“Do not judge…”

“Who are we to judge?”

It’s one of those argument ending killer phrases isn’t it?  Usually the phrase is then followed up by two other phrases.

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.”[1]

“let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”[2]

The deployment of these phrases are designed to stop any further questioning of someone’s actions. You have probably seen them in recent days and weeks whenever someone in public life has seemed to mess up (most recently during the debate about whether or not Dominic Cummings was in the right or wrong.”

However, here are a couple of other phrases we don’t tend to hear so much:

“Take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbidon earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit[g] on earth will be permitted in heaven.”[3]

“I have already passed judgment on this man”[4]

“ Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you.”[5]

“2 Don’t you realize that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide even these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life.”[6]

The reality is that we are consistently making judgements in life. Back in December, we in the UK were asked to make a judgement call about which party we wanted to run the country and in 5 years we will be asked to make a judgement call again about who we want to be Prime Minister. Similarly, voters in the US will give their verdict on Donald Trump’s first term in office in November.

Employers are asked to make judgements about whether or not to employ people and then whether or not wrong behaviour has happened and warrants dismissal. At any moment, you may be called to sit on a jury and make a decision about somebody’s guilt or innocence. Parent’s make judgements about whether or not their children have done wrong.  Teachers decide whether or not to give behaviour points or call students in for detention. Whenever you get a phone call from someone offering to delete viruses from your computer or knock on your door with a quote for double glazing, you make an instant judgement on whether or not they are trustworthy.

Those judgements ask us to decide things about people, their character and their actions. Some judgements seem fairly trivial and are quickly forgotten. Other judgements have a deep and lasting effect. Your friend tells you that they are getting divorced because their husband has been a serial adulterer. It is not enough to simply say that you won’t judge on the situation, they are looking for your support, they are looking to see if they are believed. Remember that this is someone who has been treated as naïve and no doubt gaslighted every time they raised suspicions about his behaviour. Someone in church comes forward to say that a person in authority has been abusing that authority by abusing them.  You stand back and say “I do not judge.” At that point, you further crush them. You tell them that no-one will ever defend them and that their abuser will always be allowed to exercise control over their life. You remove hope.

Specifically in church life, we have to make judgements all the time about whether or not people are genuine, if a bit mislead believers or whether they are wolves come in to attack the flock. Elders are specifically charged with this responsibility but we all have a responsibility to stay alert.

Failure to exercise judgement is in fact dangerous, and in some of those examples above, a failure to love.

So, what does Jesus mean when he says “Do not judge” and “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”  There are two risks for us here. The first is that we fail to reconcile these texts with the ones about judgement and so we end up with contradiction. The other is to so water down the texts that they lose their meaning altogether.

Here are some thoughts.  First of all, we need to look at specific contexts and what people have responsibility for. Here’s some further words from Paul’s call on believers to exercise judgement.

“12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. 13 God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.”[7]

Paul is saying that the church is responsible for making judgements and in effect passing sentence for believers. You cannot choose to stop going to work with people who are in sin, you should not cut yourself off from your neighbour and stop being a witness to them because you disagree with their sinful behaviour. However, you can and should take action as a church when false teaching or public and persistent sin puts the church at risk.

And of course, there are going to be people in public positions who become Christians, some of them through Paul’s own ministry so he will not be asking Christian magistrates to stop pronouncing judgement. However, we need to be clear about the source and nature of authority that we have been given for a situation.  To take the recent example of Dominic Cummings, we as voters will have to one day make a judgement call on whether or not to give the government another term in office. We will look back on all sorts of things, their economic policy, how well they did at implementing Brexit, whether or not we think Brexit should have gone ahead or been reversed, their handling of this present crisis and any other crisis that comes up etc. We will also be looking at the moral character of the government. 

What I cannot do is make a judgement on the eternal future of someone based on my assessment of their behaviour. I cannot decide that they are unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness. They will give an account to God of their life one day. It is not for me to withhold the gracious offer of the Gospel from them because I think they are unworthy of it. It is not for me to decide that someone is of lesser value and therefore unworthy of the rights and dignity that are afforded to other people (like for example not having to worry that when they arrive home or go out in the morning, they and their family will have to run the gauntlet of frightening, abusive protest).

Further, I am making my judgements here as an individual citizen but as a citizen who is a Christian. However, what we do not have, in my opinion, is the kind of authority that the Church of England Bishops seemed to claim the other day to decide that we have made a judgement on someone as a church, acting as a court of law in the absence of a verdict from the official courts and make judgement on that basis. Bishops should be prioritising behaviour within their own denomination and at a time when they have been under scrutiny for their failure to deal effectively with significant allegations of abusive behaviour, they may well do well to pay heed to Jesus’ words about being judged by the same standards.

So, when I see Jesus’ words I believe that they are telling me the following.

  1. It is not my place to condemn. Final judgement about a person’s eternal destiny belong to Christ alone. This is good news for me because I deserve judgement but receive forgiveness.
  2. I must first of all be alert to my own weaknesses and failings. I realise that I deserve condemnation and instead have been given grace. Therefore, in my dealings with others I should offer the same grace, love and forgiveness I have been offered.
  3. Therefore, my heart spirit and motives are essential. Do I think, speak and act out of a desire to see others protected, forgiven, reconciled, restored. Or is my concern for vengeance and to cause hurt?  Do I speak and act with humility or pride? Do I exercise a level of caution in my pronouncements recognising that I am not God and cannot see into the human heart?

[1] Matthew 7:1

[2] John 8:7

[3] Matthew 18:17-18

[4] Paul speaking, 1 Corinthians 5:3.

[5] 1 Corinthians 5:7

[6] 1 Corinthians 6:2-3.

[7] 1 Corinthians 5:12-13.

%d bloggers like this: