What would congregational life look like if our commitment to Christ and to one another were strong enough that we could gracefully challenge difficult behavior without fearing that people would leave the church?
You don’t have to be involved in a congregation very long before you’ll hear the phrase “It’s not my place to judge.” When people say this, they are likely remembering Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
And yet, we are aware of times when sisters and brothers say or do things that are hurtful to others or make choices that seem out of character with their faith commitment. Situations like these present a difficult challenge: Do we avoid the issue by remaining silent, or do we find a way to engage our sister or brother, recognizing that times of spiritual difficulty can be opportunities to put our faith into practice?
To help consider these questions, take a moment and read Matthew 7:1-5 and 18:15-20.
‘We are not to be hateful . . .’
Matthew 7:1 is quite clear: it is not our place to judge. Looking closely at the Greek word translated “judge” makes this point even clearer: “to judge” means “to distinguish, give preference . . . to speak or think ill of, to decide.” Unhelpful, prejudicial attitudes are not to be found in our lives because we really aren’t very consistent or fair when it comes to judging someone’s actions. Even within our own congregations, how many times have we found ourselves giving people we’re close to the benefit of the doubt, while presuming the worst about those we don’t like?
What makes judging an even more serious issue is our tendency to place people into groups based on personal characteristics such as family, racial, ethnic, or socio-economic group and then evaluate them based on our generalized perception of that group instead of the facts of the situation. Duke Divinity School professor Christena Cleveland writes that “simply putting people into groups increases the likelihood that [we] will focus on the specific factor that divides [us] and disregard the more significant factors that unite [us]” (Disunity in Christ, 48).
We are much more likely to judge people harshly if we have labeled them as “other.”
This tendency is ultimately a denial of the very grace that God offers to each of us. In his book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Oswald Chambers says of this verse: “Which of us would dare stand before God and say, ‘My God, judge me as I have judged other people’? We have judged others as sinners; if God had judged us like that we would be in hell. God judges us through the marvelous atonement of Jesus Christ” (79).
But all of this is only part of the answer to the initial questions posed above. Are Christians to remain silent in the face of another person’s harmful behavior or actions? A closer consideration of our two scripture texts suggests the answer is “no.”
‘. . . but we are to be helpful’
One of the assumptions of Matthew 7:1-5 is that we are in fact aware of attitudes and actions within the church family that seem inconsistent with Christian behavior. All of us do things that are hurtful, questionable, or even stupid. How are we to repair the hurt that comes because of our continual struggle with sin?
I believe we misinterpret this passage because we stop with verses 1-2 and don’t wrestle with what follows in verses 3-5. As he often does, Jesus uses a common metaphor to explain a spiritual concept. Being a woodworker myself, it is easy for me to imagine that Jesus knew a thing or two about having a particularly stubborn speck of dust in his eye. Sometimes these situations require help from another person—but not from someone who can’t see clearly because of what is in their own eye!
Reconciling harmful situations requires self-examination and repentance, practices that are a fundamental part of our life together and assume a certain level of involvement with one another. The giving and receiving of forgiveness is not something that only flows from God to us; it is something that should also flow between members of the congregation. Knowing our tendency to judge persons we perceive to be “different” more harshly ought to be a motivation to build deeper relationships in the body of Christ, not retreat into silence when there are obvious problems.
Jesus’ oft-quoted (but perhaps under-practiced) instructions on conflict resolution from Matthew 18:15-20 remind us that it is possible to both name hurtful behavior and experience forgiveness, so long as our attitude is focused on bringing estranged people back into relationship. Pointing out the fault to another person is not by itself judgmental, even when it rises to the level of telling it to the church.
But it is fair to expect that those pointing out the fault in another are willing to make sure their own spiritual lives are in order. Mennonite scholar Myron Augsburger says it this way: “The refusal to be judgmental does not mean a refusal to be helpful. But helping one’s brother at his point of need must be done with a spirit of grace and understanding” (The Communicator’s Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 96).
In situations where we see the negative impacts of someone’s attitudes or behavior, we might consider asking, “What do we do with the pain this situation is causing?” Matthew 7:1-5 assumes that we see a situation that at least appears to point to a problem but calls us to not be judgmental. Matthew 18:15-20 calls us to name sin in direct confrontation.
How do we balance these two instructions from Jesus? Do we say nothing, and leave the pain for someone else to carry? Or might it be that our relationships—at least those within our congregation—are strong enough that the inevitable occasions of spiritual difficulty become opportunities to put our faith into practice in ways that heal pain, reconcile relationships, encourage spiritual maturity, and bring glory to God?
To learn more
- Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, by Christena Cleveland (IVP Books). A careful study of the divisions that happen when our labels for one another become more important than our identity in Christ.
- Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, by Oswald Chambers (Discovery House). A careful biblical and devotional study on Matthew chapters 5-7, derived from lessons first delivered in 1907.
- To Judge or Not To Judge, by Tim Harvey (Brethren Press). An monograph on Matthew 7:1-5 and the New Testament idea of admonishment, and how these might work in our lives today.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.