On Being Judgmental

Is every act of discerning the honesty, integrity, or wisdom of a man’s words, actions, or character necessarily “judgmental?”

In Matthew 12:33-34 Jesus declared, “The tree is known by its fruit,” and turning to the Pharisees, He accused them, saying “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Was Jesus being judgmental, or was He rightly discerning—and pointing out—that the actions and words of the Pharisees stood at odds with their professed beliefs?

When James, the brother of the Lord, compared and contrasted true faith with so-called faith, he argued in James 2:17, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Was James being judgmental by pointing out the inconsistency between the stated beliefs and outward actions of those whose lives denied their supposed faith? Or was he rightly discerning—and revealing—hypocrisy?

Those who view any act of discerning between true and false, right and wrong, or wise and foolish as “judgmental” seem to believe that every act of discernment is necessarily fueled by self-righteous moral superiority. Yet neither Jesus nor James spoke out of a sinful self-righteousness or from a desire to harm the people to whom they spoke. They spoke the truth in love, which included revealing inconsistencies in the words, actions, or character of others in reference to their stated beliefs. Their stated beliefs. That is an important point.

If a man claims no affiliation to Christ, making no contention that Jesus has transformed his heart and purchased his affections, and if I insist on evaluating him according to the standards of Christian morality, then I am indeed judgmental, for I am holding the man accountable to meet a standard of conduct to which he never has committed himself. But if a man professes Christ, while at the same time his words, actions, and character deny Him, then he ought to be told that his life is failing to validate his stated faith, and that the picture he is presenting to a watching world is hypocritical. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 Paul reprimanded the believers at Corinth, writing,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.

American society will tell Christians that we cannot judge, by which it means that no person should make any discernment between true and false, right and wrong, or moral and immoral, and that if I dare to do so then I am “judgmental,” or even bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, or any number of other unflattering epithets. Evidently, the only allowable judgment is that there shall be no judgment.

Do not believe such inanity. Discernment is appropriate to Christians; it is, in fact, necessary. We must speak truth out of love. Like Paul, we have no business judging those outside the Church, for if I hold a man accountable to the standards of the Christian faith when he professes no such faith, then I am truly judgmental. Nor ought I to point out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of my brothers and sisters in Christ out of a desire to wound them or from a sense of self-righteousness. Nevertheless, biblical discernment, springing from love and from a desire to see Christians honor Jesus through our words, actions, and character, is not merely acceptable; it is good.

Though not every act of discernment is therefore judgmental, is the Church acquitted of all charges? Hardly. Christians have often failed rightly to demonstrate the distinction between that which is discerning and that which is judgmental. Too often our “discernment” has been aimed at our culture, at those who stand outside the Church, and at those whom we believe are immoral. We have been quick to point out such immorality, as though the Church must morally police the world, while our judgments have carried a tone of self-righteousness, and we have too often spoken without love. At the same time, the moral laxity that pervades so many of our Churches testifies against us that we have not been faithful to turn our discernment inward—where it belongs—in order to promote and preserve holiness within the walls of our Churches.

Christians must hold accountable all who profess faith in Christ, and it is not judgmental to do so. It is biblical. As for those outside the Church, “God judges those outside.”

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