Judging others is a controversial subject. Our culture dictates, judgmentally, that we are wrong to critique anything that is different from us. Individually, none of us like the feeling of being judged by other people in the church. And yet within the church, judging can feel like a defining characteristic at times.
There are more than a few preachers who seem to define their primary role as offering biblical critique of contemporary culture. They take their stand and rail against this or that issue, and believe that in doing so the church is being salt and light.
Perhaps we should see this as the church shooting itself in the foot. Salt and light are positive influences. But this kind of society critique preaching can feel more like acid and bleach.
Don’t get me wrong here, I believe there is a place for the church to influence society for good. Yet sometimes the judging tone from the pulpit and in conversation can feel like the complaints about food quality at a restaurant as the guests grumble to each other, but then when the waitress comes to check how things are, everyone smiles and mumbles nice words. Why complain to each other? For most of us, what is preached in our pulpit does not get reported on in the local press.
So what effect does our in-church moaning about society have on society? Nothing positive. Any visitors are not going to leave the church gripped by the amazing love that is transforming this community of Jesus followers. They are just going to leave with critique ringing in their ears.
It is like coming just inside the door as Jesus was receiving sinners and eating with them, but only hearing the complaints of the Pharisees about his terrible endorsement of societal ills. Jesus responded to these critiques with the parable of the prodigal son. The older brother was lost in his self-righteous rejection of relationship with the father. Yet some believers today seem intent on pressuring society to stop being so like the younger brother and become more like the older brother. The older brother may have never run away, but like the woman’s coin, he was lost right there at home.
Even if the critique of the sins of society were, bizarrely, published by the national press and everyone took the complaint onboard and there was a wholesale nationwide transformation in morality, where would that leave us? Exactly the same number of people would still be on the road to hell as before. And perhaps more people would feel self-righteous too! People are saved by the gospel, not by behavior modification.
Last week we had a discussion about this in our housegroup. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul explains that the believer’s role is not to judge those outside the church. At the same time, Matthew 18 talks about the lost sheep and clearly affirms the believer pursuing a fellow believer who is destructively drifting in sin. How do we put these things together?
1. If I am sinning, love me enough to pursue me. If appropriate please judge my sin and win me back to a close walk with Christ. That is one important way to love a fellow believer.
2. If I bring a colleague or neighbor to church who is overtly a sinner, love them enough not to make an issue out of their sin. I want them to be won by what they experience of the community of Jesus’ followers, not put off by your self-appointed judgment of their life decisions (they never agreed to be evaluated by your standards).
So love the believer and love the non-believer, but do so appropriately in each case. And what do I want the preacher to do?
3. Preach the gospel. Don’t offer a poor after dinner speech about what is wrong with society and how we need to get back to the good old days (because it was so much better when everyone acted like Christians in the past!?) Offer the gospel, that is what society needs.
There is more to explore here. For instance, when we “judge” fellow believers, how do we make sure we are loving them rather than legalizing them? How do we make sure we get planks out of our eyes before engaging with the specks in other peoples’ eyes? And how do we keep a gospel tone in any efforts we choose to make to influence society for good?
Love seems to be the overriding need here. Loving the lost enough to not critique their life choices, but offering them hope in the gospel to win their hearts. Loving each other enough to be alert to sinful drift and lovingly winning each other back to Christ with a gospel-saturated pursuit.
When we let go of love in our pursuit of influence, both inside and outside the church, and choose an alternative tool to try and get the job done, we will always go backwards.