The church is not a judgment-free zone

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Like many (many, many) people, I made a goal to lose weight this year. This isn’t new; I’ve been trying for years and only recently saw some success. But last year, I finally became aware of some unhealthy habits and, though it’s hard, I think I’m on the right track.

Part of that involves waking up at 5 a.m. and trudging to the gym. It’s a pain and I can’t say I’ve been successful each day, but it’s become part of my routine. I roll out of bed in total darkness, fumble for my shoes and then head out the door, half-awake by the time I pull into the strip mall where my fitness center is. Some days I do weights, others I do cardio; all days, I’m a sweaty mess.

As I jiggle and perspire on the treadmills, my gaze goes out across the fitness center to the giant mirrors stretched across the rear wall, the better to mock me. But above them, perhaps to offset the recoiling in my stomach when I catch my doughy reflection, are the words NO CRITICS.

My gym bills itself as a “Judgment-Free Zone,” with the promise that no matter how outlandish I look on a treadmill or how few weights I can work with on the machine, no one thinks any less of me.  No one will laugh, no employees will tell me how badly I’m doing, and no one will jump in with any pointers about how I could be doing better. I’m awesome just as I am.

Of course, if that was the case, I wouldn’t be at the gym.

Judgment-free zones inhibit progress

I understand the thinking behind my “judgment-free” fitness center. For people who are out of shape, working out is daunting, and the fear of embarrassment is real. We worry about how much we’re sweating or wheezing, and what people think when they see us struggle. It’s reassuring to think that not only does our gym not think any less of us because of our awkward attempts to get into shape, they’ll also give us bagels and pizza to let us know it’s okay to indulge every once in awhile.

While I understand the intent behind “judgment-free zones,” and I applaud the sentiment that our worth is not found in our weight, shape or ability, the truth is that a gym totally devoid of judgment is bound to produce patrons who fail in their attempts to get healthy. When there’s no critique, there’s no reason to change or improve. When you’re told over and over “you’re just fine the way you are” — especially when that’s followed by handing you the treats that got you into your predicament — it’s easier to give up and walk away (indeed, gyms have built their business models on this).

The truth is, when I go to the gym, I’m doing so because I’ve made a judgment call on myself. I’ve judged that I am not at a healthy weight, nor am I doing the things I should be doing to stay healthy and take care of my body. That doesn’t mean I’m less worthy of love or personhood because of these things; but it also doesn’t mean that I should stick to the status quo and put myself at risk. I go to the gym because I have judged myself and because I want to get better.

I don’t want people laughing at me or to feel like I’m less of a person because I’m out of shape. That kind of judgment is unloving and unhelpful. But if I talk to a personal trainer, I want them to be honest about the areas I need to work on. I want them to be blunt about how much effort it’s going to take to peel off the pounds. And I want them to tell me when I’m using the equipment wrong and give me the pointers that will allow me to make progress. I need a certain level of judgment if I’m ever going to improve.

It’s the same in all areas of life we’re passionate about. I became a better writer by listening to editors who pointed out the errors in my work and weaknesses in my drafts. I became a better husband by listening to my wife’s honest feedback about areas where I could improve. To progress at something, you must first face up to the truth that you’re not doing as well as you could be.

So why should our pursuit of holiness be any different?

The church is not a judgment-free zone

Outside of maybe John 3:16, the Bible verse that seemingly everybody knows is Jesus’ “judge not” in Matthew 7:1. Bring up any discussion about sin and you’ll be met with “God says not to judge.” When I was growing up, the tendency was to hide our sin behind a facade of righteousness. Today, authenticity is the idol of choice. We have no problem admitting that we swear, get drunk, verbally attack each other and lust; just don’t judge us for it. We’re just being open and authentic; we’re only being who God made us.

While I applaud the transparency, it’s only a half truth. Yes, the gospel is very blunt about our sinful natures. We are people who struggle and screw up. There is a sense that we struggle with the things we do because that’s how we’re wired.

But the other half of the truth is that the gospel is about God rewiring us. We should be transparent about our faults, but we should also be passionate about pursuing holiness. And the context in which we do that is in the church, in community with others who are also pursuing holiness. The Church should be a place where we are intimate enough to confess our sins to each other, and where we love each other enough to pull our brothers and sisters aside when we see them living in a way that doesn’t honor God and won’t give them the joy that can be found only in Him.

I don’t like that. I’m writing this not because I love this truth but because I too often hate it. I don’t like the idea of having to confront someone about their sin; I especially don’t like being vulnerable enough to have people calling me on mine. And we live in a culture where calling something sin is out of vogue; I’d rather just say “we’re all screwed up, God loves us all, let’s just move on.”

But we’re called to be people who desire to be holy like Christ is holy. To do that, we first have to see where we’re falling short. As the Spirit leads us in sanctification, we will need to be more aware of the things hindering us from holiness and depend on His power and guidance to improve. And we’re horrible about seeing our own flaws. Just as I often can’t understand why my workouts aren’t having their desired impact or where I’m most in need of improvement physically, so I need trusted brothers and sisters to lovingly point it out to me. And they need that, as well.

The church that prides itself on being a “judgment-free zone” is abdicating its role in building up the body. The church is to be more than a meeting place where we show up and sing and hear someone talk; we have concerts and TED Talks for that. Rather, it’s a house where family gathers and where, ideally, people give unprecedented access to their lives in order that they might grow in holiness and better model Christ to a watching world. If we love Christ and we desire to be more like Him, we’re going to desire to be in community that spurs us on in that effort, even when it hurts and reveals things we’d often keep hidden.

The problem? We’re often very bad at this.

The right way to judge and be judged

While many people like to quote Jesus’ prohibition on judgment from Matthew 7:1, they often conveniently forget the remaining verses of that passage:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 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? 4 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? 5 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.

Jesus’ point is not that we should stop judging others. It’s that we should judge others righteously and with an awareness of our own shortcomings. I’m not going to walk up to someone at the gym and say they’re a bit pudgy; that’s a baguette in my own eye that I’m ignoring to point out the sesame seed in their teeth. And I’m not going to call someone out for being cynical, whiny and mean-spirited when I know that I struggle with those things and have begun to make it right in my own life.

Judgment and confession of sin should always take place with an awareness of our own great sin and God’s great forgiveness. We point out sin and call it as it is, but we remember that we are also sinners who were deserving judgment and that while we need to repent of our sins, they do not define us. We call out sin and encourage our brothers and sisters to run from it because we know the joy of forgiveness and the hope found in Gospel. We are aware that we are forgiven sinners trying hard to pursue joy and present God as worthy and beautiful to the world. Looking at our world these days, we desperately need it.

Of course, all this assumes that we are learning to love gently, selflessly and tactfully. It means that in our churches are small communities of people who do life together; not just gathering for a Bible study, but coming into one another’s lives, praying and serving one another, and feeling comfortable enough to be open about their sins and needs to be better. This is hard; we often do this horribly. For us to kind of have this radical trust and intimate love, we have to put aside our gossip, insecurity, pride and fear.

When we learn to trust one another, and prove ourselves trustworthy, we are able to lay aside our costumes of self-righteousness and pride. We are able to lovingly walk alongside each other, pointing out the potholes in the path and helping each other put on Christ, enjoy his work in their lives and model his beauty for heaven. But that only happens when we’re willing to enter into zones of righteous judgment.

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  • Robert Schleicher

    Great column. It’s tough to take criticism, but it’s necessary sometimes. I find it tough to tell somebody what they’re doing is dishonoring themselves and God. I’m also afraid maybe I’ll communicate in such a way to appear a hypocrite, but I would fully expect that person to point out my reckless behavior as well.

  • Yeah, I totally get that. I think the goal is to create environments where we’re loving but also open of our own flaws and setting the expectation that judgment isn’t the same as condemnation. We need to model judgment in line with love, restoration and encouragement, otherwise it all falls apart. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Monty Loftus

    Just please don’t insist on applying your judgments outside your church like over the last couple thousand years.

  • I agree with you there, as even Paul asked what business he had judging those outside the church.

  • John Gills

    A student, years ago, made me aware of the old canard, “When you point one finger at others, there are three pointing back at you.”

  • swbarnes2

    Your passionate opinions on this important matter have truly helped me to gain perspective that I simply could not have achieved on my own…I truly believed that I was being guided through proper steps for restitution,

    http://www.highpointmemphis.com/important-updates/posts/update-from-andy-savage

    I wish I had known 20 years ago what I understand today. I now understand that I did not do enough to serve Jules and help her feel protected and cared for —I wish I had done more. I understand that I failed to report the sexual abuse —I wish I had reported to the proper authorities.

    http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/02/17/breaking-news-larry-cotton-jules-woodsons-pastor-to-whom-she-reported-her-abuse-has-stepped-down-admitting-he-should-have-reported/

    These are the people you want to be moral judges. People who despite being in the bosom of Christ, washed in the blood of the Lamb, and saved, literally confess to not knowing what moral behavior looks like.

    But sure, go for it. Be proud of the fruit of your moral code.

    Anderson was only 16 when she said she was forced to stand terrified before her entire church congregation to confess her “sin” — she had become pregnant. She says she wasn’t allowed to tell the group that the pregnancy was the result of being allegedly raped by a fellow congregant, a man twice her age.

    http://abcnews.go.com/2020/teen-rape-victim-forced-confess-church/story?id=13299135