Recent controversies about the nature of marriage, assisted suicide, the conduct and personnel policies of Christian institutions, and other fraught questions have brought to the forefront of civic discourse among Christians a reticence to be perceived as making judgments. American Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, are judgment-shy. This is not without reason. A handful of prominent Christians have expressed judgment in unloving ways, and a willing secular media has celebrated them as typical Christians. But it is an over-reaction to empty oneself of all practical judgment. The effect of non-judgmentalism is to replace, Seek first the Kingdom of God, with, Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
One species of the broader phenomenon of non-judgmentalism is today far too prevalent among many Christians. It takes the form of the trope that to affirm the categorical and absolute moral norms contained in natural law, human law, or (especially) the Bible or Christian teaching is judgmental, and therefore wrong. Call it the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion. The assertion is both incoherent and unloving.
We might note in passing that behind the assertion is pride dressed up as humility. I am not like those who are judgmental. I don’t judge. But leave that aside and focus here on the problems with the assertion itself.
The Non-Judgmentalist Assertion: Incoherent and Unloving
The first problem is the assertion’s incoherence. The Non-Judgmentalist Assertion generally takes one of three forms. The non-judgmentalist might assert that: (1) A’s action of judging wrongful the action of B is wrong; or (2) A’s action of judging B for taking some action is wrong; or (3) A deserves disapprobation for judging the actions of B or for judging B.
Notice that 1 and 3 are operationally self-refuting. If it is wrong to judge another’s actions wrongful then there is no basis to judge wrongful the act of judging someone’s actions wrongful. If it is wrong to judge a person then there is no basis for judging the person who judges.
In fact, those who assert the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion have no principled objection to judging. Instead, they object to making judgments with which others disagree, or which are controversial, or which might hurt someone’s feelings (unless that someone is deemed, in the judgment of the non-judgmentalist, to be judgmental). Notice that these criteria are entirely subjective. Some judgments should be judged right and others wrong, but not according to the truth or falsity of the judgment.
Form 2 of the assertion is not self-refuting but it generally lands well wide of its intended target. It consists of the non-sequitor that to judge someone’s action (eg, an act of intentional self-destruction, or non-marital intimacy, or abortion) to be wrongful is to judge the person (eg, the destination of her soul or her putatively lesser moral status). This canard is so obviously absurd that it borders on bad faith.
The second problem, which deserves more attention, is just how unloving the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion really is. If someone I love is engaged in wrong conduct then I ought to–and will, if I genuinely love him or her–point out that what he or she is doing is wrong and is likely to lead to a harmful end.
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. So how do I love myself? Well, I love myself first by rendering practical judgments upon my own choices and actions, then by acting upon those judgments. I judge that it is better to brush my teeth than to let them rot, and I love myself by acting on that judgment. I love myself by judging that I should not ingest heroin, commit adultery, or eat that extra cookie; and by judging that I ought to read good books, give to charities, and take the stairs rather than the elevator. I render these judgments on the grounds not only that acting rightly will please God, but also that acting rightly will go well for me.
Actions that are good and right are directed toward good and right ends—life, health, knowledge, community, and virtue. Actions that are bad and wrong are directed toward death, illness, ignorance, alienation, and vice, or are directed at good ends by wrongful means. Because one must distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, in order to act well, judgment is necessarily entailed in self-love. Precisely to the extent that I judge my actions good and bad, right and wrong, and act upon those judgments I am loving myself. Precisely to the extent that I fail to make those judgments or fail to act upon them I fail to love myself.
For “my” and “myself” in the previous two sentences substitute “my neighbor’s” and “my neighbor.” The logic is the same. So, judgment is entailed in loving one’s neighbor.
Don’t we want our lives to go well for us? Of course we do; we act like we do. The question therefore is: Why don’t we want our neighbors’ lives to go well for them, too?
Of course, pleasing God is also important. Right judgments evince a will that is pointed toward God’s eternal kingdom. Wrong judgments, or a refusal to make right judgments (which often amounts to the same thing as wrong judgments), evince a will that is directed toward That Other Place. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Christ told us.
God calls us to love others as He loves us. And God is not content to leave us in our rebellion and sin precisely because He loves us. Right judgment is entailed in His love; it necessary precedes his mercy and grace.
The truth is that the authority of God and the love of God are inextricably tied together. Without the love of God the righteous judgment of God would destroy us all. But without right judgment, love is meaningless. We are called to share God’s love, not to mouth insipid greeting-card slogans.
Anticipating Some Objections
Yes, yes, I know: Judge not, lest you be judged, and all that. (Matthew 7:1-6, for those of you not proof-texting at home.) This is followed by the admonition first to remove the plank from our own eyes, and then to remove the speck from the other guy’s eye. It does not take a theologian or Bible scholar to notice that, in context, this cannot mean, Never make any moral judgments. For Christ admonishes his followers to make all sorts of judgments, many involving people other than themselves. And having first removed the wood from one’s own eye, what loving Christian leaves his friends to walk around blind?
I am emphatically not suggesting that we ought to walk around thumping people on the head with a King James Bible yelling, Repent thou sinner!, as if we are not sinners ourselves. But we should not fail to speak of the reality and effects of sin. In a world that has forgotten how to live well, we sometimes need to exercise right judgment about actions not only with our lives but also with our mouths.
I am also emphatically not claiming that we should render judgment about the eternal fate of the people who take wrong actions. There are many tepid people who avoid grave sins but also fail to love God and their neighbors (perhaps I am one of them); just as there are many people who burn hot as they run in all directions, who make tragic blunders and perform heroic deeds of faith and love (perhaps I am one of them, too). Which one gets the eternal reward? I have no idea. The point is that we should be prepared to admonish the tepid person to perform great deeds and to admonish the fiery person to avoid pitfalls. And we should be prepared to do this whether the tepid or fiery person is ourselves or someone else.
Yes, Christians are called to exercise mercy, and to forgive. And notice that the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion renders that call meaningless. Show mercy in lieu of what righteous, just response? Forgive what offense? The non-judgmentalist has no answer. Only the person who judges rightly can show mercy. Only someone who recognizes wrong can forgive that wrong.
Loving by Judging
How can we judge well so that we can love our neighbors well? Serious Christians ought to give that question serious consideration, yet in our day the problem is largely unexplored. In the space I have left, allow me to open to view just one area in need of exploration.
Consider how Christians might respond to the marriage crisis that our nation is currently experiencing. Many Christians are reticent to speak out about the evils of divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and out-of-wedlock birth for fear of offending divorced people, single mothers, and sexually-active young people. But consider that many of those people might actually want us to judge. For example, in our age of unmarried cohabitation and no-fault divorce, many single parents, divorced people, and especially children have been wronged by unfaithful exes and parents but have been denied the vindication that attends a legal judgment in their favor. By expressing moral disapproval of infidelity and abandonment we demonstrate our concern for those who have been harmed by the licentiousness of the sexual revolution and our belief that the wrongs they have suffered really matter.
And even those who do not want to hear our moral expressions might need to hear them. If a man is considering leaving his wife or his pregnant girlfriend and no one is willing to challenge him to be manly—to honor the obligations he has created for himself—then he is far more likely to perform an action that will cause tangible harm to his girlfriend, wife, or children and great moral harm to himself.
There is more to it than this, of course. But we need to start by acknowledging that exercising right judgment about human choices and actions—our own and others’—is the loving thing to do.