Don’t judge others, Jesus didn’t judge others.

It’s an easy statement to make – ubiquitous on social media.  Folk use it to defend politicians, athletes, celebrities, or anyone else’s behavior that the New Testament clearly defines as sin.

The advantage being leveraged is the ignorance of Christians who don’t know what the Bible says about judging (and the different uses of the word) combined with the corrosive power of a shame culture that loves to embarrass, cajole, and marginalize people who don’t toe the latest societal line. That’s why its common when professed Christians essentially make statements like “God loves everyone as everyone, so everyone can do what everyone wants to do” to be met either with virtual silence from Christians who know better or supported with cheers by others who don’t.

To actually look at the context of Jesus’ warning in Matt. 7:1-2 to “judge not, that you be not judged,” is to realize that Christ isn’t prohibiting the identification of something as sinful but the hypocrisy of legalistic religion that thrills in doing so before first sincerely examining potentially greater sin struggles in one’s own life (e.g., the speck/log contrast). This seems to be the definition of judging Jesus is using in this oft-quoted, oft-misapplied passage. The point Christ makes is that singling out the lesser sin struggles of others while hypocritically holding onto greater transgressions is the kind of religious hypocrisy that is the opposite of the kingdom of God. Ahem, please note that Jesus even “judges” his listeners in this very passage by calling them hypocrites (v. 5)! Therefore, we have an admonition for Christians to keep growing in the gospel so they would be quicker to examine their own hearts for sin struggles and slower to criticize other believers for theirs.

However, slower isn’t the same as not at all.

The idea it’s automatically unloving or un-Christian to properly call someone’s sinful behavior as sin is far afield from what Jesus said or did. Furthermore, it’s far afield from what his apostles did and said in the rest of the New Testament.

For example, in 1 Cor. 5, the Apostle Paul writes in the local church at Corinth, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”1

If this were written in 2019 some might be shouting Paul down on Facebook as unloving or give him a Twitter “clap back” shaming him for “judging” others (ironically, both judgments in themselves) because God accepts everyone as they are, or that love is love, or some other bumper sticker platitude that gets you likes and attaboys on the social network echo chamber.

But the apostle not only says what this self-professed Christian is doing is sinful but also that the community of faith should respond to this situation. Interestingly, Paul adds that the Corinthian church isn’t to include non-Christians in this kind of accountability. Dealing with the sins of someone in this communal way applies only to those who consider themselves to be a part of the community of Jesus (v. 11, “anyone who bears the name of brother”). Paul then sums up the principle in vv. 12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”

It’s illuminating that the apostle’s expectation for the world and the church are completely different. He knows unbelievers aren’t compelled to follow kingdom ethics (e.g., sexuality, stewardship) nor should Christians expect them to follow Jesus as King or see God’s Word as authoritative and binding on their lives. Thus, the community of faith has no accountability with “outsiders” in those matters.

However, the tune changes when it comes to those within the community of faith.2 While the gospel should shape our addressing any sin with grace, humility, and a keen awareness of our own shortcomings, make no mistake, it also creates a community where sin can be not only identified but also, if need be, confronted. That’s why the expected answer of the question, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” is “Yes” provided the kind of judging is the kind Paul has outlined and not weighing into someone’s eternity as if we were God the Judge.

Neither Jesus nor the rest of the New Testament knows anything of the idea that calling something sinful the Scripture considers the same is somehow the sin of “judging others.”3 It’s merely just agreeing with what God’s Word says. Just make sure if you are agreeing with what God’s Word says about any kind of sin, you also do it with the understanding that the only reason you are a follower of Jesus is because God in his grace redeemed you from the same sinful situation as everyone else. And that were it not for the Cross and the wondrous love of God in Christ, we would all be far from him.

This should also help us see that followers of Jesus fall into a spiritually dangerous situation when they erroneously play the “don’t judge others” card in refusing to acknowledge sinful behavior in other professed Christians. This sets them up at some kind of quasi-authority who knows better than the New Testament ethic (and likely Christian orthodoxy throughout the last two millennia) and leads some scrambling to Google any and all other articles or videos of professing believers that would agree with them. But this kind of strategy only parallels, in a sobering way I might add, Paul’s words to the Romans, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (1:32). Talk about judgment!

It’s more likely that people who play the “Don’t judge” card do so because they’ve confused acceptance with endorsement. They want to rightfully love/support their person in question and think that in order to do so they must wrongfully endorse everything that person does without hesitation. But acceptance is different from endorsement. Contrary to the cultural forces that say differently, you can accept someone for who they are without endorsing everything they do.

To not endorse certain behavior in believers (because it’s sinful) isn’t unloving or unkind. In fact, it’s the most honest kind of love. It’s the kind of love Jesus gave to the woman caught in the act of adultery. Once again, Jesus pushes back on the hypocrisy of the religious leadership when he says to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”4 But, after they leave, Christ turns to the woman and says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”5 Jesus’ love is one that takes her where she is but doesn’t leave her where she is. This woman, after meeting Jesus, is to seek obedience from this time forward. So while Christ’s love fully accepts, it doesn’t fully endorse. He doesn’t say, “I love you for who you are so do whatever you choose,” but the opposite, “I am for you. You know what is right and wrong. Seek to obey.” Jesus loves this woman best because he is honest with her about who she is and what she had done. This is grace and truth, not grace or truth. Together they’re helpful, but offering one without the other is damaging and dangerous.6

Unfortunately employing the “Don’t judge” trump card retards our real growth in the gospel because it keeps us from being honest about sin and sinners. It’s grace over truth, not grace with truth. As much as arrogantly, pridefully condemning others reveals a lack of knowledge about the truth of the gospel so does endorsing sinful behavior in other believers while telling everyone else how wrong they are for calling sin a sin.

May Jesus tutor us all as his followers into what loving other believers (and unbelievers) looks like for our good, their good, and his glory!

My Best Books of 2018

December 8, 2018 — 2 Comments

As I reflect on 2018, here are my best books of the year. (No albums or movies since I didn’t engage enough of either – thanks Spotify/Netflix – to merit awarding my favorites):

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Best Christian Life Book (Classic)The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I confess I hadn’t read Lewis’ classic work in total, only in bits and pieces. Almost immediately I could see why this book has been highly lauded all these years. Written from the diabolical perspective of a senior demon to his apprentice, The Screwtape Letters is as apropos for today as it was when published in 1942. So much of Lewis’ insights about the Christian life are exactly what many in the church need to hear today. His writing particularly on the temptation of Christians succumbing to the desire for cultural acceptance felt almost prescient to me. Outstanding! Lord, please give your church more thinkers like Clive Staples Lewis.

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Classic)Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Vol. 1 by Herman Bavinck. I have read at least five different  systematic theologies (and dabbled in others). I teach it eight months out of every year. My doctoral dissertation concerned the intersection of systematic theology and adult spiritual formation. Needless to say, I like systematic theology. However, I felt the need to sink my teeth into a kind of systematic that wouldn’t be toned-down for laypeople (e.g., Grudem) because those tomes tended to frustrate as much as benefit me. I had heard Bavinck’s four volume systematic theology was the gold standard of reformation thought in the field. Halfway into Vol. 1 (which is merely Bavinck’s introduction to his systematic theology!) I could see why.

Reformed Dogmatics has a gravity, precision, and brilliance about it that is unparalleled in my experience. It’s also the hardest systematic I have ever tried to read because it assumes a reader who is versed in church history, philosophy, and other areas of knowledge. Frankly, it’s the first systematic theology in a long time where I resonated deeply about its portrayal of God – grand, mysterious, beyond knowing (and yet revealing knowledge). It asked better questions, sought better answers, and was okay knowing its limitations. Reading Bavinck feels like climbing Everest. It’s time-consuming and difficult, even excruciating at moments, but the view you get at the end is unforgettable.

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Modern)Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith. Jamie Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and the author of a trilogy called Cultural Liturgies of which Desiring the Kingdom is the first volume. I  read Smith’s Awaiting the King (Vol. 3) early in the year and could have easily replaced Desiring with it but am letting my original decision stand.

Desiring the Kingdom is an engaging, winsome, well-written argument for the worship service as spiritual formation. Smith is an admitted traditionalist and argues that the historical practices (or traditions) of orthodox Christian worship (e.g., call to worship, creedal recitation, confession of sin) are the very things that can be antidotes for the community of faith in a post-Christian culture. Those practices are habit-forming and, as such, can be deep channels of grace whereby God grows us and keeps us faithful to him. One could argue that Desiring the Kingdom is the kind of book the North American church will need to read…and likely heed to some degree if she is to remain effective in her forming disciples of Jesus in the post-everything future.

Best novels in 2018:

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Best Fiction – Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I’m convinced I need to write a blog post on why high school students shouldn’t read classics they’re not ready for yet. With that said, this is my second time to read Moby Dick. The first was in high school where, due to my boredom with the text, I essentially tried to “Cliff Note” my way through the second half of the book. It felt like just one more boring read  I had to suffer through in order to pass my class. In my rekindling of my love for reading, I’ve recently reengaged the idea of reading the classics (as the rest of my “best of” attests to), so I put Melville’s novel back on the nightstand.

Moby Dick is regarded by many as the “Great American Novel” and why Nathaniel Philbrick, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist himself, called it as close as we get to our “American Bible.” Interestingly, Philbrick published a book called Why Read Moby Dick. The late theologian R.C. Sproul also wrote an article calling for the same, believing that “the greatest chapter ever written in the English language is the chapter of Moby Dick titled ‘The Whiteness of the Whale.'”

Reading Moby Dick as a mid-life adult was a completely different experience for me. I found Melville’s novel to be transcendent, sublime, and magisterial. His articulation of soul and its desires/questions/temptations via a whale hunt is almost otherworldly. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s difficult (e.g., numerous whaling terms). Yes, it’s demanding. But yes, it’s a story that can leave you enraptured and grateful for journeying with the Pequod. Today, I completely understand why many consider it the greatest novel ever written.

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Best Fiction – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Unlike Moby Dick, this is a classic I had never read before. Of course, I heard innumerable people praise Lee’s tale of a young Alabama girl named Scout dealing with race along with her father Atticus Finch in the 1930’s. A book also contended as the “Great American Novel,” To Kill A Mockingbird asks many questions of the reader concerning race and justice: Can I walk in someone else’s shoes who’s suffered? What is my response to racism today? How much am I blind to in the culture I live in? I was blown away at how real Scout felt as a character. The story is heartbreakingly wonderful. There are moments of laughter, many of righteous indignation, and even a few where I was simply left in tears. To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t just a good book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading because, while it may be a book you put down, it’s one that never leaves you.

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Best Fiction Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Last year I read Stegner’s Crossing to Safety which became one of my favorite reads of 2017. Stegner has a way of writing beautifully while striking at the heart of things in a way that the reader can rest in, reflect upon, and even make resolutions in light of. Angle of Repose, a 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner, concerns four generations of a family (spanning from the late 1800’s to the 1970’s) trying to make it in the West. It’s a story of marriage and endurance and how things pull on them both. Stegner’s narrative ability is superb while his powers of natural description are phenomenal. In short, I’ve become a big fan. Angle of Repose spoke to me as a man who’s in the initial movements of the second half of his life. This is the kind of book I love to walk with. 

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Best Fiction Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is another classic I had never read before. It’s also another book, after reading it, where I realized why it was a classic. Power, censorship, and media-think control the narrative theme. Written by Bradbury during the McCarthy Era of the 1950’s, it’s easy to see how that political backdrop informed Fahrenheit 451. I read this pondering how appropriate it was for 2018 where we, as a nation, are driven in our thinking by technology (i.e., social media) to the degree that alternative ideas and opinions are berated/heckled/lampooned (dare I say almost ‘socially censored’). This was one dystopian novel that unfortunately didn’t feel so dystopian. A powerful read for today.

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Best Fiction from a Debut Author A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. My wife, a reader in her own right, finished this book then proceeded to be in tears the rest of the day. She repeatedly told me between bouts of weeping that this was one of the most touching books she’d ever read. I was powerless to resist. I picked up the book and started reading that day. Mirza, who published her book at the young age of 26, writes about a Muslim family whose children are finding their own way to being modern-day Americans while both embracing and distancing themselves from their faith of their immigrant parents. It asks questions of love, identity, family, and faith. Think of this as the Muslim equivalent of the prodigal son. Upon reaching the end of the novel I realized why my wife was so upset. It brought me to tears as well. I won’t give it away but if you are a parent (no matter your faith), there’s no escaping the feelings Mirza expects for you to be engulfed in at the end of her beautiful book. 

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Best Non-Fiction – God God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright. I didn’t read many non-fiction books this year but of those, I thought Wright’s book was the best. He is a Pulitzer-prize winning author whose book on Texas is essentially a commentary on the Lone Star State. His talent for writing is unmistakable. His stories are engaging and the facts he gives about Texas (e.g., the city of Houston; impact of Texas) are fascinating. Another thing you can’t miss about Wright’s writing is that it is definitely slanted toward politically liberal ends. There were some parts where I simply thought his chapters should be titled, “Why I’m mad Texas is generally a Republican state when I wish it was a Democratic one.” To be fair, it’s his book. He can write from whatever perspective he wants. However, I felt there were too many times he came across as an evangelist for the political Left arguing not from facts but from assumptions and ad hominems. Again, it’s his book. But if he wants more Texans to read it (which I’m not sure is a big concern of his), he might could have been a little more fair-minded to the other side. Regardless, I found Wright’s book to be engaging and worth the read.

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Best Worst Book  – Invisible Monsters by Chuck  Palaniuk. I really thought the movie Fight Club back in the 90’s was a challenging but groundbreaking tale of men struggling to find identity and meaning in their lives. Though not for the faint of heart, I considered it a movie of consequence. I know many men who still highly regard it today. I had always thought of Palaniuk, the author of Fight Club, as a kind of shock jock for authors. His tales are usually graphic, explicit, and brutal. However, I took a chance on reading him thinking that those are simply the kinds of constructs he uses to tell tales that matter. While that might still be true, I didn’t get that from Invisible Monsters, the book considered by most to be his best. I appreciated the story’s attempt to talk about what’s real in a world given to appearance, but the sexually graphic content felt gratuitous and completely unnecessary. I’m not one to shy away from “tough content” (I mean, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is my favorite book of all time), but there were a few moments that had to put the book down and wonder if I would pick it back up again. Ultimately I did, each time thinking, “Surely the inclusion of these kinds of scenes will make sense in the end.” For me, they didn’t. One of my unwritten rules of reading is if I start a book, I must finish it. Invisible Monsters almost made me break it. Almost. Easily my worst book of 2018 and maybe ever.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

That statement has been haunting me lately. It’s attributed to one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. I’m not positive she actually said this but it wouldn’t surprise me if so, since this kind of quote is right in her Southern Gothic wheelhouse. Nevertheless, it’s arrested me ever since I came across it over my sabbatical this summer.

Because I think it’s true.

It’s a riff on Jesus’ words in John 8:31-32, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The idea is that following Jesus not only brings us into a life of truth but a truth that leads into real freedom. Of course, I agree with Jesus. I can do no less. But O’Connor1 takes Jesus’ words about the life of a disciple in another direction. And not an opposite one I might add. She argues following Jesus will also “make you odd.”

Indeed, it might be truer today in our post-Christian world than the 1950’s America in which O’Connor lived where Christianity (for right or wrong) had a more esteemed place in the culture. In our age, Christians are increasingly seen in a more negative light than the past. In the eyes of post-moderns, followers of Jesus are a pretty weird bunch.

  • They believe Jesus (who still rates as a good guy to most everyone) is God’s Son. He was born of a virgin, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and (get this!) is supposed to return one day with the fullness of the kingdom of God. And even crazier, they think he’s the one way to salvation! Can you say non-inclusive?!?!
  • Christians also think God exists in three distinct persons but somehow is one God. What gives? Can’t these people do simple math?
  • These people affirm that the Bible, something rapper Macklemore famously said is just “a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago,” is the actual Word of God. Like it’s really a book inspired from start to finish by the God of the Universe? Please!
  • Consequently, these Christians believe the Bible is to guide them in their conduct. Like, it’s THE authority in their life. This is where they really look out of touch! For example, they think there are gender roles in the church and home. How regressive! The fact that they still believe gender is static and not dynamic is crazy in itself. They also think sexual ethics revolve around the sanctity of marriage whereby they use outdated old world ideas like “virginity” for the unmarried and permanence of the bonds in marriage. Don’t even get us started on what they think of same-sex relationships!
  • These people gather each week to sing old songs, pray prayers to their invisible god, give (read: throw) away their money, get people wet in some weird ceremony called baptism, and to top it off, they eat bread and drink wine thinking somehow Jesus is magically with them in the event. They do this all in “church” as one big exclusive family (err, cult).

The list could go on, but suffice to say the schism between authentic Christian expression and the spirit of the age has widened over the years and will only continue to do so. Biblical Christianity in the West will increasingly be less appealing (and more appalling) to the world around it. Simply put, we’ll appear odder and odder as time goes on. And no one likes odd.

This is where the pressure comes for the Jesus follower. Part of taking up your cross and following Jesus will likely mean how well you can handle being seen as odd – to being the different person, the one unlike your non-Christian peers.

What to do? Frankly, some Christians/churches/denominations capitulate. They have decided that being accepted by the culture is more important than being faithful to Jesus and the Scripture. You open them up and they say the same things the fallen world says (and ironically what the Bible explicitly teaches against, justifying their interpretations with weak if not bizarre rationales). This reminded me of some insightful comments from a secular article discussing New Atheism where a couple of commenters shared what they believed to be the reason why it hasn’t taken root in culture.

Commenter one: There are many people who identify with a religion, but don’t at all live up to it in practice–gay Catholics, for example, or the entire Episcopalian denomination. It is probably more tactful for progressivism to say that it “embraces all religions”–while in reality, of course, this means that it “embraces all people who call themselves religious, but are willing to accept progressive orthodoxy.” Lapsed believers who can’t bring themselves to change how they identify, comfortable sinners who don’t mind shirking the commands of their faith, and the vast spiritualist hordes will flock to them. New/militant atheism alienates all those people, and there are many of them.

I would also suspect that this is a far more effective way to undermine religion. Let people call themselves believers, but gradually erode the traditional meaning of what it is to believe, until there’s nothing problematic left. It’s probably what the New Atheists should have done, would have done if they were more devious and organized.

Commenter Two: This is my sense as well. Establishment progressivism is too invested in hollowing out Mainline Christianity and wearing it as a skin suit.

What’s the win as they describe the “progressive” church? There isn’t one. Even atheists realize that churches who abandon the “oddity” of their orthodox, historic faith are actually seen as something less than the Christians they claim to be. This kind of Christianity-as-mere-skin suit doesn’t even fool atheists. They clearly see that some who profess faith in Jesus have jettisoned (or “hollowed out”) enough biblical Christian orthodoxy that they don’t even speak anymore for the faith they say they represent. This isn’t a win for progressive thought in the church but the glorious failure of it, and one of the chief reasons why mainline denominations have been losing folk at alarming rates for generations.

I’d argue faithful Christianity needs to embrace the oddity of their Christian-ness. It will be part and parcel of Jesus’ call for his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. (cf., Lk. 9:23) We’ll look differently, speak differently, live differently than the world around us. I don’t mean this in some fundamentalist way that is weird for all the wrong reasons (e.g., anti-intellectual, anti-arts, etc.) but a difference that is evidenced simply because our allegiance is to a king and a kingdom not of this world. Believe me, that alone will make us stand out. It will make us odd.

I get a taste of this every time I talk with someone who, later in the conversation, finds out I’m a pastor. Immediately, the topics change, the tone adjusts, and the body language shifts. To them, I’m not a regular guy anymore. I’m different. I’m odd. Among my uncomfortable oddities is that I must believe things (like really strongly) that probably are in conflict with their values, decisions, and lifestyle. So, instead of just having a regular conversation like a real person, it’s easy-stepping around the pastor-dude until an exit strategy from the conversation is found.

I’ve got some advice for you if you’re a Christian really trying to follow Jesus today. Get used to it. What I experience will at some point mirror what you experience as your faith bubbles out of your everyday life. You’ll more and more be the odd one. At least you should be.

But don’t let it scare you. Embrace it! That’s right. Embrace your oddness! In a world where people are looking for hope, it won’t be found in the carbon copies of worldly similitude. Those dead-end answers are being regurgitated everyday by culture and it’s pretty clear they’re found lacking. But the church – and the historic, orthodox gospel it both proclaims and demonstrates – can be a life-giving alternative in the cultural wasteland. As we live out the mission of Jesus and his gospel in winsome, loving ways we demonstrate a different city that lives by a different story for a different purpose contrasting the myriad of soul-shrinking narratives the world runs after.

It’s not the oddness of living out of our faith that hurts us, on the contrary, it’s the fear of being odd that holds us back. Indeed, our difference may be the best weapon we have in showing the world who Jesus is and the kingdom he brings.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. – 1 Peter 2:9-12