Can you make judgments without being judgmental?

This was originally posted back in 2011 on our church’s leadership blog when I was preaching through Romans 12.

In modern usage, “making moral judgments” and “being judgmental,” are nearly synonymous. It is impossible to say that a particular action is wrong (making a moral judgment) without also being labeled as judgmental. The Bible, on the other hand, regularly encourages us to make moral judgments (or more accurately faithfully accept the judgments revealed in God’s Word) while strongly arguing against being “judgmental.”

In Romans 14 Paul is addressing some conflicts in the church. Some (the “strong”) believe they can eat anything while others (the “weak”) believe Christians should be vegetarians (14:2). Additionally, some believed certain days to be especially holy while others saw every day alike (14:5a). Paul encourages both groups to make moral judgments. He explicitly tells them “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5b). He himself is unafraid to take sides, weighing on the side of the strong (14:14). At the same time, on several occasions, he tells them not to “pass judgment” (14:3, 10, 13). There are at least 5 distinctions in Romans 14 between making judgments and being judgmental.

Despising vs. Welcoming: On two of the three occasions when Paul speaks against being judgmental he pairs it with a strong relational term which the ESV translates “despise.” So he says in 14:3 “let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains” and rhetorically asks in 14:10 “why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you why do you despise your brother?” On the contrary, we are to “welcome” our brothers. Again, 14:3 says “let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” Likewise 15:7 says, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” In other words, being judgmental implies a relational division. In simply making moral judgments however, we are able to maintain relational ties.

Leaving the “Judgment” to God: Paul’s major reason we should not judge is found in the Lordship of Christ. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (14:4) We are not the Lord of anyone. We are not the Master. And since we are not the Master we have no right to judge as though we were one. Jesus’ Lordship is seen both now (while we are alive) and in the final judgment. We live and die to Him (14:7-9) and to Him alone – not to another master. Being judgmental means assuming that we have the right to be someone else’s god. Making moral judgments, on the contrary, leaves judgment and Lordship to God alone.

Examining ourselves before examining others: Considering the final judgment also forces us to examine ourselves first. Since we will be standing before the throne alone we need to make sure that what we do we “do to the Lord” (14:6) and that we do nothing that is not out of faith (14:23).  We live with the sobering reality that “each of us will give an account to himself before God.” (14:12) The one making a moral judgment is considering whether there is something within himself worthy of judging (14:22). The judgmental person looks only to the faults of others.

Looking for the Good: Paul is surprisingly generous with the “weak” even though he himself agrees with the “strong.” He says (even though he is convinced they are wrong) that what they are doing they are doing “unto the Lord.” They are doing it out of a clear conscience, pure motives, and a thankful heart. The man making a moral judgment looks for the good in others. The judgmental person, on the other hand, is not afraid to “destroy” his brother for the sake of food and drink (14:15-17) simply because he thinks he is right.

Finding Common Ground: Paul is able to speak as he does regarding “disputable matters” because he knows the church has much more important issues before them. They cannot afford to be distracted by less important things. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (14:17) Peace, mutual edification, and your brother’s or sister’s clean conscience are sometimes more important than being right. Making moral judgments sometimes means weighing what is truly central and what is tertiary. It means finding that which unifies (especially within the church) so that we can have perspective on that which divides. Being judgmental either blurs the lines between critical and non-critical issues are simply reverses the order.