As a pastor, it will not surprise you that Christians argue even over Christmas.
Is a Christmas tree acceptable, or is it a pagan symbol? Would it be wrong to put a Christmas tree on your worship platform? Should we give gifts, or is that giving into consumerism?
Can’t we just all get along? Tolerate each other?
We face two opposite dangers:
- The hesitation to judge anything at all
- The delight in judging, condemning people left and right
How can we avoid both the cowardly hesitation to judge and the dark delight in judging?
What is tolerance?
Our culture has taught us that to say another person is wrong is itself evil. Our highest social virtue is tolerance. And our greatest vice is intolerance.
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, tolerance means “to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect other’s beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked.”
Tolerance, then, involves allowing a conduct or point of view you think is wrong while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we can’t tolerate others unless we disagree with them. We don’t tolerate people who share our views. Instead, tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong, which means we must judge them to tolerate them.
This essential element of tolerance—disagreement—has been completely lost in the modern distortion of the concept. Nowadays, if you think someone is wrong, you’re called intolerant. Tolerance means embracing their view.
This presents us with a curious problem.
Judging someone as wrong makes one intolerant, yet one must first think another is wrong to be tolerant.
Furthermore, if we never judge anything as true or false, good or evil, then we can make no moral distinctions: cannibalism becomes just another diet and terrorists become a different kind of patriotism.
On the other hand, we must confront the opposite danger of delighting in judging.
This is a common problem among pastors. It was one of Jesus’ major criticisms of the Pharisees. They condemned people who did not follow their religious rules. Today, some pastors do the same, such as condemning anyone who is divorced without bothering to hear their story and consider the circumstances.
What does the Bible say about judging others?
One of the most well-known Bible verses in America is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge.”
But when we really look at the Bible, it can be confusing.
- Judge correctly (John 7:24).
- Are you not to judge those inside? (1 Corinthians 5:12).
- The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things (1 Corinthians 2:15).
Do not judge
- Do not judge (Matthew 7:1).
- Who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12).
- Why do you judge your brother or sister? (Romans 14:10).
On the one hand, Jesus said to “Judge correctly.” And yet Jesus also said, “Do not judge.”
In Romans, Paul asks, “Why do you judge your brother?” And yet in 1 Corinthians he writes, “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things.”
At first glance, it looks like the Bible contradicts itself. Are we supposed to judge or not?
The dangers of judging others
Much of the confusion here can be resolved when the semantic range of the Greek word translated “judge” is understood. The word can mean “to separate, distinguish, discriminate between good and evil, select, choose out the good.”
However, it can also mean “to be judgmental, to condemn (judicially or otherwise).”
As in English, so also in Greek, the context must determine the precise shade of meaning. From the vivid illustration of the plank and the speck (Matthew 7:3), the context here argues that the verse means: do not be judgmental; do not adopt a critical spirit or a condemning attitude.
Jesus warned us against the ultimate tragedy of the hypocrite: self-deception.
We must avoid the two opposite dangers: a hesitation to judge and a delight in being judgmental. We do that by judging without being judgmental. Jesus was not telling us to be blind, but gracious. Typically, we love extremes. We like our world black and white, either to avoid judging entirely or to be wildly judgmental, condemning all we disagree with.
But the Bible calls us to wisdom.
The difference between wise and sinful judgment
Knowing that we should be gracious should not evacuate our judgment, nor should knowing that we should judge justify harsh condemnation.
What does wise judging look like in contrast with sinful judgmentalism?
- Wise judging distinguishes right from wrong; sinful judgmentalism condemns another person for what they think. Only God has the right to condemn. Our responsibility is to distinguish.
- Wise judging loves; sinful judgmentalism demeans. James said, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). We are to speak the truth in love, but not to demean another human being.
- Wise judging discriminates good from evil; sinful judgmentalism seeks to destroy another person. We are to be discriminating in our moral choices, including our choice of friends, but we are not to be destructive of others.
- Wise judging is biblical. Sinful judgmentalism is often prejudicial, based on opinion. The Pharisees judged others based on their external code of behavior. Jesus judged based on the word of God.
- Wise judging is humbly realizing we are off base ourselves in many ways, knowing our own huge need for God’s grace. Judgmentalism is hypocritical, self-righteously seeing oneself as superior to another person.
God does not want us to be undiscerning blobs who never under any circumstance make judgments about right and wrong. Are we to say nothing about Hitler, adultery, economic exploitation, laziness, or racism?
Nor does God want us to be judgmental hypocrites with a superior, “I’m better than you” attitude. With a full, humble recognition of our own guilt and fallibility, we use the critical faculties God has given us to make judgments based on his written revelation, the word of God.
This Christmas season, let’s judge without being judgmental.