Whenever I write a blog on a controversial sexual issue, I typically hear from people who remind me that God says not to judge other people. Whether I’m teaching about pornography, Fifty Shades of Grey, living together outside of marriage, divorce or homosexuality, some people simply write off what I’ve said because they think I’m being judgmental. The “who are you to judge?” question has curtailed countless conversations (and even relationships). In fact, some pastors are nervous about teaching on sexuality because they don’t want the label “judgmental.”
Over the past few months, I’ve taken time to study what the Bible actually says about judging. I have learned a few things that help me discern when to stay silent and when it may be time to “speak the truth in love.” Although this isn’t an exhaustive study (what blog could ever be exhaustive?), it may help you to sort through what the Bible says about how we should engage in conversations that involve moral and ethical choices. Here are seven things to keep in mind:
1) Speaking the truth is not the same as judging.
I think this is perhaps the most important distinction to understand. If we interpret “do not judge” passages as keeping us from ever talking about God’s standards of right and wrong, we have a Christian church that would never confront greed, theft, selfishness, heresy, or even the sin of being judgmental. One of the primary purposes of the body of Christ is to proclaim His love and His truth to one another, so that we may be set apart as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”
Talking about God’s moral standards is not judgmental. Let’s look at an example we can all relate to. Let’s say your friend is driving you to the airport. She is going 85 in a 60 mph zone. If you were to say to her, “Just want to be sure you know that the speed limit is 60,” that may cause an awkward silence, but it would be perfectly understandable. That’s different than saying, “Um, you know you’re going 25 over the speed limit, don’t you? You’re speeding. You deserve a big fat ticket.” Can you see the difference between the two?
We should continually hold up God’s truth as a standard of living. The importance of teaching God’s Word is emphasized throughout both the Old and New Testament. Moses encouraged the nation of Israel to remember the Law of God, impressing it upon the hearts of our children, talking about it every day, in our homes and on the road (Duet. 6). Paul encouraged the Christian church and pastors to “teach God’s Word in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), to keep the pattern of “sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ (2 Timothy 1:13) and for each of us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). The writer of Hebrews says that the constant use of God’s Word will help us to discern right and wrong (Hebrews 5:14).
For you or me to say, “I believe the Bible teaches that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful” is very different than telling your gay neighbor, “You’re a sinner and you’re going to hell.” Teaching a moral standard from God’s Word is not the same as taking the liberty to judge people with that standard. Their choice to ignore or abide by God’s Word is between them and God.
2) We should not judge each other’s choices of “conscience” or personal opinions.
There are some things in the Christian life which are unclear (grey areas). This is the context of Romans 14 where Paul wrote, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Here, Paul is answering disputes the early church has on topics like whether one day is more sacred than another day and dietary restrictions. Paul says that these are not issues of morality (clearly defined guidelines for holy living) but are issues of conscience. We are to respect each other’s consciences in these grey areas. Issues like these for Christians today might include what you wear to church, whether or not you drink alcohol, and whether or not you use social media. The famous Olympian Eric Liddell was convicted that he would be sinning if he competed on a Sunday. Does this mean that every Christian NFL player is sinning in his job? No. This is an issue of conviction and conscience, not clearly an issue of morality in God’s Word.
Related to sexuality, I may have a conviction about a grey area. For example, it may be my conviction that a couple shouldn’t kiss until they get engaged. I should never hold anyone else to my conviction or opinion. Some of the “no judging” passages relates to these types of situations.
3) We should never judge a person’s motives.
“Now it is required of those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in the darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (I Corinthians 4:2-5). While we can see a person’s behavior, we can never understand their motivations. Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind…” We are not in position to ever comment on someone’s heart before God. I may disagree strongly with someone’s sexual choices or their teaching on sexuality. While I may comment on points of disagreement, I am never in the position to pass judgement on that individual.
4) We cannot make an eternal judgement about anyone.
Jesus said, “Judge not and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” Jesus is teaching that none of us is above our brothers and sisters. We are all equal, needing grace and forgiveness. God is the judge that can both condemn our souls to hell and forgive us of our sins, granting us eternal life. Putting yourself in the place of judging someone else’s actions or salvation will result in a stricter judgement for you here on earth and before God. Someone else’s soul before God is none of my business and mine is none of theirs.
5) We should confront brothers in the spirit of love and humility.
Proverbs reminds us that the wounds of a friend are faithful and can be trusted. In fact, the wise person seeks a rebuke from a friend and looks for people who can bring loving correction. Our friendship and love for a person earns the position to speak truth to them. We must also remember that confronting a friend sometimes means that they will confront right back for your lack of empathy or perhaps for your part in a disagreement. Are you humble enough to receive feedback? If not, you are not ready to confront. We should never confront anyone with an arrogant, self-righteous attitude. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Jesus taught that we will judged by the same standard we judge others. This means that we should be careful in examining our own hearts and failures when tempted to “cast a stone” towards anyone else.
6) We should soberly remind each other of God’s judgement.
“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12-13). Part of our responsibility as loving each other is to remind each other of God’s holiness and coming judgement. While I won’t judge my brother or sister, I am a good friend to speak often of God’s discipline in my life and the truth that we will each stand before God one day. The author of Hebrews wrote, “The Lord will judge His people. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30). Paul encouraged the Christians in Philippi, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” (Philippians 2:12).
7) Christian leadership should apply discipline for those who wander from biblical teaching and behavior.
In the Western church, we don’t talk much about church discipline. It is usually pastors who are scrutinized by the congregation rather than leaders shepherding their flock. God has set up a “balance of power” in His Word. Teachers are accountable to elders (I Timothy 3:1-7), people are accountable to their spiritual leaders (I Timothy 5:17-25) and all are accountable to God (Ephesians 1:22). Christian leaders are charged with the task of taking care of those in their spiritual care; this includes discipline. Just as I lovingly discipline my children when their behavior is inappropriate or immoral, spiritual “parents” should gently discipline their “children” according to God’s standards of holy living. We see Paul’s instruction on how to do this in I Corinthians 5:1-13 when he challenged the church to confront a specific sexual sin.
Here is one more thought to consider. How we walk out these principles will differ depending upon if we are interacting with people who claim to be Christ followers and those who don’t. Paul specifically writes about this in I Corinthians 5:12. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” We shouldn’t be surprised when people who don’t know Jesus don’t live by His teaching, and we certainly are not going to draw people to salvation by judging their lifestyles. When interacting with unbelievers, we are to show kindness, mercy and grace, sharing with them the hope Jesus has given us (I Peter 3:15). The passages in Scripture that encourage us to “speak truth in love” refer primarily to how we confront sin among the body of Christ.
While I have just shared a lot of Bible verses with you, this is a very practical question that requires discernment in how we react to issues like homosexuality and cohabitation that have become hotly debated among Christians. Understanding biblical teaching on judgement also helps us know how to respond to greed, gossip, dishonesty, betrayal, and every other moral issue we face. God is very clear that He is the Judge. He knows the heart and motives of every person. Only He fully understands good and evil. Even at the heart of the choice to forgive someone who has hurt us, we are challenged to leave judgement to God.
Each of us will experience awkward moments of wondering how to respond to a friend or loved one who defends or embraces behavior the Bible calls sinful. We are familiar with how we remind each other of truth in many arenas of life. This should not be a mystery or stumbling block related to how Christians talk about sexuality.