Judging // Discerning
It seems to me that it has become increasingly difficult to speak into many issues or situations that the church faces today; not because the Bible is silent, not because the church doesn’t have or hasn’t held a historical position on a matter, and not because we, as Christians, don’t know what we ought to be doing. Rather, we are feeling pressed into silence, in many instances, simply on the basis of one little verse found at the beginning of Matthew 7; “Judge not, that you be not judged“.
This verse, plucked from Matthew’s gospel, thrown around ad voluntatem by Christians and non-Christians alike, and often applied wildly out of context, is causing widespread paralysis for many Christians and indeed the church, preventing us from being able to affirm and proclaim the reality that Christian life calls us to.
Afraid of being labeled ‘judgy, ‘divisive’, or ‘self-righteous’, we’re clamming up about things we really should be vocal about, choosing silence over sincerity. We’re focused on preaching love and acceptance (both good things, by the way), but we’re failing to qualify how and what that looks like in a Christian context.
Not only does there seem to be a growing degree of confusion about the difference between ‘judging’, particularly in the context of Matthew 7, and ‘discerning’ for the individual Christian, there also seems to be some confusion about the church’s responsibility and role in all this.
Perhaps embarrassed by our failures and our unchristian treatment of both believers and unbelievers in the past, we’re now collectively overcompensating by saying nothing at all, reducing the church’s critical witness of the name of Jesus, in many instances, to a ‘cloud with no rain’.
Many times, the church actually looks no different on the inside to the way people are living on the outside, as if coming to Christ changed nothing at all.
The Christian Ideal
Christians are called to a life of holiness, of renewal and transformation; becoming part of the new creation found in Christ. Christians are those who have accepted the call out of the dominion of darkness, with all its pointless chaos and unfruitful works of darkness, into kingdom life; and the acknowledgment that living God’s way, according to His plan and purposes for humanity, is good for us and glorifying to Him.
“You can’t read the New Testament without seeing the call to holiness in the Christian life. But that holiness is a work of God’s grace as the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to live a life pleasing to God. New Testament holiness is a joyous privilege not a heavy burden and duty. New Testament holiness enhances life, it never diminishes it.” | Lance Ralston
God’s way is the benchmark for Christian living, the way we should aspire to, the truth we ought to affirm. It’s referred to often in scripture as walking in the light, walking with God, or walking in the way and I talk more about this in my article ‘Walking With God‘.
The caveat to this is, of course, that we are not there yet. The Christian life is a journey, not an instant transformation. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Sanctification, the ‘being saved’ part, means we are all a constant work in progress, being renewed and conformed daily into the image of Christ.
What this means, in real terms, is that we will still mess up, sometimes in big ways. These lapses in our Christian walk are stumbles off the path leading us home, deviations from the good way that God has intended for us to live.
While these failures can often be hard to move past, it’s important to recognise that they don’t need to define us, at least not in a negative way.
We are not that terrible decision we made five years ago, five months ago, or five days ago. We are more than simply the sum of our mistakes. I talk more about this in my article ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow‘.
The joy of Christian life is that sin no longer has the same hold over us as before. We belong to Jesus and his blood cleanses us from all sin. In him, we can find forgiveness and find it many times over.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul the Apostle wants us to comprehend the reality that we are no longer in this battle on our own. He says, “May you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.” (Ephesians 3:18, NLT). God is with us in this fight, empowering us daily through His Spirit and washing us clean in the blood of the lamb.
What may seem impossible to us is made possible by the love of Christ.
It feels difficult to write this article without coming off as intolerant, self-righteous, or bigoted. Any time one states a definite opinion on a matter as if that position is the right one, one risks sounding dogmatic and judgmental and I acknowledge it may be no different in this case.
I think our post-modern society has further exaggerated this reality. Our 21st-century culture posits the idea that truth is not absolute and universal (as was once accepted), but rather that our truth is truth, even though that truth may be merely subjective and based on or influenced by our own personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
Conversely, our neighbour’s truth, based on or influenced by their personal feelings, tastes, or opinions is also just as true, irrespective of the reality that our two truths may be diametrically opposed to one another.
It’s often no longer acceptable to hold to and defend certain views as anything more than being subjectively true, particularly in religious or moral matters.
The Bible cuts through this subjective narrative and states that truth is objective, rooted in the person and character of God Himself. Whatever we hold to be true to the Christian faith has its roots in God (or should, at least), who has been revealed to us in His Word, and which is sufficient to inform our Christian way of life and ethics.
“Every scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.” (2 Timothy 3:16, DR). This is what is meant by sola scriptura – that the Bible is the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice.
As Christians, we believe that biblical truth is not our truth and therefore merely subjective, it is God’s truth. We hold to the reality that God’s truth was demonstrated in Jesus for all humanity to see; and we acknowledge his supremacy and authority over our lives. In doing so we affirm that living God’s way is right and true and good.
The question is, what do we do, individually and collectively, when Christian life doesn’t look as it should, where there is disregard or apathy toward living God’s way, or where it seems that sin is being trivialised, tolerated, or overlooked?
What does the gospel of Matthew mean when it says ‘judge not’? Is an individual’s responsibility different from that of the collective body, the church? Is it being too judgey to talk about sin?
And how does the church protect the name of Jesus, displaying the glory of God to the nations, in practice?
Judging Or Discerning?
I want to make the distinction between discerning and proclaiming what God’s way is, and judging someone’s eternal reality.
Long ago, God intended to use the church as an example of His incredible wealth and grace towards humanity and His intention and plan to bring everything together under Christ, for His own glory. She is imperfect and yet magnificent because the living God is the source of her existence and empowerment. As individuals and collectively, as the church, it is our mandate to preach God’s good news to the world and to live as if we believe it to be true.
Paul the Apostle puts it this way: “Live no longer as the Gentiles do…for they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against Him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasures and eagerly practice every kind of impurity…Put on your new nature, created to be like God-truly righteous and holy.” (Ephesians 4:17-24, NLT)
He goes on to give several examples of what ‘being like God looks like‘: no longer lying, no longer using foul language, no longer stealing, no longer engaging in sexual immorality, or being selfish or greedy (amongst other things). He states, ‘with the Lord’s authority’ (v17), that those things are not of God, are not life-giving, and ought not to be pursued by a person professing to be a Christian.
Discerning God’s way of living (‘carefully determining what pleases the Lord‘ (Ephesians 5:10)), which is intended to be lifegiving and good for humanity, is a vitally important element of our Christian discipleship, and, collectively, as a witness to the watching world.
Moral truth exists, vested in the person and character of God Himself, and Christians ought to be preaching and pursuing it with all their hearts, both individually and collectively. To do otherwise is to reject the authority and supremacy of God over our lives.
Yet, we don’t get it right a lot of the time. Sin no longer has the same hold over us as before, but we still give it plenty of opportunities to gain a foothold in our life.
And too often, we, as individuals, look sideways at our Christian family and privately (or publicly) make bold pronouncements about their eternal salvation based on past failures or current struggles. We judge them harshly and with finality in the secret recesses of our hearts, by standards that we would buckle under ourselves.
We say to ourselves, ‘they may have found forgiveness with God (though we highly doubt it) but they will never find forgiveness with us or in our church, no matter their repentant heart or confession of failure’.
Matthew warns us about taking such a harsh position of judgment against our Christian brothers and sisters, for with the same inflexible judgment we exact we risk being judged ourselves. If we truly believe and accept the grace God has shown to us, this same grace needed to be demonstrated by a life oriented towards forgiveness to others. I talk more about the implementation of grace in my article ‘The White Flag Of Grace‘ and the necessity of forgiveness in my article ‘Forgiveness Is A Tough Gig‘.
We need to hold in careful tension the critical reality of the eternal consequences of not living God’s way, of choosing a way that is not life-giving, resolutely naming sin and the need for repentance, alongside the reality that Christians still mess up and that forgiveness is always possible with God and should be practiced between individuals and within the church.
(In saying that, there are often consequences that flow from our actions which may negatively impact our life moving forward, particularly in relation to our ministry or relationships in the church. These consequences are often complex, requiring wise pastoral care and support to work through.)
We are not to judge one another’s eternal salvation based on past or present struggles but neither are we to overlook our calling to holiness and the orienting of our lives toward God.
What Is The Church’s Responsibility?
The Apostle Paul dealt with some real doozy situations in his letters. Take, for example, the situation in the church in Corinth; a case of sexual immorality not even heard of among ‘pagans’ (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). A believer in the church was boldly and proudly ‘living in sin’ with his stepmother, or, as some translations have it, his father’s wife.
Paul is horrified at such a situation and tells the church that, collectively, they ought to be in mourning in sorrow and shame. Such things ought not to be even named among the people of God, let alone practiced (Ephesians 5:3).
The letter to the Corinthians is a very confronting letter, in many respects. Paul leaves no room for doubt as to what he thinks about the situation and what the church must do. He (shockingly) tells them that they must remove the man from their fellowship. “You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”
He continues, “In my other letter, I told you not to have anything to do with immoral people. But I wasn’t talking about the people of this world. You would have to leave this world to get away from everyone who is immoral or greedy or who cheats or worships idols. I was talking about your own people who are immoral or greedy or worship idols or curse others or get drunk or cheat. Don’t even eat with them! Why should I judge outsiders? Aren’t we supposed to judge only church members? God judges everyone else. The Scriptures say, “Chase away any of your own people who are evil.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-9)
It’s very clear, the church is not to sit in judgment of the world, that’s God’s prerogative. But we are to collectively judge the conduct and witness of the church to which we belong (essentially, the whole body is responsible for judging the whole body) and leave no space for evil to grow, unchecked. For those Christians who are unrepentant and proudly indulging in sin, the church isn’t even to eat with such people (1 Corinthians 5:11).
(It’s important to note here that one church is not at liberty to sit in judgment of another. A local church has oversight over its own members, not over another church. The authority to remove a lampstand of Jesus or determine whether a lampstand should be removed from its place of influence belongs to the King alone (Revelation 2:5). No person or group should dare presume such authority over Jesus’ church and its local expressions.)
Yet the church can sometimes be too hasty in pronouncing judgment. Paul clearly differentiates in other places in scripture between those Christians who are indulging in sin (1 Corinthians 5:9) and those who find themselves caught in transgression (Galatians 6:1). His pastoral advice regarding the response to each is different, despite both being issues of ‘sin’. An important element of church discipline is to sensitively and accurately establish the nature of a situation, before deciding how the church ought to proceed.
First and foremost, we are ambassadors of the great ministry of reconciliation; of pointing to the work of Christ, and our great need for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.
We are part of God’s great mission of restoration and redemption and this reality should be at the forefront of any response to sin in the church.
The church has a responsibility to make sure that we are accurately representing Jesus to the world; preaching the necessary call to holiness of the Christian life whilst acknowledging we are not yet made perfect and we still mess up.
We ought to seek first, on every occasion and at every opportunity, to restore a person who has wandered away from truth. We pray for them and with them, we remind them of the realities of the gospel, of the forgiveness found in Jesus, and of the healing warmth of God’s light.
We love them, we accept their struggle with sin as something common to us all, and yet we encourage them not to shrink back from Christ in shame but rather to turn to him anew in humble confession and repentance.
One of the most powerful and eternally significant things a church can do is to rescue one who has fallen into sin. “My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.” (James 5:19-20)
Discipleship within the local church means that each member acknowledges they are part of the body, a body that collectively has the authority to declare who belongs to Jesus and the responsibility of teaching, caring for, correcting, loving, and disciplining its members.
The church, therefore, affirms a person’s profession of faith in Jesus and gives oversight to that individual’s discipleship, and, in turn, the individual submits his or her discipleship to the care and oversight of the church and commits themselves in service to the building up of the church. It’s a symbiotic-esque relationship referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 as ‘one another-ing‘.
Unfortunately, as the case in the church at Corinth demonstrates, there will be some who are completely unrepentant, who ‘make a practice of sinning‘ (1 John 5:18), and who reject the pursuit of holiness that Christians are called to. These people “are ungodly men and women, saying that God’s marvellous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1:4)
An individual Christian is not responsible for overseeing another Christian’s membership in the body of Christ, but the church, made up of all its members is. It’s how the church protects the name of Jesus.
“Church discipline, then, is fundamentally about love. The Lord disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12:6). The same is true for his church. Love in the Bible is holy. It makes demands. It yields obedience. It doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6) | Jonathan Leeman
“But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good – crucified. Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” | Galatians 5:22-25 MSG