My wife often says that people approach the Bible like a buffet: they sample some parts, ignore some parts, and gorge on some parts. A bit of this, a bit of that, and you end with Christianity-my-way.
One excellent example of buffet Christianity is the all-too-common American Christian judgmentalism with regard to sin. No matter the sin, you can find Christians who are overtly judgmental about it. The practice is not just at the fringes of our faith, either: it is all too common for Christian pastors, bloggers, and church members to judge those who sin. The fringes are at least honest about it: they say that God hates immorality, so they will too. Never mind that Christ was pretty clear on it--see here, here, and here for example. All things considered, the God-Man was pretty clear on the whole 'judging others' thing.
But a good portion of Christians are cleverer than the fringes of the faith. Yet they still want to skip the whole 'judgmentalism' table and just go ahead and feast on the Law part of the buffet. So the way they do it is by taking Matt 7:20 out of context.
Go ahead and google "Jesus on judging sin". Every article you will find will go with the same basic argument--in Matt 7:20, Jesus says that we will know people's hearts by examining the fruits of the spirit; therefore, it is okay for us to be judgmental about sin. We can "hate the sin and love the sinner" (as though such a thing were possible). They argue that those who are advocating not judging others are being weak on doctrine or tolerating immorality*. It is, they say, not what Jesus intended, as Mt 7:20 shows.
The problem, of course, is that this is the buffet table approach. They have chosen what they wanted, piled it high on their plates, and are hoping that you will ignore the stuff that they skipped.
A couple of things jump out of the text to me here.
1. Context is key.
I know, I know--I say that all the time. But everything in life is about context--ancient document interpretations even more so. Read the passage in its context. (Note that you will almost never hear someone advocating judging others who quotes the entire passage. It is always just the last sentence. How convenient for them, as the rest of the passage puts a totally different light on it.)
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."
--The Gospel According to Matthew, 7:15-20, ESV
Well, isn't that interesting? So the verse, in fact, has nothing at all to do with how we approach our brother's sinfulness. What Jesus is saying here is that we can tell if a person claiming to be a prophet is true or false based upon what kind of fruits his spirit bears.
Notice what Jesus did not say here. He did not say that this principle applies to all people. He did not say that you were allowed to judge people's sin, as long as you didn't judge them. He did not violate the principles of the Gospel that He and His apostles preached so fervently--that our works are not capable of bringing us good fruits. If you want to use His analogy above to apply to all Christian, then we are all bad trees! None of us bear good fruit--no, not one!
This passage's context is clear: God is telling us that we can look at those claiming to be prophets to determine if they are bearing good fruit. If not, they are trying to lead us astray. It has nothing whatsoever to do with a brother's sin.
What the judgmentalists are doing here (intentionally or not) is:
1. Taking a passage meant for one purpose (not being led astray by false teachers) and separating it from its context;
2. Applying it to situations where someone is committing a known sin; and
3. Elevating to such a high point that it is seen as superior to Jesus and the Apostles' clear, numerous commandments to the contrary.
2. Jesus was not an idiot. Neither were the Apostles.
So Jesus is at the side of the mountain, delivering His first major sermon to a huge crowd. This Sermon on the Mount would become the most famous philosophical treatise in the history of mankind.
He spent the first half of the sermon showing that we are all sinners inside, even if our outsides look good. In 7:1-6 He talked about how, as a result, we should not judge others. Ten sentences later, He talks about the tree's fruit.
So...did Jesus actually just change His mind there? Did He forget what He had just been talking about? Or contradict Himself just a few sentences later? And did nobody there notice--not the scribes and Pharisees trying to trick Him or catch Him in a false doctrine either? And Matthew and Luke didn't notice the contradiction/clarification when they wrote it down? And none of the early church fathers or other apostles noticed?
Of course not. Isn't it far simpler to agree that there was no contradiction at all? That Jesus did not say, "Don't judge others" and then, a few verses later, "Judge others by their fruits"? Shouldn't this clue everyone in to the fact that maybe verse 20 should not just be taken out of context? This further reinforces my point #1 above.
3. Even where Jesus intended us to use discernment, it was not on people's sin.
So we have established that Jesus did not intend for us to use His testing of prophets as an excuse to judge sin in fellow believers.
Now that we are all on the same page there, let us answer the next question--in the rare instance that we run across someone who might be a false prophet (Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen jump to mind) and we need to test them, how do we do it? What are the 'fruits' of a good tree? Obviously it is not apparent morality or external righteousness--Jesus just spent two chapters telling us such things were not of use for determining a person's moral status. So what should we use?
Well, Paul answered precisely that question in his letter to the Galatians. The spirit-filled life, He said, was a life which exhibited these characteristics, or fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Let us (very) briefly look at each, so that we can know what kind of fruits a prophet is supposed to be exhibiting:
* Love (agape): sacrificial, unconditional love - to love without expecting anything in return.
* Joy (chara): a different word than happiness. Joy comes from the root word 'charis', or grace: a divine pleasure and thrill in your salvation by God.
* Peace (eirene): tranquility in the soul which is unaffected by external circumstances--calmness in good times or in bad.
* Patience (makrothymia): calm endurance, lenience, bearing through long periods of suffering
* Kindness (chrestotes): benevolence, compassion, being considerate of others
* Goodness (agathosyne): being of good character, a desire for moral rightness in himself
* Faithfulness (pistis): loyalty to God and Christ, belief in them
* Gentleness (praotes): even-tempered, meek, mild-tempered
* Self-Control (egkrateia): being able to master your desires and passions
You see what is missing from Paul's list of the fruits of a holy life? Sinlessness. Or righteousness. Or being holy under the Law (or even part of the Law). Nor does he say that the Spirit filled life is clean from 'grave' sins.
So even in the rare instance that we are allowed to judge (i.e., to determine relevance of a prophet's standing), it is not regarding works, but character. Is he kind? Does he desire to better himself? Is he loyal to God? Is he mild of temper and patient with others? Does he remain peaceful during tough times, and have the ability to exhibit self-control? Does he love others?
Not at all the test that most people apply, when they judge others.
And lest you think that sinful acts violating God's Law fall under the heading of "self control" or "goodness", note what Paul says after he lists these fruits of the Spirit: "against these there is no Law." In other words, as Jesus showed us in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul showed us in Romans, the Law condemns us for all of our attempts at holiness, which fail miserably. However, these fruits of the spirit are the result of a spirit-filled life; they are not an attempt at being justified through holiness, but are rather a reflection of an already-justified (unholy) person.
So even in the very limited case where you are allowed to judge another, you are judging not their actions/works/righteousness, but whether they have the character and countenance of a spirit-filled believer.
Jesus was very clear that we are not to judge others. So were the Apostles. The early church fathers took these Scriptures so seriously that many of them even refused to let Christians serve as secular judges, lest even civil judgments be considered to violate Christ's commandment.
Do I really mean to say that Jesus intends us to overlook the sins of those around us? Even "important" sins, like homosexuality or fornication or adultery or murder or (apparently) dog-fighting? Yes, I do. We should overlook them. That is between them and God, not them and me. Last time I checked, Jesus didn't say, "Love your neighbor--as long as he is a good guy." Instead, He essentially tells us, "If you want to judge others by the Law go ahead...but that is how you will be judged, too."
This is revolutionary, of course. Jesus always is. He did not leave us the option of judging others: I believe He was so clear on purpose. Because He knew that we Christians--set apart by Grace--would be just as self-righteous as the Jews had become when they were set apart by Law. He did not intend to give us the chance to judge others and look down on them, as though we were somehow superior. Our entire faith, in fact, is based upon understanding that we are not superior to any sinner.
It is so revolutionary that most people hate it. It just feels wrong--it goes against our internal sense of justice. We want others to be held accountable for their sins. If they did the crime, they should do the time. We want to try and transform our culture to be less sinful. We want homosexuals to straighten up (pun intended). We want alcoholics to sober up. We want porn addicts to log off. We think that if we can just elect one or two more Christians, maybe then better laws will pass or better Supreme Court decisions will be made, and all 300 million sinners in America will stop being sinners. (Of course, we don't want anyone to look too hard at our own private lives during this important move back to being a 'moral' country.)
And so, these Christians take the buffet-table approach. They take Matthew 7:20--a verse intended to be about judging a man's character to ensure he wasn't a false prophet--and apply it as an addendum to Jesus' moratorium on judging. "What Jesus really meant to say," they imply, "is that we are not to judge people really closely. But He didn't mean that we shouldn't try to root out sin."
As for me...I will just try to do what Jesus actually said to do. I'll probably fail at it.
Try not to judge me when I do.
* Of course, it is true that many worldly people accept and even encourage sinfulness under the guise of tolerance or non-judgmentalism. So? What does that have to do with us as Christians? Did Jesus tell us not to judge, or didn't He? Who cares if some abuse this for their own gain? For me personally--if I am going to err, I am going to err on the side of love and not judging. My Lord was pretty clear on the subject. As far as I can tell, Jesus never said, "Do not let your neighbor get away with his sins. He needs you to convict him." I think the Bible is pretty clear that the Holy Spirit's job is to convict of sin. Mine is to love the sinner regardless, and without expectation of how he will react.