'Don't judge me': Why Christians need to challenge the assumption that taking sides is wrong

Judges in the House of Lords. Christians are called to make judgments about right and wrong, argues Ian Paul.Reuters

I have a guilty secret. Every Saturday morning, whenever I am at home, I have a lie-in. Not just any old lie-in; it follows a particular routine. I get up, go downstairs, and take our dog for a walk. Then I prepare breakfast and take it upstairs again, and my wife and I have breakfast in bed.

And then...I stay there. It is my one moment of indulgent behaviour – don't judge me for it!  But what it does mean is that, most Saturdays, I tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4 with the Rev Richard Coles.

Richard is wonderful to listen to. He is interesting, witty and poetic. Every link sounds as though it has been finely crafted. And, like any good chat-show host, he is non-judgemental. After all, why would anyone come on a show to be quizzed or questioned? You want your story to be listened to with interest.

So it was fascinating to hear him the other week talking to Boris Becker, the youngest ever player to win Wimbledon at the age of 17. During the conversation, Richard talked about Becker's "unusual family arrangements" as giving him a "richness of personal experience". He was referring to Becker's widely reported one-night stand with a Russian model in a restaurant when his wife was pregnant with their second child. The encounter led to the birth of a child by the woman, and to Becker's divorce from his wife.

All this got me thinking. Becker was clearly happy with the non-judgemental tone of the discussion. But I wonder what his wife would have thought about it? The sense of neutrality about what was perhaps the worst form of betrayal within a marriage could only be received as a slap in the face. And that's the problem with not being judgemental: not to judge is to judge. When we decide not to take a position on an issue, we are in fact taking a position: if we don't disapprove, we are offering our tacit approval.

Culture's ambiguity

I think this is the dilemma behind our culture's ambiguity in relation to offering judgements. On the one hand, we value freedom—the freedom to act in a way which is in line with our conscience. But when people offer judgements about our use of freedom, we get, well, very judgemental. So (to offer an 'extreme' example), David Cameron has been happy to state his intolerance of intolerance, his condemnation of 'extremism'. But this only raises the question: how 'extreme' do you have to be in order to provoke this intolerance? What degree of intolerance, and in what aspects of life, merits this intolerant response?

This cultural dilemma makes itself felt in the Church as well. It is more and more common to summarise the gospel as "Don't judge." This in part arises from Jesus' own teaching: "Judge not, lest you be judged" (Matthew 7:1) he says, in one of his many pithy aphorisms. But it seems to have gathered force in a culture which does not like other people interfering in our own lives. Who are they to tell us what we can and cannot do, how we should live?

As a result, many people dislike the whole notion of judgement—and they particularly dislike the culture of a Church which appears to be self-satisfied and judgemental, where you have to pretend to be something you are not in order to be welcomed. After all, all sorts of people appear to have felt welcomed by Jesus.

And there's the paradox. Neither Jesus nor Paul appeared to have had any qualms about rendering judgement. This is sometimes seen in direct rebukes, both to Jesus' own followers as well as to those on the outside, but it is also seen in the 'vice lists' that appear in the gospels and Paul's letters. These lists often mention sexual sin, but they also consistently include things like greed, selfishness, putting others down, lying, and so forth.

A classic example comes in Mark 7. Jesus first criticises the Pharisees outside his group for their hypocrisy and then rebukes his own followers for being slow to understand. This leads him to express 12 'vices', many of which are based on the 10 Commandments:

"What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you" (Mark 7:20–23).

Prejudice and intolerance

It seems as though there are things that we should make judgements about and this is actually part of loving people (assuming that Jesus perfectly expressed God's love). We should not presume to judge prematurely or out of our own prejudice and intolerance. But that does not mean we should ever make judgements. In fact, both Jesus and Paul expect Jesus' followers to be able to make judgements – to discern between what is right and what is wrong.

How, then, do we make sense of Jesus' prohibition on 'judging others'? Perhaps the key is in the second half of his saying: "...lest you be judged". People find judgement most distasteful when those rendering judgement appear to think that they themselves are immune from it. Jesus makes clear that none of us is free from the judgement of God; the declaration of what God approves and disapproves of is a vital part of helping us to grow in holiness.

When we are honest about the fact that we, too, stand under the judgement of God's truth, then that lends our judgements a quite different tone. This still might not be popular, but if we never make judgements about what is right and wrong, we are withholding an important part of the truth about ourselves and about God. And without that we cannot be truly loving.

Rev Dr Ian Paul is associate minister at St Nic's, Nottingham, and Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. He blogs at www.psephizo.com and tweets at @Psephizo.