first letter to the Corinthians is addressing divisions in the church. Read in its original context this verse is actually talking about how we should not be comparing or judging the value of various leaders within the church, which has actually been the topic of what Paul’s been talking about for the entire first four chapters of the letter. There is a later point in the letter where Paul does address the question of moral and ethical judgment (which is what we are talking about in this article), in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. However, even there, what it actually says may surprise us:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV)
Curiously, this is one passage that is never really thrown around by the “You shouldn’t judge!” crowds, and the “hate everyone who is not with us” crowd would probably squirm when reading it as well. As we can see, Paul instructs the church in Corinth not to have anything to do with a so-called believer who is living an immoral life (which sounds pretty judgmental to our offense-sensitive ears, does it not?). He even goes so far as to say that the church is called to judge and to correct the fellow believer; even to expel them if they prove unrepentant (v. 13). This, of course, is in hopes that they would repent and would stop living in such a compromised way (which Paul addresses in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, which was a follow-up letter to this one). But, if we follow the argument of this passage, we are not to separate ourselves from the world, and can even expect that those outside of the Christian faith would lead less-than-holy lives. In other words, according to Paul, it is not our place as Christians to attack the morality or to act as holy judge over the beliefs or practices of those who make no claim to following Christ. We are to be salt and light, yes, influencing culture as we represent Jesus to the world, but if you’d notice what Paul was talking about, that doesn’t mean attacking them or avoiding them for not believing as we do (which, we shouldn’t expect them to. If they did, then they would probably be classified as believer). This would be a corrective to many of our more crusading brothers and sisters, or at least those among us who would close the doors of the church and condemn the rest of the world to Hell.
But this is also a corrective for the other side as well, and a sobering one at that. In this very passage, Paul is saying that if a person claims to be a Christian, but then denies their faith by the way they live and refuses to listen to correction or rebuke, the other Christians are to have nothing to do with them, which is to say that we are to even consider them as if they were an unbeliever. It’s as if there is a higher moral or ethical standard for those who claim to follow Jesus, as strange as it might sound to many of us who have heard in sermons (or even preached sermons) which say that we are saved by grace, not by the things we do (or don’t do). There is a biblical precedent for leaders to be judged at a higher standard (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9; James 3:1), which should also cause our leaders and our teachers to pause and consider. But is there such a different standard for the average believer, when compared to the outside world?
I believe there is. As well as the passages I’ve already mentioned, this call to correct the errant believer is also echoed in other places as well (Ezekiel 33:7-12; Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3-4; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Titus 3:10-11; James 5:19-20). On the flip side of this, if we as believers are actively pursuing Christ and godly character (meaning that we actually truly want to follow and belong to Jesus as his people), then we should in fact welcome this correction, and not reject all guidance or correction as being “judgmental garbage.” The truth is, we all have blind spots. We all have areas where we are broken, or where we are weak to temptation. For some, it may be an addiction to something; for another, it might be a thought pattern, where we have internalized the lies of Satan and it has paralyzed us from doing what we know we should be doing; for yet others, it is a flaw specifically related to character (such as a destructive temper or laziness and procrastination). Truth be told, we probably all have weaknesses in each of these areas, and if the gospel calls us to freedom from these weaknesses (which I believe it does), then don’t you think it is actually a good thing when God brings other people into our lives who reveal to us our rough spots?
If we are called to correct one another, as these passages cited above indicate, then that means that as Christians, we should be pursuing a higher standard of morality – which, curiously enough, was part of the reason why Christianity was so popular in its early years, which we will look at more closely below.
But there is still that other verse – the one in Matthew 7:1, which more explicitly seems to be saying “don’t judge.” But is it really saying what we think it is saying? Here is the verse again, this time in its original context:
“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? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:1-6, NIV)
Despite what we may think about this as being a blanket statement against judging another person, which seems to include correcting or rebuking other people for that which we believe to be wrong, what it’s actually saying is that the standard we use for others will also be used for us, so it is a warning that before we make those judgments on somebody else, we need to make sure that we, ourselves, are not guilty of a similar problem, or possibly even of a worse problem. Jesus is not saying merely to ‘tolerate’ one another, but that we need to deal with our own issues (which, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, he seems to be implying that sometimes our own issues behind the original beef might be bigger than the actual offense that we see the other person doing). In other words, if I were to preach on the importance of men loving their wives and taking care of their needs, what do you think it would do to my message if I went home and abused my own wife, or visited a prostitute right after giving such a talk? It would kill my integrity, and any authority I might have thought I had to even speak about such a topic.
When Jesus was first saying this, likely he had in mind several of the religious of his day, who condemned those who acted out many of the same sins that they kept hidden. And even when he would come into confrontations with them, many times their arrogance would come to the surface – and sometimes even their murderous zeal, which was an even worse offence. On one occasion, in John 8, these leaders brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They were willing to kill her on the spot; but more than this, they were hoping to trap Jesus. One might ask, if she was caught in adultery, where was the man? Jesus’ response is similar to his challenge in Matthew 7: Let the one without sin (the one who has removed the log from his own eye) be the first to throw a stone. One by one, they all left. Then he spoke to the woman. (To those who shout “You shouldn’t judge!”, you need to keep reading here.) Instead of simply saying “You’re free to go! Enjoy your life!” he tells her what he tells many whom he forgives and heals: “Go, and don’t sin anymore.” In other words, while he sets her free from the condemnation from the crowds, he doesn’t simply allow for her to continue to do what is wrong. He tells her to stop doing that which is wrong… which means that he knows that she was doing wrong, and he told her to change her ways, but in a way that brought life and hope. And when we are correcting someone else, that is what we also should be doing – not condemning for the sake of looking down on the other person in order to make us appear better than we really are, but also not simply winking at the wrong-doing and saying, “It’s okay. God loves you just the way you are!” No, holiness demands that we work to restore life and hope in the other person, which means that we engage with them in hopes of bringing change.
And then, if you would notice right after Jesus says to remove the log before addressing the speck, there is that statement about giving sacred things to dogs and pearls to pigs. This is similar to Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 5. The unbelieving world (those who make no claims to following Jesus) won’t respect what you are saying if you appeal to the Bible (because they don’t follow the Bible, and in many cases, don’t respect what it says). Like what Paul said, it is not our place to judge those outside the church. As for those inside the church, while we might find those who might claim to be Christians who also don’t respect the Bible and who insist on fighting back after any and all correction (which, these individuals are referred to in the Bible as either wicked or foolish), it seems that we are still called to correct even these, which might even involve church discipline (which the passage in 1 Corinthians hints at by telling the church to stop associating with the offending individual unless they change). Even in those situations, even if it might feel like you are “judging” them, God might still be calling you to correct them and bring them back to a place where they are doing what is right.
But let’s be honest: most Christians we come in contact with aren’t really like that. We all make mistakes, yes, and we all have areas where we might be blind to the fact that what we’re doing might not be the wisest or the best picture of what a follower of Christ would do, but a true believer and follower of Christ, at least one who is spiritually mature, would actually welcome correction, if the concern is legitimate.
HOW CAN WE REALLY APPLY THESE VERSES?
As we’ve seen throughout this meditation, the Bible actually has a lot to say about correcting our fellow Christians whenever we do make mistakes or make poor decisions in life.
For the 1 Corinthians 4:5 verse, although it is not actually related to the question of rebuking or correcting our brothers and sisters in the faith, it does offer a powerful corrective if we think of our tendency to compare our leaders and to worship the celebrities among us. It’s like choosing whether or not to attend an event based on whether or not you like the main speaker, or buying every book ever written by a certain author and looking down on those who happen to prefer a different writer’s style. I actually know certain people who not only own every book by a certain author and attend every one of her events, but even go to the point of changing their look to match their idol, all the time looking down on everyone who is not as enamored by this teacher. Or it’s like the crowds that would flock to a certain mega-church because of the personality of the senior pastor, but then dissipate like the mist when a flaw is discovered in that pastor or he moves away and is replaced by someone else who is not as famous or well-known. As we saw above, this was exactly what was happening in Corinth (but for different reasons). Just goes to show that we are still blind in many ways.
In a way this is related to our main topic because by our “judging” these servants of Christ, we are placing ourselves in positions of authority over them, or considering them as favorite mascots for our personal preferences, or we begin to assume that this person speaks for God, or possibly even is like a god for us, and so we worship everything about them, while spurning those who are not that favored teacher of ours (which is something that we’d need to grow out of eventually as we mature in the faith). There is something that could be said about ability, character and worthiness of those teachers, but the truth of the matter is this: first, that teacher is answerable to God for whatever he or she does or teaches, and it is God who gave that person the ability to do what he or she does. It is not our place to rate them or to sit in judgment over them.
Curiously enough, the Christians were also considered closed-minded in the early years of the faith. They didn’t participate in the pagan festivals or sacred orgies, and they didn’t burn incense to the Emperor as if he were a god, partly because they insisted on only one God, but also because their faith in this one God was such that this God called them to a higher standard of morality and ethics (which actually is what the prophets of the Old Testament were also continually calling the Jewish people to – something which, curiously enough, was unique to the Hebrew prophets among their contemporaries, by the way). And I think it’s important to reiterate that as Christians, we should want to honor God in this way. It’s not rule-keeping, list-checking behavior to stay on his good side, but it’s out of respect and honor for the God we love so deeply that we do or don’t do the things we do. Viewing it like a checklist or boasting in the things that we do is like a mug demanding praise or favor from its potter because it can hold water, even though the purpose of that mug was to hold water. The potter made it to hold the water. If it can do what it was meant for, who deserves the praise? The mug? No, the potter who made it. It’s the same with us; the expectations laid out in the scriptures are a picture of the kind of life which God designed us for — what God intended for his humans and for the rest of the Creation. The fact that things are broken and that it seems more “natural” to do things which go against the original design means that it often takes more effort to do what is right. But that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in: as Christians, we have faith that because of the power given to us by the Spirit, and because of the new chance at life that we have been given because of the gospel, we can now be empowered to begin living the way that we were meant to from the beginning. That’s why we are not saved by what we do or don’t do. However, if the Cross of Jesus means anything to us, if we are those who bear his name, and if we are grateful for the new chance at life that he has given us, don’t you think we would want to live lives that bring him honor and pleasure?
Because of this desire to please God with their lives, the early Christians had a reputation of living a higher standard than the laws of society dictated (meaning that their lives were examples of righteousness, even in pagan eyes), and they were known for their love and sacrifice, not just for one another, but for those whom the rest of society would have neglected or ostracized. It was actually this love for not only each other but for others who were abandoned in society and their sobriety and holy lives that led to Christianity becoming an attractive option to the self-centered decadence that was typical of the Greco-Roman world at the time. Of course, a caveat must be mentioned here, as not all of the attention given to the early church was particularly positive. Their visible difference (belief in only one god, displayed acts of charity toward the “least” of society, and refusal to participate in the pagan festivals or morally questionable actions of their contemporaries) gave them the reputation that they were traitors to the empire, closed-minded bigots who hated their fellow citizens (sound familiar?), and a strange cult that needed to be eliminated.
And, truth be told, this is still very much true today. It may not always be obvious, and it may seem sometimes like the Christians are just as bad as those around them, but if you were to look at the front lines of those selflessly giving of themselves to relieve the suffering of the world, whether it is giving social assistance in the inner city, or assisting in recovery from natural disasters or refugee situations, a large proportion of those are Christians. Plus, many of the benefits that we take for granted today (public schooling, addiction recovery programs, public healthcare, social services, the abolition of slavery, the preservation of languages, elderly care homes, orphanages, etc.), much of that was actually because of Christians who felt convicted by God to do something about the suffering they saw around them.
Perhaps this might be a powerful prophetic rebuke to us Christians, on whichever side of the fence that we sit on, whether we are those who are quick to look upon the world with haughty eyes of judgment, or if we are those who let wickedness seep into our midst in the name of being “tolerant” and “open-minded.” As Christians, we are called to live lives that point toward a better way of being human. That much is a fact. Even those who don’t belong to the Christian church know this, even though it may not be in the terms I’ve just outlined. Mahatma Gandhi, a famous Indian activist, once remarked: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Or for a more personal reason, one of the main reasons my family stays away from Christianity (and why it took a direct encounter with God for me to consider joining any church, let alone become someone who works with the Christian church professionally) is that they know Christians are meant to be better, but the examples around haven’t been very inspiring. In fact, I’ve even had to do some damage control with my family because of some of the negative encounters they have had with “Christians.” Which is why one of the biggest barriers to Christian faith still remains Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, but deny him by their lifestyles.
Maybe tolerance is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially since the love that we are called to pursue actually challenges us to engage with injustice, and to correct those who do wrong. But how do we balance that? How do we love well? To be honest, I am still trying to figure this out. Do we keep flip-flopping our standards between a staunch legalism that would build a wall keeping those out who don’t fit our exacting criteria, or a tolerance which refuses to fight against anything that is wrong in the world (and especially that which is wrong in the church, who should be representing God’s interests), out of fear of looking like a killjoy? I think we flip-flop or go to the extremes so much is because it is easier to keep our thinking about moral ideas or how to deal with people in tidy boxes. To stay on the road and out of the ditches on either side, that is the challenge, and truth be told, it can be difficult sometimes to navigate. But that’s where prayer comes in, and specifically a type of prayer where we also listen to God, trusting that the Holy Spirit will help to guide us on what we should say when we do speak, and also during times when it would be wisest to remain silent and listen, or even, as the scriptures we’ve explored above state, to first remind us of areas where we might be guilty, which needs to be addressed before we approach the other person. No, it isn’t easy, but we are in this together, and that is a comforting thought, at least.