In our Adult Bible Class this last Sunday, we were examining the second chapter of Romans. In that chapter, Paul begins to debate with an imaginary opponent—a style of argumentation called a diatribe. This imaginary opponent could be considered “The Moralist”—Paul indicates that they are “passing judgement” on others, yet do the very things they judge others of doing—the actions of someone who claims to have the moral high ground. This section of Paul’s letter is heavy with meaning, and it takes a little thought and reflection to grasp Paul’s points. But Paul thinks it’s important enough to put at the very beginning of his exposition of the gospel, so maybe we need to do the work to figure it out. Just what is Paul saying about judging others?
Being the astute people they are, the class immediately recognized the complexity of this issue of judgment. Here’s the situation: as Christians, we believe that the scriptures have been given to us as a guide for living—something of a moral code to follow. There’s obviously a lot more in the Bible than just a bunch of “do this, don’t do that”—but there’s no denying that the scriptures offer us a moral compass that points us toward right behavior. And even if we didn’t have the scripture, Paul himself in the first chapter of Romans points out that no one has an excuse, since God’s divine characteristics can be seen in all that has been created, and that each human has an innate conscience that guides them between right and wrong.
So, if we have knowledge of right and wrong—either through the special revelation of the Bible, or through the testimony of creation—then we’re going to be able to see when behavior is right or wrong. We have a guide to measure actions, our own or those of others, and see if they stack up with the accepted moral standards revealed to us. In essence, we know what is right and wrong, and we know whether we are doing right or wrong. We can look—again, at ourselves or others—and see if the behavior aligns with the standards of morality presented to us. If I know that stealing is wrong, then I know I am doing wrong if I steal something. Pretty simple and obvious so far.
The problem is not in recognizing that some behavior is wrong, but in what we do with that knowledge. When the wrong behavior is our own, the scriptures are pretty clear on the proper response—we need to repent and do right. If we know that our stealing is wrong, we need to stop stealing. The difficulty comes when we see what we believe to be wrong behavior in others. What do we do with that knowledge? In this particular passage in Romans, Paul is fairly explicit about the dangers of judging others. He equates judgment with “despising the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience.” He says that those who judge are “storing up wrath for themselves with their hard and impertinent hearts.”
Two points to make here—one, if you want to get specific (and we should be as accurate as we can here), Paul is talking about hypocritical judgement. It’s judgment of another’s behavior when the judge is engaged in the same behavior. He says as much in the first verse of chapter 2: “…for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” So it would help to know what “things” Paul is referring to. In the previous chapter, he outlines a classic vice list, most of which have a relational character (they are primarily vices that appear in personal interactions with others—so Paul is concerned that we know that our treatment of others is important), and they are primarily vices of pride.
The second point is that all these vices find their origin in the initial vice Paul identifies in 1:22-23—where people claimed to be wise, but were instead fools, exchanging the glory of God for that which God created. At its heart, the problem is idolatry, an idolatry understood as putting the created in front of the Creator, and worshiping anything other than God. It is this misplaced devotion and worship that leads to all the other vices, and Paul is pretty clear that it is something inherent in the human condition—no one has an excuse. We are all tempted, because of our human pride, to place something (usually ourselves) in front of God as the object of our devotion. All the strife, deceit, insolence, boastfulness, and the rest come from this misplaced devotion. This misplaced devotion, manifest in prideful behavior, is the “thing” the judge is guilty of while condemning others. To sit in judgement is God’s prerogative and right, and to do it ourselves is to take the place of God. The very act of judgment—when we practice it—is an idolatrous act, because we have taken God’s place.
So, you may be seeing the issue now. We are not to judge, but we inevitably have knowledge of wrong behavior. And there is an obvious problem with knowing about someone’s wrong behavior and not doing something to help them correct it (again, we know what to do when we ourselves are in the wrong, so we aren’t considering that here). How do we acknowledge wrong behavior in others, and attempt to correct that behavior, while avoiding being judgmental?
I won’t pretend it’s not difficult—messing about in the behavior of others, regardless of our good intentions, is always going to be dangerous, due to that inherent pride and desire for control that’s built into us. We will always be tempted toward judgment when we identify wrong behavior in others. But we can’t ignore it, either, and claim to love the other person. Ultimately, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we probably ought to look to Jesus as a model of how to deal with the wrong behavior we witness in others. Jesus was not shy about acknowledging, even challenging, the wrong behavior He encountered. But even though He would have been within His rights to judge, He still went with compassion more readily than condemnation.
Perhaps the most telling example of Jesus encountering wrong behavior and His response to it is found in John 8:1-11. When the religious leaders bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus as a way to trap Him, Jesus responds to the situation by pointing out the inherent sinfulness of all present—He says that the one without sin can be the one who brings judgement against the woman. This introduces a key distinction between acknowledging wrong behavior and judgment. Judgment is distinct in that it contains an element of punishment or condemnation. A judge not only acknowledges that a crime has been committed, but sentences the offender to some form of punishment. The Pharisees not only knew of the woman’s adultery, but were ready to stone her.
In the story, we see that Jesus—the only one who could legitimately claim to be without sin—still chooses to step back from judgment. Jesus chooses not to condemn the woman. This restraint is not absolution, He clearly acknowledges the sin and exhorts her to sin no more, but Jesus is manifesting what Paul was talking about in Romans 2—that kindness, forbearance, and patience of God. He wants the woman to get her life right, but He knows that she has to do it. She cannot be forced by the fear of condemnation, she can only be won by the kindness and love of God. This is what Paul means when he says that it is God’s kindness that brings us to repentance. Paul is clear that there will be a day of judgment—he refers to it as the “day of wrath.” But it will be God’s judgment, based on truth. And in the mean time, our work is to avoid the hypocrisy inherent in judgment since we cannot judge in this way without being a little hypocritical. It is enough to trust God’s perfect judgment, repent of our own sins, and encourage others. This is the disciple’s path.