“The Bible says not to judge,” my Sunday school classmate says to me.
I reply, “So, you’re making a judgment that my position on judgment is wrong?” I smile. “You see the irony here, right?”
The person stares. Perplexed. I certainly make my own judgment about their understanding of the Bible’s message about judgment, but I don’t condemn them. What’s the difference between judgment and condemnation? Glad you asked.
When you work in multiple settings, the overlaps can be interesting. That’s especially true when you’ve worked as a minister, a therapist and a professor.
Early in my career, I once was standing in line for a ski lift, saw a familiar face four lines away, thought it was someone I remembered from campus or church and waved enthusiastically. The man stared at me blankly, not sure I was waving at him. Searching my memory bank, I realized he had been a patient at a psychiatric hospital where I worked years earlier during graduate school two states away.
Later, in my therapy internship, I was taught to tell my clients: “If we run into each other in public, I will only acknowledge you if you acknowledge me.”
“I never expected an alignment of personal contacts quite like the one I had as professor and preacher.”
Yes, deeply personal issues often emerge in professional’s offices and at church. But I never expected an alignment of personal contacts quite like the one I had as professor and preacher.
The student’s sister
One day on campus, I came upon a student who was having car trouble. He asked me for a ride to his sister’s apartment about two miles away. Five minutes later, we pulled into a swanky apartment complex I didn’t even know was tucked in the forest I regularly drove past. As I looked at the brick entranceway and parking lot full of Porches and BMWs, my student started laughing at my raised eyebrows and said, “Pretty nice, huh? My sister works as a dancer at Bare Facts Exotic Nightclub. She makes $500 a night in tips. She …”
His phone rang. “Hey, where you been? I just pulled in your parking lot. … Yeah. One of my professors brought me. … Oh, you’re here. … OK, yeah, I see you.”
A few moments later I was being introduced to his sister, who looked like any college-aged Sunday school teacher in any church where the parents all look like athletes and models. My mind was racing with “What have I gotten myself into? What if …? No, you’re just dropping off a student. Nothing will come of this.”
Meeting at the Communion table
A few months later I was the guest preacher at a church about an hour away. You know: the church where my student and his sister grew up and were back to visit. They were sitting on the same pew with their parents.
When the service was over, I was mingling with well-wishers near the Communion table. Eventually, I started a conversation with a man who was telling me about how much my message meant to him in the context of life since his divorce of a few years before. We were having a delightful conversation.
Suddenly, due to the motion of the earth’s rotation, a sunbeam hit the man in the eyes, and we had to pivot out of the light. He started to resume the conversation, but then I saw his eyes looking past me. He became very deer-eyed, and his chin dipped. His manly face suddenly had the look of a boy who was denying getting into the cake but who had chocolate all over his face.
“His manly face suddenly had the look of a boy who was denying getting into the cake but who had chocolate all over his face.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw my student and his sister talking with other college-aged students. Speaking almost more to himself than to me, and with his last word accenting the disdain throughout his remark, he said, “Come on, let’s get away from the stripper.”
As we walked out of the sanctuary, I did the math based on assumptions fueled by experiences of seeing that face on many clients — and having felt it on my own — during confession. Those deer eyes and lowered chin seemed to be a tell of guilt.
I had a good idea what might have happened. One night, out on the town with the boys, the man had been whooping it up at Bare Facts Exotic Nightclub. Maybe he had been ogling at and enamored by a young woman. Maybe he was about to or already had put a five or ten in her garter. Suddenly, beneath her heavily made-up face, he recognized the daughter of a family he’d gone to church with for years.
Initially, I inwardly laughed as I thought, “I don’t think your last meeting was what the program promoters meant by ‘See You at the Pole.’” But then I replayed in my head the condemning words and tone when he had said, “Come on, let’s get away from the stripper.”
A tale as old as time
I wondered if he had read The Scarlet Letter or Simon Birch. Having written that last sentence, I’m aware of what an old theme this essay addresses: those most loudly condemning irreverent behavior often are purveyors of irreverence. It’s such a trope. A broken record. By now we shouldn’t be touching such clichés with a 10-foot stripper pole.
Yet here we are. Again. The human condition. Like cars needing to refill, we have to keep coming back to the station. So, let’s return to the filling/charging station to refuel our individual tanks/batteries.
Regarding the reaction of the man in that sanctuary, as clear as it appeared to be on his face, I knew I was assuming how he knew the young woman’s line of work. Yet, I felt awkward asking how he knew, although now I think I might do exactly that.
Back then, I merely thought and did not say, “Dude, while I’m no fan of exploiting either others or self, if it’s OK for you to watch a woman take off her clothes, and then OK for you to come to church, then it’s OK for her to take off her clothes and then come to church.” In the words of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 7:2 — ‘For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.’”
What it means to ‘judge’
The verse before that is one of the most misapplied in all of Scripture. Folks often say, “The Bible says not to judge.” OK, yeah, Matthew 7:1 does say, “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” However, what does that mean?
In the Bible, the word “judge” is as problematic as the word “fear.” The Bible says perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). However, the Bible also says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Which is it? It depends on context.
Similarly, while Matthew 7 technically says not to judge, Luke 17:3 reports that Jesus said, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender.” Following the command of Jesus on this point requires making a judgment. Whether or not fear and judgment are bad or good depends on what kind of fear and what kind of judgment.
Judgment that is unfair is out of bounds. Suppose I say, “I am 6.15 units tall, but Super Bowl-MVP Peyton Manning is just 2.13 units tall.” It sounds like I am much taller than Peyton. However, I used a ruler to measure myself and a yard stick to measure Manning. My fellow University of Tennessee alum is at least 3 inches taller than I am. Not using the “same measure” is unfair — whether in height (in the case of myself and Manning) or in nightlife (as with a double standard between carousing men and the women they ogle). We must be fair. Fair judgment of this kind always starts in the mirror.
“Also out of bounds is judgment that crosses the line to condemnation.”
Also out of bounds is judgment that crosses the line to condemnation. Where is the line? It’s similar to the line between guilt and shame.
Researcher-storyteller Brené Brown says guilt prompts us to say, “I did a bad thing”; shame prompts us to say, “I am a bad thing.” Brown stresses that shame is overcome by believing “I am worthy of love and belonging.” Similarly, judgment says, “You did an unhealthy thing.” Condemnation says, “You are a bad thing. In fact, you are not worthy of love and belonging.”
What’s an example of judgment that is unfair and condemning? One example is a man going to an erotic nightclub but then coming to a sanctuary and believing the woman moving from erotic nightclub to sanctuary is not as worthy to be at the Communion table as he is.
Take the log out
However, let’s not condemn him. His condemnation grows out of pain and insecurities that plague all of us. Also, let’s remember that the Matthew 7 passage starting with “Do not judge” ends with, “First take the log out of your own eye and then you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
So, it’s OK to make a judgment that something is unhealthy, as long as we are fair and uncondemning. We can make a judgment that the man was being condemning while we ourselves don’t condemn him for doing so.
It is essential to remember: When it comes to who is welcome at the Communion table, the Apostle Paul made it clear that each individual is responsible for assessing themselves. In his first letter to the church at Corinth (the debauched Las Vegas of the time), Paul was addressing using sacred meals in a greedy and gluttonous way. They did not just have a nibble of bread and thimbleful of Welches. They had genuine Communion meals, but some in the Corinthian church were not approaching it as corporate worship.
Still, Paul didn’t say for Faction A to stop Faction B. In 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 he said, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (emphasis added).
“God’s table is open to all, for no one is perfect.”
It’s important to note, any “unworthiness” to be at the table was based on their selfish motives for being at the table and not because of their job or political position on a social issue. God’s table is open to all, for no one is perfect.
Worthy of love and belonging
If each of us knows we need fairness and grace, what drives us to be so unfair and contemptuous to others? What drives a strip-club patron to condemn the strippers? What motivates a stripper to speak derisively of someone who is “vanilla?” The naked truth is that our condemnation of others makes us feel better about ourselves.
That brings us full circle back to our need to truly feel — as Brené Brown says — “worthy of love and belonging.”
For Christians, the assurance of love and belonging should eliminate condemnation rather than multiplying it. We need to see our hypocritical contempt as the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 says the fruits of connection to God’s Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
“The assurance of love and belonging should eliminate condemnation rather than multiplying it.”
By contrast, prior verses in that chapter identify the works of human carnality as “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.”
Discerning the difference between fruits of the Spirit and works of the flesh requires making judgments. But unfair and contemptuous judgments cross the line to divisive impurity.
John 8:1-11 — the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery — does not appear in the oldest manuscripts. However, in the story Jesus makes the judgment that the men about to stone her were being hypocritical. After they leave, he says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way, and from now do not sin again.”
Saying “Do not sin again” makes the judgment that sin had been committed. But rather than being condemning, Jesus was compassionate.
So, wherever we are working — from farm to factory; from board room to classroom; from athletic field to hospital; or from burlesque to abbey: we all need holy sanctuary. We all need to be fair and filled with grace. That’s what’s left when we strip down to the bare facts of naked and unashamed true communion.
Brad Bull is a private practice family therapist. Referencing one of his favorite childhood books, Caps for Sale, he is the author of Restacking Our Caps and Loving the Monkeys Who Took Them—Blunders, Conflicts, and Redemption in the Early Journey of a Peddler of Soul Mending.
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