If you haven't seen the movie Megamind, starring the voicework of Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill, then do yourself a favor and watch it. It is one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while, and one of the few kids movies that I can watch at the drop of a hat.
I can't get one pivotal scene of the movie out of my head. Megamind (the self-proclaimed "Megamind: Incredibly Handsome Criminal Genius, and Master of All Villainy"), has been falling in love with intrepid reporter Roxanne Ritchi. Megamind has been using a special watch that allows him to look like someone else, so Fey unknowingly has been dating the villain of Metro City.
At a dinner, Megamind decides to try and determine whether Roxanne could ever love him. The dialogue goes like this:
Megamind: "Say I wasn't so normal. Say I was bald and had the complexion of a popular primary color -- as a random, non-specific example. Would you still enjoy my company?"
Roxanne: "Of course! You don't judge a book by its cover, or a person from the outside."
M: Oh! That's a relief to hear!
R: You judge them by their actions.
M [nervously]: Well, that seems kinda petty, don't you think?
It's a funny scene, but it actually does cut to a deep point: when is it okay to judge someone? For many Christians, the above exchange would be a pretty good indication of how they think. Most sermons or discussusion you will hear on judgmentalism will say that you should not judge based upon someone's looks or clothes or car or situation in life. And that is all good, and we can all probably agree on that point.
But...then you get into the deeper point, the one that divides Christians. What is your approach toward sin? Can you "judge people by their actions?" Those who answer as Ms. Ritchi does above will quote Matthew 7:17-19, where Jesus says that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The Christian warns that if you are not at least judging someone's sin, then you are 'soft' on sin, and permissive of sin. You are not teaching 'holiness', they will say. You are enabling people to defy God. They claim that they are just judging the sin, not the sinner.
This is wrong. I have two comments to make.
1. Matthew 7 does not justify judgmentalism of any individual Christian's lifestyle.
First let us focus on the passage itself. The passage has nothing whatsoever to do with an individual's sinfulness. Let us read the entire passage, and you will see what Jesus is saying:
"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" - Matthew 7:15-23, NIV
Ah, what a difference context makes! In context we see that verses 17-20 are not at all about knowing whether the guy in the next pew is "really" saved. We also see that verses 21-23 are not (as they are often used) a commentary on false Christians.
No, the passage is written about false teachers in the church, peddling false gospels. He is talking about evangelists and preachers who are telling you things that are not within the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And Jesus says that we are to use our wisdom to determine whether a person who is teaching us are actually within the bounds of the Gospel.
Notice that in the second half of the verse, Jesus says that many of these false teachers do great works in His name--but that does not mean that they are worthy of following. It also shows that these people are sincere--they actually challenge Jesus, saying that they did so much for Him!
So we see what Jesus is telling us here is that there are a lot of sincere church leaders out there who are doing great things for Him (growing big churches, leading big flocks, achieving great achievements)...but that it is our job as Christians to determine whether these people are really shepherds, or are actually leading people astray into false spirituality. Again, I cannot stress enough--many of these are sincere leaders, who expect Christ to reward them, as is clear from the end of the passage above.
So how are we to know? Well, I would say that there are two good ways.
(A) As Jesus says, look at the fruits of their lives. They don't have to be perfect, but do their lives reflect the life of a pastor called to Jesus' faith? Paul identifies these fruits in Gal 5:22 as - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Does your pastor exhibit at least some of these consistently?
(B) Is he teaching the Gospel or a form of the Law? All preaching can be divided into those two subdivisions. The Gospel teachers will point out, ultimately, the five solas--that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone via Christ's death alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, and with glory to God alone. The Law teachers will give you a set of rules that you must adhere to. Sometimes they say, "You must do such-and-such to be saved"; other times they are more subtle, and say, "You must do such-and-such to be a good Christian", or "You must do such-and-such or you'll be a nobody in heaven", or "You must do such-and-such or you aren't really serious about your faith."
Never forget what Jesus said Himself about His Gospel: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."
Is the preacher in front of you teaching Gospel or Law? Is he teaching rest or busy-ness? Is he teaching a light burden, or a heavy one? Are you being refreshed, or wearied?
2. Jesus was awfully clear on the whole "judging others" thing.
Well-meaning Christians are going to email me and be upset about this post, I can guarantee it. Or they will just roll their eyes and write me off as another sin-enabler. Nothing could be further from the truth--you can see in my posts on the Virtues that I actually think quite a bit about what we should be doing personally in holiness. I can judge myself for my sins without worrying; it is when I start judging others that I am doing wrong.
Take a look at a few things the Bible says about judging others for their sins:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." Matthew 7:1-5
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." Luke 6:37
"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." Romans 2:1
"The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand." Romans 14:3-4
"What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" 1 Cor 5:12
"For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” " Heb 10:30
"There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?" James 4:12
"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those sin against us" Matt 6:12
Can it be more clear? The Bible says not only is avoidance of judging others critical, it seems to be a pivotal point around which your relationship to Jesus turns. The way you judge others, it seems, reveals your own heart more than it does their sin.
Be certain, Christian, that you are not to judge others. Roxanne Ritchi was wrong - we are not to judge people by their actions. Though said in a joke, Megamind was right: it is petty to judge others for their works. Why?
I can think of a couple of reasons that judging others is wrong:
1. Judging sin is God's right--not yours. Notice above the quote from James 4:12--God's job is to judge, and God never delegated that right. Look through all of Scripture, and find me where God or Jesus bestows on us their right to judge sin. To attempt to take that right from God is nothing short of usurping His rightful place.
2. You are not capable of judging. As Jesus points out in Matthew 7, we all have our own sins to deal with and thus are hypocritical (at best) when we judge others. How can we condemn someone else for doing the same thing (violating God's law) that we do on a minute-by-minute basis? Furthermore, you do not ever see the "full picture" of someone's life--the situations, backgrounds, genetics, environment, culture, etc...the sum total of all that defines the context of his/her choices. God does see that, and can thus judge rightly. You do not, and can't.
3. When we judge, we feel that we are superior to our neighbor. The Pharisees became a "brood of vipers" in Jesus' eyes specifically because of centuries of elitism and self-congratulations. When you judge others, you are saying that you are capable of doing the job that the Holy Spirit (i.e., God) is meant to do. So in a very real way, you are saying that you are godlike in comparison to your 'less spiritual' neighbor; or, at the least, you see yourself as a mediator between him and God.
In conclusion - the Holy Spirit's job is to convict of sin and search out people's heart. Jesus' job is to serve as the Mediator who made the covenant between God and man. God the Father's job is to judge sin.
You aren't part of the picture when it comes to someone else's sinful state. If you are trying to fill any of those roles, then you are trying to be God to someone else. And if you think you are capable of doing so, then you are blaspheming God.
The Bible makes it clear--there is no such thing as "hating the sin, loving the sinner." Your job is to try to root out as much of your own sin as you can, and love God, and love your neighbor. The Bible never says anything more than that.
Let God do His job. You stick to yours.