Sunday, April 15, 2018

On the Mount (26)

“Quit judging me,” squeaks the millennial blogger, her nose out of joint because someone dares to offer hard data demonstrating that her bloviations in no way reflect reality.

“How dare you judge me!” shouts the young homosexual, incensed that his parents have regretfully informed him they cannot in good conscience attend his ‘wedding’.

Of all the commands Jesus ever gave his disciples, “Judge not” is one of the most comprehensively misunderstood and poorest explained.

The Vocabulary of Political Correctness

In our own age, when we read the words “pass judgment”, we associate them primarily with the expression of opinions, or even the private holding of opinions. This is the vocabulary of political correctness, in which the vaguely-specified personal convictions of others allegedly cause “microaggressions”, “triggering” and hurt feelings. It is not enough that we avoid verbalizing ideas thought to be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise inflammatory; the Left wants to invade the thought lives of the Western world and proscribe certain attitudes entirely.

The goal, it seems, is to achieve a social state in which we are effectively shamed out of shaming. Progressives would have us shed not only the habit of publicly condemning certain behaviors, but the habit of thinking critically at all.

They would forbid discernment.

Take the Log Out

I don’t think that is the sort of judgment the Lord was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what he actually said on the subject:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
If you read past the first sentence, it is evident the Lord is not disparaging the exercise of human judgment and insisting his followers abandon all standards. Rather, he is advocating the adoption of a correct standard with which his followers behave consistently. Both elements are necessary.

The Case of Eli

Eli the priest was not a blasphemer, and he did not steal the best of the people’s sacrifices or take offerings for himself by force as his sons did, but he was condemned for failing to enforce God’s standard within his family — in effect, for failing to judge:
“I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
Eli was an old man, and his sons were surely no longer under his roof, but as God’s priest, he was responsible to set a standard and ensure it was followed. If the measure you use is a godly measure, and your behavior consistent with it, there is no reason to fear that standard being applied to you. It would seem odd for the same God who judged Eli for his failure to judge to set aside the practice of judgment entirely.

Eye Surgery Expertly Performed

Thus the Lord finishes with, “Then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” The proper response is not to walk away and leave your brother with a speck in his eye; rather, it is to ensure that if you are going to perform eye surgery, you are qualified to recognize vision impediments because your own eyes are clear of them.

We know this is the correct interpretation, because the Lord later tells the Pharisees, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” Not “Stop judging entirely,” but “Do the job right.”

How then did the Lord’s followers in the first century understand and expand upon this teaching with the Holy Spirit’s guidance? If we read Paul’s nearly 2,000 year-old question, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” in the light of the popular usage of the word “judgment”, we will make nonsense of Romans 14. Discernment is demonstrably not what Paul is condemning in that chapter.

Fully Convinced in His Own Mind

Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself”. That’s an opinion, and one he continues to hold. And he expects others to hold opinions too, including those contrary to his, for he goes on to say, “It is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (though he himself disagrees with the thought processes of the weaker brother).

Further, Paul makes it clear that coming to conclusions about what God requires in every area of life is absolutely necessary even though we may do so imperfectly. Remaining in doubt is a recipe for trouble. We cannot do without personal opinions, though they ought to be based on the word of God:
“But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Earlier, he says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”.

Judgment in Action

So having and retaining opinions — even incorrect ones caused by flawed interpretation or limited understanding — is not the problem addressed in Romans. The problem is what sorts of things we might DO because of these differences of opinion. To Paul, judging is an ACTION, not merely a thought process.

So what sorts of actions is Paul condemning then?

1.  QUARRELING

Paul starts with “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions”. Disputable matters such as what a Christian may eat or drink are not the primary focus of the church of God. About such issues we are to have our views and be able to back them up, but they are not to damage our testimony in the world or take up time better used for fellowship, worship and the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

This does not forbid the discussion of such issues, for otherwise there would be areas of Christian experience in which we could never learn or grow. It does, however, exclude acrimonious or bitter arguments among believers over subjects that are not worth the heat.

2.  DESPISING

Verse 3 implies an equivalency between “passing judgment” and “despising” others. “Despise” here is exoutheneĊ in the Greek, variously translated “condemn”, “belittle”, “regard with contempt”, “criticize” or “find fault”. All these translations suggest that the danger here is not that we might hold different opinions or discuss them theoretically, but that we might treat our fellow Christians as inferiors because of their opinions.

Such behaviors work against the “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”, which Paul says are the substance of the kingdom of God.

3.  EXCLUDING

Paul doesn’t get into the dangers of excluding or refusing to meet with other believers in Romans, but when we understand the historical context of his words here, we cannot avoid thinking of the cultural snobbishness of Judaism. This wrong sense of God-sanctioned superiority among Jews must surely have given rise to many, if not all, the problems Paul is here addressing.

Such judgments involved refusing to publicly greet those considered inferior. Such judgments involved calling them names, such as “unclean”, “dogs” and “uncircumcision”. Such judgments involved having no dealings at all with those being shunned, including association of any sort or even visiting them.

(Now there is, of course, a sort of “excluding” and “judgment” we are commanded to exercise for the good of a sinning believer. That is not the sort of presumptuous excluding condemned by the Lord. The safeguard provided in 1 Corinthians is that the members of the church gather together agreed about what is to be done, and with the goal of restoration in view. There is nothing supercilious, snobbish or random about that sort of judgment; my observation is that it is very difficult indeed. We should be concerned if judgment comes too easily.)

The Greater Danger

In summary, it is this sort of “passing judgment” — the kind that argues bitterly over comparatively trivial matters, despises as inferior those for whom Christ died and potentially even excludes them from fellowship — that Paul is condemning as inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ.

This, I think, is the sort of judgment the Lord condemned that day on the mount, and it’s the sort of judgment few Christians genuinely engage in today. There are indeed pockets of exclusivism to be found within Christendom, but the greater danger by far today is that we end up failing in the opposite direction — by exercising no judgment at all.

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