“But woe to you…”: Towards a Judgmental Church

This is a re-post.

I frequently hear the refrain that “church” ought to be less judgemental; that, in fact, the church should get out of the business of judging altogether. The church is called to love and this precludes an exercise of evaluative judgement, especially towards other people; or so the argument goes.

In this post I want to put down in writing the discomfort I feel regarding this rhetoric of anti-judgement. Besides seemingly being ignorant of Scripture and Jesus’s own proclivity towards very judgemental words and actions, there are two broad problems I have with “non-judgemental church”.

First, the call for a non-judgemental church is steeped in privilege and secretly re-enacts oppressive moves. In brief, I find it difficult to see how a non-judgemental stance does anything other than legitimize oppressive action. When, for example, in Canada, we look at centuries of ongoing white colonization or the web of deliberate lies, cover-ups, and misinformation involved in increasing environmental degradation and do not judge it, we legitimize it. When we do not judge (harshly judge!) such violences and their perpetrators we proclaim that either these destructive actions are not really destructive or that they are but that this is not a problem. In either case, in going through the motions of non-judgemental openness, we give our tacit or explicit approval to oppression. In doing so we absolve ourselves and others from responsibility for our/their actions, for these actions will not be judged and thus must not matter too much. If, on the contrary, we desire real changes towards just societies then we need to acknowledge that such change involves judgement. That is, we must name certain actions and behaviours as utterly impermissible and work to move ourselves and others away from these. Otherwise we’re putting forward an ignorant and sentimentalized version of “justice” and “love”. Love or justice that does not judge is neither love nor justice but a simple denial that oppression and suffering are real problems. (As a sidenote, this is also why asking people whether they worship a “God of love” or a “God of judgement” is a tremendously stupid question.)

I’ve tried to re-name “anti-judgement” as a denial or approval of oppression. In doing so I think that the extent to which such rhetoric stems from privilege becomes more apparent. Who gets to declare that a space is “judgement free”? Answer: those who do not experience systemic oppression and hence have or see no need for judgement in their day-to-day lives. Those of us in such a position can deny the reality of judgement, because we are not negatively affected by the dominant, prevailing judgements and oppressions of our society. This simply allows the judgements and oppressions of our society to secretly perpetuate; further, because they are hidden and denied (part of our stones and our grass, not our official rules and policies) it becomes difficult or impossible to name or fight against them. And, not only do those of us with privilege not feel the pressure of such oppression, but we are the ones in a position to decide what flies and what does not fly in our spaces. In this way, the declaration of non-judgement re-enacts yet another oppressive silencing, where we once again unilaterally tell our others what they need to do if they wish to join our “loving-not-judging” fellowship. Thus, it robs the oppressed and marginalized of their voices and, in fact, turns them into sinners for speaking or even thinking negative, judgemental ideas. Mennonites, for example, have a shameful history in this regard when it comes to domestic abuse, both implicitly and (shockingly) explicitly telling women in situations of domestic abuse to be patiently loving rather than judgemental. Of course this strategy only reinforces and perversely legitimizes the position and action of the oppressor(s) and disallows any possibility of change or redemption for either oppressor or oppressed.

Second, an attitude of non-judgementalism posits a false view of what it means to be in loving community, as if living peacefully together means avoiding confrontation. Acting as though our differences of opinion and action are not worthy of judgement has the effect of erasing these differences. This disallows engagement, vigorous discussion, disagreement, and true consensus. To return to my earlier examples, in the past decade I’ve seen many church members (many of them leaders) take decisive and passionate action on environmental issues and settler-indigenous relations. Based on this, I think it’s safe to say that these issues matter a great deal to our churches. However, I’ve seen very little concrete, unified action on the part of church bodies on either of these issues.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for most churches today to practice a meaningful and unified body politic in these regards precisely because such action would demand that we name sin and work towards enacting a unified moral stance that is in but not of the world. Doing this would mean enacting firm, meaningful judgement, both on the sinful practices of the world and on those sinful practices that have made their way into (or indeed stemmed from) the life of the church.

These are the broad problems I have with “non-judgemental church” and I think they speak decisively, but I also expect that the discussion can’t end with them. For the matter of judgement quickly becomes a complicated issue in practice. I once heard a pastor say that he was extremely reticent to ever offer specific judgement or condemnation from the pulpit because “the people who most need it never receive it, while those who have already been beaten down just get dumped on again and again.”  Even when a preacher correctly targets a particular behaviour or action, those who need most to hear this Word often completely miss its pertinence to them. And, of course, preaching is only one aspect of the accountability, collective responsibility, and judgement that a church body politic must practice. The flip side of this problem isn’t promising either. Giving license to judgement has often simply allowed those who are most in need of judgement to enhance their own power, superiority, status, and privilege over downtrodden and marginalized others. Indeed, given the frequent occurrence of this in the past and present, it is hardly surprising that so many have developed a knee-jerk reaction to any sort of judgement.

But, I am convinced that an ethos of anti-judgement does not address these real problems very well and brings with it a host of new problems. Instead, we need to be talking, thinking, and working towards practicing judgement well; inquiring into the nature and processes of our judgements and striving to bring them more in kind with the mind of Christ. This will not happen as long as we are caught in the ménage that is much of our current attitude and rhetoric towards (non) judgement.

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