I often read comments that people make on various posts, news articles, etc. It can provide an interesting insight into the way people think. It can also often be disheartening, for many times a lack of charity is in full display.
In my last post I wrote about the Catholic understanding that while we may realize that certain acts are objectively sinful, only God can judge how accountable a person is for that action and judge a person’s soul. And this is true.
But does that mean that we overlook behaviors that are sinful? In our culture today, we often seem to equate judging behavior with judging the person. When I read an article for example that identifies a certain action or behavior as sinful, invariably there will be an onslaught of comments that we “shouldn’t judge,” it is not our place to judge it is God’s, the author is being “judgmental,” the Bible tells us not to judge, etc. Without fail.
However, I have also noticed that this applies only to certain behaviors and not all. I can promise that if you read an article about child abuse you find no such comments about not judging the abuser. In the case of that objectively sinful behavior people are often quite willing to step into God’s place and judge not just the behavior but the person.
This has led me to the personal opinion that the admonishment by many to “not judge” is really rooted more in our personal view of what is and is not sin rather than any true sense of not judging people. Regardless of what Scripture and the Church have to say about a particular behavior, if our personal opinion says it is not sinful then out comes “the Bible says you shouldn’t judge” mantra. And we often totally miss the paradox that we’re issuing judgment on the person who dared to call a certain behavior sinful when we pronounce them as being “judgmental.” But if we’re talking about a behavior we deem sinful then it’s perfectly fine to issue judgment.
In reality, judging behavior is very different than judging the person. However, it is by no means easy to judge behavior with such charity that the person doesn’t feel “judged.” I can’t say that I know the answer to that. And because of the fear of hurting someone’s feelings or damaging a relationship we often tend to avoid the discussion altogether.
But we forget that “admonishing the sinner” is one of the spiritual works of mercy identified by the Church and is soundly based in Sacred Scripture. Yes, that’s right. The Bible has a lot to say about judging behavior, and the often repeated “judge not” is snatched out of context and held up as a standard in a way that is actually contrary with Sacred Scripture. This popular meme illustrates that point.
If we read the full context of Matthew Chapter 7, we see Jesus says “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
Jesus here clearly warns us to not be focused on the sins of others while ignoring our own, as that will certainly lead to our own destruction. But he still tells us we should “take the speck” out of our brother’s eye. He doesn’t tell us to ignore it in some spirit of “not judging.”
The apostle James tell us “My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)
St. Paul actually draws a line between judging the actions of those inside the Church and those outside. His insight is that fraternal correction should apply to other Christians, not unbelievers. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 he writes “ I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you.”
And St. Paul speaks to the need to admonish the sinner multiple times. In Galatians 6:1-2 he says “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” In Colossians 3:16 he says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 he writes “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
In 1 Timothy 5:20 St. Paul even provides the following instruction to church leadership – “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” It’s interesting to think about how that action by a pastor would be received today…
The bottom line I think is that we need to resist the culture that seeks to silence us with a popular but incorrect view that the Bible tells us “not to judge” specific behaviors as being wrong. Easier said than done, I know. The USCCB offers these guidelines:
ADMONISHING THE SINNER
Do not judge, but be supportive in helping others find their way and correct their mistakes. Together we can learn to walk more closely with Christ.
- In humility we must strive to create a culture that does not accept sin, while realizing that we all fall at times
- Don’t judge, but guide others towards the path of salvation (see Mt 7:1-2)
- When you correct someone, don’t be arrogant. We are all in need of God’s loving correction.
- We should journey together to a deeper understanding of our shared faith
- “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:5)
You can read more on the spiritual works of mercy here: