Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12, NET)
In a Bible study at church, our class was looking at James’ admonition not to “speak against one another.” For James, to “speak against” someone is to ignore the law to love your neighbor as yourself and try to take God’s prerogative as the “Lawgiver and Judge” who “is able to save and destroy” for yourself. None of us made the law of love. None of us can save or destroy. So, James goes on to ask, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”
All of us know that Jesus said not to judge. All of us know that he promised that we’ll be judged with the same standard by which we judge others. But we also talked about the tendency we might have, as people who want to get the Bible right, to find ways around these very straightforward texts that tell us we’re not to judge. We do this for a lot of bad reasons, but maybe some as well that don’t seem so bad.
Jude tells us to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Some Christians read this as orders to open fire on anyone who disagrees with us on most any question or issue. You like a different kind of worship music? Read an “unauthorized” Bible translation? Have an “unorthodox” view about what happens during Communion? Think differently from me about a political issue? I have to go to war with you. “The faith” is threatened, and it needs me to defend it!
This is one of those places where context is key. Jude says that the faith is threatened because “certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.” He characterizes these people as “ungodly” and says that they “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”
It doesn’t take much thought to recognize that most of the things Christians tend to judge each other over do not rise to the level of twisting God’s grace into license for immorality or denying Jesus as King and Lord! People who disagree with you are generally not “ungodly.” They’re rarely, as Jude says later, “scoffers who follow their own evil desires,” and they haven’t snuck in with the express purpose of doing harm.
Paul had harsh words for people who would preach a different gospel — because the gospel didn’t belong to him, and it didn’t belong to them. But, in Acts, he meets a group of “disciples” who have only been baptized for repentance. He doesn’t blast them for their ignorance or treat them as though their faith is lacking, he simply teaches them about baptism into Christ. His colleagues, Priscilla and Aquila, teach Apollos, a powerful preacher of the gospel already, “the way of the Lord more perfectly.” They don’t insult him, they instruct him.
Jesus, who said his followers shouldn't judge, spoke strongly to people who used religion to weigh people down with expectations that no one could possibly bear. He was tough on people who covered injustice, selfishness, and mercilessness with a thin veneer of piety and religious busywork. What brought out the fire in Jesus was when people who claimed to know God didn’t listen to his invitation to enter the kingdom, and prevented other people from entering as well. But then, when those people had him crucified, he prayed that God would forgive them on the grounds that they had no idea what they were doing.
Paul said that a church should disassociate from a man living in flagrant, unrepentant sin — he says he’s “already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus” on this man. As he winds up his instructions on this matter, he tells the church that they aren't to judge those outside the church, but that they are to judge those inside and that, in this case, they should expel this man from the church. (In the hope that this will shake him enough that he will change his behavior and will still be saved.)
But he also says, just a few verses earlier, that the same church should “judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes,” because only Jesus will “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and…expose the motives of the heart.”
Jesus himself said that we shouldn’t judge, but he also said that we should use “right judgment” and not judge by appearances. And that may be the way we clear this up. Judging by appearance, according to Jesus, is not “right judgment.”
Yet we’re so quick to do exactly that, it seems. I recently saw one church criticizing another church publicly for a change they made in their worship music. Based on this change, they say this church is “compromising." They say that this church’s worship is "vain." Imagine that — one group of Christians saying that another group’s worship is “vain!” Ironically, Jesus (quoting Isaiah) uses that word to describe the worship of people who are teaching human rules while claiming to honor God.
Which of those two churches does that seem to best describe?
Judging by appearance isn’t isolated or unusual. How often have Christians made knee-jerk judgments based on a disagreement, a difference, a word, an action, even something like skin color, gender, age, or education level? Such a small percentage of the things we see each other do and hear each other say provides enough context for judgment that we should rarely feel that we have enough information about each others’ hearts and intentions to do so.
Still, Scripture does leave open the possibility that, from time to time, a brother or sister in Christ might deny the truth of the gospel by their words or actions. These folks won’t just be mistaken or misled — they’ll be trying to make rules for others to follow, denying God by their actions, and seeking to take advantage of religious beliefs for their own gain. They’ll be leading people away from trust in the work of God through Jesus. They’ll be trying to obscure their actions by saying one thing while doing another. Twisting the Bible to justify themselves. To speak against this kind of self-evident denial of the gospel is, unfortunately, necessary.
So we would be right to speak against abuse committed under religious cover. We’d be right to oppose a false gospel that leads people to pride in their own achievement, or rips their hearts out with demands that they can’t bear. We’d be right to raise our voices to resist hatred in the name of Jesus. We’d be right to stand against a “gospel” that promotes greed, or one that folds the good news of Jesus into patriotism or ethnic and racial superiority. We’d be right to resist any “gospel” that creates unrestrained license or crushing legalism.
To judge rightly is to remember that we’re never right when we forget love. It’s to always hope for reconciliation and redemption, and to be the first to offer forgiveness and mercy.
No, we shouldn’t judge. Except when, now and then, we must. Sniffing out and exposing error shouldn’t be our primary hobby. That can become its own false gospel. Then again, so can avoiding those times when we must make a right judgment.
May God give us the grace to judge rightly when we should, and to keep quiet when we don’t need to.