From the Archives – Can We Be Discerning Without Being Judgmental?

Good judgment is a function of wisdom, and exercising it—in the form of discernment—is a Christian duty. The Psalmist prays for discernment (Psalm 19:12), Proverbs exalts it (Prov. 14:8), and Paul prays that believers will abound in it (Phil. 1:9).

Tim Challies’ definition of discernment is as good as any I’ve seen (I have not yet read the book):

Discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the purpose of separating truth from error and right from wrong.

But sometimes when we think we’re exercising discernment, we’re really just being judgmental. We’ve taken a noble and nurturing love for truth and turned it into something ugly, harmful, and infectious. Those who are most zealous for truth and discernment may well be the quickest to stumble into judgmentalism.

So how do we tell the difference? How do we actively practice discernment (Heb. 5:14) without becoming one of those frowning, finger-pointing, spirit-crushing, accusers of the brethren?

Five Features of Judgmentalism

I believe five distinguishing features of judgmentalism can help us identify and avoid it.

1. Eagerness

Part of what Jesus is doing in Matthew 7:1-2 is encouraging a reluctance to pass judgment on others. He does not say never judge, and a few verses later, without using the word “judge,” He encourages His hearers to look at the “fruit” in people’s lives and decide what sort of “tree” they are (Matt. 7:18-20).

Still, His warning that judging tends to result in being judged—and by the same standard (Matt. 7:2)—is at the very least, intended to created some hesitation, caution, and reflection. We are not supposed to be eager to find fault with people or quick to believe we’re qualified to declare the fault we think we’ve found (Matt. 7:4-5).

When I’m in “I’m right and you’re wrong” mode, or it’s cousin, “We’re right and They’re wrong” mode, I really need to pause and ask myself: Am I enjoying this a bit too much?

It isn’t a coincidence that love “keeps no accounts of evil” (1 Cor. 13:5) or that Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10) and seems to take great pleasure in accusing them “day and night before our God.”

An eagerness to find fault and pronounce judgment is no part of discernment.

2. Harshness

Jesus reserved His harshest words for special occasions and targeted a special few (Matt. 25, for example). His demeanor toward garden variety sinners, though, was notably different:

  • Compassion (Mark 6:34)
  • Grief (Luke 13:34)
  • Connection (Mark 2:16-17, Luke 19:5)
  • Gentleness (John 5:14, Luke 7:47-48)

Jesus was not in the business of crushing bruised reeds and quenching smoldering wicks (Matt. 12:20). Rather, He measured out the severity of His judgment and His words sparingly, carefully avoiding rhetorical excessive force.

Paul identifies this quality of gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, and His instructions to Timothy are potent on this point as well:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV, 2 Tim. 2:24-26)

Discernment is a thoughtful and measured activity. If we’ve slipped into a harsh tone, there’s a strong possibility that we’re just being judgmental.

3. Expansiveness

Judgmentalism is characterized not only by eagerness and harshness, but also by exceeding our mandate, so to speak—trying to be the referee from the back row of the stands.

When I’m watching one of my son’s softball games, I’m aware that softball is a relatively uncomplicated game. There’s a chance I might see something the referee has missed. It might even be something important—but that doesn’t make it my call.

In Romans 14, the apostle Paul seems to be addressing this tendency to overextend our judgment:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4)

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Rom. 14:10)

When I’m going about the business of discernment, question I need to ask myself some questions: Is this really in my jurisdiction? Do I have any business forming an opinion on this, and even if so, do I have any business voicing it?

It’s hard to be sure what situation David had in mind in Psalm 113, but the verse often comes to my mind in the context of discernment and judgmentalism:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. (Psalm 131:1)

What’s beyond doubt is that some matters are not our business (Prov. 26:17), and part of avoiding judgmentalism is being wary of overstepping our authority.

4. Superficiality

Judgmentalism thrives on, among other things, human laziness. It’s easier to look at “the outward appearance” (1 Sam. 16:7), then classify and characterize (often emphatically), than it is to consider that the situation may be more than it seems. But both charity and wisdom call us to go beyond merely seeing. We must try to perceive.

  • The way that seems right often isn’t (Prov. 14:12).
  • We should not “regard … according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).
  • We should try to avoiding hastily answering matters we haven’t adequately investigated (Prov.18:13).
  • What seems true after the testimony of one, often seems false after hearing more (Prov. 18:17).

It’s true that Paul felt entitled to judge an issue in the Corinthian church without even being there (1 Cor. 5:3), but the context of his statement shows that he had gone to the trouble to gather good information from sources connected both to himself and the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1, 1:11). In any case, Paul either had all the facts he needed to judge the situation or possessed insight as part of his apostolic gifts.

When Jesus told us to evaluate people by their “fruit” (Matt. 7:18-20), He wasn’t calling us to judge only by the most obvious, conspicuous appearances.

5. Pride

One of the most beautiful passages in the NT is found in 1 Corinthians 6:11, particularly the phrase “such were some of you.” We’ve all either come out of, or temporarily picked up, something on that list, or one of the others in the NT. That doesn’t nullify the Matthew 7 call to evaluate metaphorical trees by looking at their fruit. It doesn’t release us from the duty to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) or train our spiritual senses (Heb. 5).

What it does do is compel us to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3). It drives us to take heed lest we, too, fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12). It demands that when we find fault, we do so with compassion, lowliness of mind, and a desire to construct rather than destruct.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, one was judgmental and the other was discerning, choosing to tell himself the truth about himself before any thought of declaring the truth about others to others. We all know which of the two we’d rather hang out with.

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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There are 5 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Probably the most important category when we consider whether we're veering into judgmentalism is whether the matter is indeed a Biblical imperative, or whether it's actually more cultural.

It also ought to be noted that as we consider whether something is too harsh, or the speaker is too eager, Scripture has a bunch of places where Christ, the prophets, and the apostles respond quickly and emphatically to these errors, in places being (Galatians 5:12 for example, "brood of vipers", "whitewashed tombs", etc..) downright savage. Were they being too harsh, judgmental, prideful, or hasty?  I don't think that we can say that.

The biggest issue with this is that if we evaluate too closely on the tone, rather than taking a look at the content and whether it's true, we're going to tend to ignore the complaints we most desperately need to hear while exiling those who bring them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't think any one factor is quite adequate to define judgmentalism, though it wouldn't necessarily have to include all five of the ones I noted. ... nor do those five exhaust the list. But they are features.

It might be best to think of harshness as the opposite of the "fruit of the spirit" Galatians calls gentleness--which I take to mean not using excessive force (whether emotional or physical or any other form). So I wouldn't say Jesus or the prophets were ever harsh in that sense. They were disciplined and measured and used the intensity appropriate to their calling and the situation they were in. So, qualities like meekness and gentleness don't always look like what we would think of as gentle and meek.

... which leads us back to not overvaluing appearances--4. superficiality.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

I'll agree that Christ, the Apostles, and the Prophets were not unduly harsh, but the thing that comes to mind is that all too often, our culture seems to assume that a raised voice constitutes undue harshness.  So it's important to remind people that in the Bible, it was very common and accepted to have a raised voice or a very direct rebuke in many instances.  In some instances--whitewashed tombs, brood of vipers, Temple clearing, emasculate themselves, hung like horses and emissions like donkeys--those words must be seen as appropriate and loving, but they were simultaneously "fighting words" to the Pharisees and other enemies of God.

So we would not say merely that it is harsh, but rather that our test is that it not be disproportionately harsh.  And then we need to emphasize that some things--compromise on fundamentals really, egregious sin--are indeed worth raising one's voice.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't thnk I disagree.

The conditions that determine an appropriate response to something "bad," are complex and there's no substitute for wisdom.

I am coming at it from a somewhat different direction though, I think. From where I sit, I see a society that is full of overheated rhetoric, excessive hype, and emotionalism and sentimentality of every kind. There is always a risk of responding too mildly--on an emotional level--to a great evil. But given our context, it's evident that the risk of that is far, far less than the risk of excess emoting and harshness.

And who says a response needs to be emotionally intense to be strong? This is also an assumption we've picked up from romanticism. I'm reminded of "speak softly and carry a big stick." Because we're humans, there is going to be feeling when we're being real. People let that feeling show to varying degrees. But what matters is that we affirm truth and do the right thing... not how vehement we are.

So I say, with some vehemence (but not very much, lol), there is way too much vehemence these days.

And, getting back to the point of the article, vehemence or emotional intensity or whatever one wants to call it is characteristic of judgmentalism. It frequently flows from arrogance, self-righteousness, and lack of self discipline. C.f. Proverbs.

Truth doesn't usually get more powerful when we shout it.

That's a bit of understatement. There are rare situations where it might "get through" better, but for every one time that's the case there are hundreds when the hearer is only hardened more by the brow beating.

... which was part of Jesus' purpose. The crowd He railed against was already condemned and He made no effort to reach them. But this is not what Christians are called to do in the world in this age. We are "like Christ" in many ways but we do not have His authority to determine who is beyond hope.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joeb's picture

Paul spells it out in my mind in the above chapter but the Christian Right violates what Paul says in SPADES. Even in the context of the Roman Government we are not suppose to JUDGE the non believers as an emphasis. That's up to God.  We are suppose to only deal with the ones in our flock.
 

 The SBC REPORT truly makes it clear that the SBC Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) Pastors and churches  who I refer as the SBC Trump Wing did not do that for 20 years.  Based on that no Christian should vote for most Christian Right Candidates especially if their tied to Donald Trump.

That's my take and the whole thing begs that more real Christians deal with their brothers in a loving way but firm way.  We need to use common sense and act Biblically.  The way things are going now the Young People want nothing to do with the church and I don't blame them one bit.  Even they can see that Pastors are not using good judgement in their actions.  The Church in the US is struggling and needs to get back to the basics and besides just voting they need to abandon all politics in an organized way.  Paul spells it out in my mind we need to worry about our own and not so heavily focus on the non believers.  
 

I thank God for people like Aaron and Bert and other SI members.  I tell you what it's been very trying for me not to walk away from the Lord since COVID and DONALD. I'm dealing with a Daughter whose in and out of the hospital and fighting for her life which I saw my mother suffer for 40 years. My heart is crushed to see her and her husband and my 2 year old grand child go through these trials.  When I see how the church has behaved itself in the US and partake in Criminal behavior and violence and the aggressiveness all for that DONALD it's unbelievable.  Im ready to walk away. 
 

Note I do follow a Former SBC African American Pastor who left the SBC along with many other African American Pastors.  This Pastor opinioned that White Pastors in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement were much less RACIST then the White Pastors in the SBC CBN as a whole.  Kudos to the IFB.  They are trying to change for the better.  This Pastor says he has more friends with White Pastors in the IFB movement now than the SBC.  Very interesting perspective. 

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