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To judge or not to judge?

“Don’t judge!”

As much as anything else, this has been our culture’s mantra for last decade. We’re so emphatic about it that I saw a meme of a little girl pointing an accusing finger at Santa Claus and saying, “Naughty or nice, huh? STOP JUDGING ME!” Even Santa has been taken down by popular culture.

Of course, if we stop and think about it, the little girl is actually making a judgment of her own. She has determined that Santa is guilty of being judgmental and consequently unloaded on him. I point this out to call attention to the fact that there’s more to the business of judging than can fit nicely on a bumper sticker or in a meme. In fact, while reducing things down to this level will always be popular because it’s easy to communicate (and doesn’t require any thinking)—easy and accurate are often two very different things and we have to decide which one we’re most interested in.

Take the phrase “don’t judge.” While I’m sure there are some people who by this mean they want no accountability and to answer to no one, most of us realize this isn’t possible. You can’t have community without some judgment taking place. Whether it’s the judgment of the courts in determining guilt or innocence, of schools regarding the quality of their students’ work, or of banks evaluating loan applications—judgment is an inescapable fact at many different levels.

This is true in the Christian community as well. Paul will tell the disciples in the Galatian churches, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (6:1). Accountability (when practiced this way) is a good thing and there is no reason to fear it.

But there are also times when judging is clearly trespassing on our part. In Romans 14:1-15:13, Paul discusses some lifestyle differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples that involved food and drink and the observance of certain days. His urges acceptance rather than judgment in regard to these minor matters because maintaining a relationship is more important that being right about things that aren’t that important. And of course, there are also those things that aren’t right or wrong—they’re just different. Paul’s words would apply equally to these matters.

So judging isn’t as simple as yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong. There’s more involved. There are important things to consider, like who is judging, why they are judging, and how they are judging. Jesus speaks to this last point when He tells some people who are judging Him to “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). It’s interesting and instructive that Jesus doesn’t fault them for attempting to make a decision about Him (something we all must do); rather He is critical of how they were judging.

If we think about it, we all make lots of judgments during the course of a normal day—you couldn’t make it through one without doing so. The act of judging is not in and of itself wrong; it’s indiscriminate judging that gets us into trouble. Rather than trying to stop judging (an impossibility), we’d be better off to think about what prompts the judgments we make and if we are being merciful in them (James 2:12-13). 

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