The Judges of Judgmentalism: Discerning Truth vs. People


The thesis of Rob Bell's forthcoming book ignited a theological firestorm.

There has been quite a bit of hullabaloo over Rob Bell’s upcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book’s thesis, according to the publisher’s description, argues that “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”

Since the book is indeed an upcoming title, the chatter has largely focused around its marketing materials, particularly a promotional video in which Bell does what Bell does best: talks like a universalist. (emphasis on “talks like”)

After perusing the available materials, as well as some advance chapters, Gospel Coalition blogger Justin Taylor concluded that Bell may indeed be a universalist, after which John Piper chimed in with a simple, “Farewell Rob Bell. These remarks spurred retorts from across the Web, resulting in a cacophony of Bell-centered banter.

Oddly enough, many of those who have been defending Bell seem to care little about the actual validity of his views and beliefs, which, although relatively vague, make some startling absolute statements about the nature of God’s love. Instead of arguing over whether Bell’s views do indeed mesh with true Christianity (and/or oppose universalism), many of his followers have backed away from matters of theology altogether — grounding their defenses in verses like “judge not lest ye be judged.”

The message seems clear: Bell’s beliefs should not be up for scrutiny because criticism is not the Christian thing to do.

This brings us to some larger questions about the role of judgment itself, particularly when it comes to Christians. Since there is already plenty of healthy debate over the contents of Bell’s book, it is here that I would like to focus our discussion.

How are we to respond to others when we disagree with them? More specifically, how are we to respond to Christians when we think they depart from the faith? When influential authors or teachers spread messages with which we wholeheartedly disagree, are we supposed to sit idly by out of Christian solidarity? Are we to avoid critiques of theology and belief systems because we might accidently imply that someone might be wrong (gasp!)?

In Christianity, such indications can (quite literally) point the way to hell, which is why things get so touchy and heated when we talk about these disagreements. To question someone’s belief system or moral code is to indirectly imply that they themselves are out of God’s graces. To say “farewell” to someone who assumes unorthodox beliefs can easily come off as a polite way of saying, “sorry, but you’re going to hell.”

This calls to mind plenty of great questions about our tone and our eloquence, etc. (particularly in the age of the Internet), but I think we would do well to dig a little bit deeper into how we ourselves approach those who criticize our own beliefs.

What do Christians intend to do when they critique and dissect the important theological claims of other Christians? Does it matter? How are we to ever make progress toward discovering truth if questioning someone’s belief system is automatically assumed to be a matter of personal condemnation?

I would argue that we can question the legitimacy of one’s claims without questioning the salvation of one’s soul or spirit. Jesus told us not to judge each other, but that does not mean he preferred passivity to truth.

Let’s take a closer look at the verses in question:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

As we can see, Jesus is talking about how we judge people. He is not talking about our discernment regarding the God in which they believe, the morals to which they subscribe, or the theology by which they wrap it all together. He is talking about how we judge the people themselves — how we analyze them as spiritual — and, perhaps, physical — beings.

Yet, ironically, many Christians prefer to utilize this verse as a means for doing precisely what they seek to oppose: whacking the “judgers” over the head in judgment.

If someone disagrees with our beliefs or convictions, for example, we get defensive and criticize them for “judging us.” If someone disagrees with a behavior we are fond of or a lifestyle that resembles our own, we call them “judgmental” and dangle Bible verses over their heads in accusation. Rather than confronting our specific disagreements and engaging in dialogue (no matter how (in)eloquently it is started), we opt out by bumping our anti-judgmental shield into our opponents’ faces.

Unbeknownst to us (usually), this waving around of Scripture places us in the middle of a manipulative game where everyone is judgmental except for ourselves. By pointing the finger at the judgmentalism of others (whether valid or not), we indirectly turn ourselves into the entitled authorities of proper discernment, accusing and condemning others for asking questions or being judgmental.

Again, the irony is clear. In the case of Bell’s defenders, many of their claims to anti-judgmentalism assume a pose that is entitled to special treatment. They (and Bell) are allowed to pose controversial questions about the nature of God’s love, while those who disagree with Bell’s argument (an equally controversial stance, if you ask me), are scolded and chided as haters and judgers.

Both are focusing on belief systems and theological claims (rather than people), but one side is claiming monopolistic authority over who can or should be able to judge the other’s system, which turns it into a discussion about people.

It is this form — the one that judges others for critiquing doctrine and pursuing truth — that smacks of the saltiest hypocrisy.

Above all, we seem to forget that Jesus is the one who told us to avoid judgmentalism (instead of, say, some random, faulted schmoe on the street). By forgetting that this instruction comes from the Supreme Judge himself, we forget that Jesus was not urging us to become the judgmental police (as many Christians seem to wish). He was not calling us to round up the naysayers, throw them on stage, and shame them by letting everyone know how unreasonable and judgmental they are being.

On the contrary, Jesus was reminding us that God is the judge of the human soul and motive. He — Jesus — will determine matters of the spirit and soul, including those related to self-righteousness and judgmentalism.

What he didn’t do, however, was free us from a life filled with a critical pursuit of truth itself (as understood apart from the individual soul). We certainly can’t replicate Jesus’ perfect record of discernment, but he urged us to be engaged in that which will set us free. Aside from sending the Holy Spirit for the distinct purpose of discernment, Jesus spoke to us in parables to challenge us and provoke a spiritual and philosophical struggle within us. The times that Jesus promoted such a pursuit are countless (read the Book of John), but let’s just say that Jesus would not warn us about false prophets without giving us the tools and mere allowance to discern who they were.

In short, when we point fingers about “improper judgment,” we turn the discussion away from the intellectual and spiritual disagreements at play. In effect, we are turning a discussion about truth into one about people. This will get us nowhere indeed.

As the discussions about Bell’s book continue (and as we are eventually able to actually read the stinkin’ thing!), I’m sure there will be more to discuss. Let’s avoid wearing our “anti-judgment” cap too proudly. On matters of individual judgmentalism, let’s continue to let God be the judge.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9600914 Sarah Flowers

    Very well said. I should probably read this about once a week, just for good measure.

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/42653573779161088 Remnant Culture

    The Judges of Judgmentalism: What can the recent Rob Bell controversy teach us about "judge not!"? http://bt.io/GkoO #robbell

  • Anonymous

    Excellent points. The quote “judge not lest you be judged” is so often used as an excuse by anyone, even those who don’t even read the Bible. It’s the quote used by non-believers to Christians when Christians dare to voice disagreement with or opposition to a particular behavior. Those that use that quote (invariably) out of context, forget the comments that Christ himself made concerning the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus literally goes on a rant about them and their false piety and teachings. I certainly think His comments could be considered judgmental. But He is God. Yet He warns us to watch and not be led astray by such as those were.
    To those who say that God is a loving God and could not send anyone He loves to hell, they lie about God. God himself dictates the reasons why some will enter by the narrow gate and the rest will face eternal separation from Him. They chose to forget that not only is God a loving God, but He is a Holy and just God who will not tolerate sin. He turned away from His only Son when Jesus became sin for us when He died on the cross. Only those whose sins are washed in the blood of Christ are reckoned clean of sin and will be allowed into Heaven.

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