Judging Others

John ArmstrongUnity of the Church

There are some obvious tensions that we encounter when we read the Scriptures. One such tension that often causes significant problems between Christians is the biblical teaching regarding judging others.

The Scriptures do teach us to avoid judgmental attitudes toward others, especially in dealing with Christians. At the same time we are clearly encouraged to developing a discerning attitude that can evaluate people and ministries carefully; e.g, 1 Cor. 5:12-13; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 6:1-6; Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Cor. 11:10-15. This is the tension I refer to here. How can we follow both of these standards? No matter how you apply these texts you will soon have to admit that judging and discerning sometimes do get very close to one another.

The temptation to pass judgment upon the life or testimony of other individuals is clearly warned against in the New Testament. If you have lived in a Christian context where the truth of your church or mission is extremely important than the tendency will always be to err on the side of passing judgment wrongly or unfairly. I have seen more of this misuse of Scripture than I care to think about. I have also done more than my share of judging others critically and unfairly.

Large I recently dipped into a great resource on my shelves titled: The Quotable Oswald Chambers (Grand Rapids: RBC Ministries, 2008). Chambers had a lot of great thoughts about this subject. I find him extremely wise. Here are a few of his comments on judging others.

We say that a man is not right with God unless he acts on the line of the precedent we have established. We must drop our measuring-rods for God and for our fellow men. All we can know about God is that His character is what Jesus Christ has manifested; and all we know about our fellow men presents an enigma which precludes the possibility of the final judgment being with us.

What a marvelous reminder of our human weakness and limitations. The "enigma" precludes the possibility of final judgment residing with us.

Sc122-026 Chambers is again insightful when he says:

We pronounce judgments, not by our character or our goodness, but by the intolerant ban of finality in our views, which awakens resentment and has none of the Spirit of Jesus in it. Jesus never judged like that. It was His presence, His inherent holiness that judged. Whenever we see Him we are judged instantly. We have to practice the presence of Jesus and work on the basis of his disposition. When we have experienced the unfathomable forgiveness of God for all our wrong, we must exhibit that same forgiveness to others.

I wish I had a dollar for all the times that I allowed my views to lead me to embrace "an intolerant ban of finality in [my] views." Chambers' ideas here are quite powerful. He says the "presence" of Jesus was judgment in itself. If my life was holy, in the best and fullest sense, then my words would not be needed to judge most situations. My life would raise all the right questions if I lived as I should.

I think the most common form of judging that I have experienced, and this is why I write about this so often in these blogs, is the judgment Christians feel they must exercise toward fellow Christians because they do not believe the "gospel" in just the way we do. Catholics do it when they say Christ is found only in the Catholic Church and its sacraments. Protestants do it when they insist that Rome teaches a false gospel and thus Catholics are all condemned by Galatians 1 for preaching a "false gospel." This very fruitless exercise harms the work of Christ profoundly and grieves the Holy Spirit. Oswald Chambers is helpful when he concludes:

Beware of mistaking suspicion for discernment; it is the biggest misunderstanding that ever twisted Christian humility into Pharisaism.

In Oswald Chambers' study of the Sermon on the Mount he wrote:

The average Christian is the most penetratingly critical individual; there is nothing of the likeness of Jesus Christ about him. A critical temper is a contradiction to all our Lord's teaching. Jesus says of criticism, "Apply it to yourself, never to anyone else." "Why do you judge your brother? . . . for we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ."

And he says in Notes on Isaiah:

The danger is lest we make the little bit of truth we do know a pinnacle on which we set ourselves to judge everyone else. It is perilously easy to make our conception of God like molten lead and pour it into our specially designed mould and then when it is cold and hard, fling it at the heads of the religious people who don't agree with us.

This is precisely how I treated Catholics for many years. I read a great deal of polemical argumentation about what was wrong with Catholic teaching and Catholic teachers. I stereotypically used the bits and pieces I collected to pour this into my designed mould. Then when these views hardened I had something to fling against other Christians. The problem here is really rather uncomplicated. First, I used teaching that I did not agree with out of misunderstanding and fear. Second, I then mixed this into a mold that made me feel like I was in the right and they were in the wrong. Then it is only a baby step to judging wrongly.

The number one mistake I encounter among evangelicals who judge Catholics to be non-Christians is in how they take a piece of theological debate, or of historical conflict, and then use it as the "right understanding" of the Catholic position. The most egregious example of this is quite common. Catholics teach that we are saved by our human works so they preach a false gospel. This statement is patently false but most who use it never bother to find out why. It is just much easier to hold on to our specially designed mould and keep throwing things around the room.