Passing Judgment

Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?”
-James 4:11-12

Many people are more familiar with the commonly quoted statement of Jesus, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” than with this parallel passage in the book of James. That’s to be expected – after all, the Jesus statement is definitely in his top ten most quoted sentences.

But there’s a dimension to this passage which is missing in the words of Jesus. Jesus’ caution continues “for whatever measure you use in judging another will be used when you are judged.” Paul takes a similar approach in Romans 2, when he says “At whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

[Since “judging” is used a lot in common vernacular, a clarification is necessary here: when Jesus, Paul, and James speak about passing judgment, they’re not talking about recognizing the difference between good and evil. “Passing judgment” meant to issue some sort of verdict. So, in the case of faith life, recognizing that murder (for instance) is a sin is not “passing judgment.” To pass judgment, you would have to go a step further and believe that someone who has committed murder is hopelessly lost and can never be redeemed.]

These statements are all well and good, and certainly important in their own right. Yet they fail at a certain point. I don’t know if it’s religious conditioning, or just the way humans are, but it seems to me that many people are most comfortable passing judgment on failings which they themselves do not share. The miser, for instance, judges the spendthrift to be the worst of all sinners, while ignoring the greed with which she clings to her money.

As far as Jesus and Paul’s statements go, these folks are in the clear. After all, if you judge someone else’s profligate spending while pinching every penny, you are not condemning yourself for doing the same thing, and neither do you fear having the same measure applied to you.

But James says judging others for the ways they differ from you is unacceptable. After all, he reasons, there is only one law to which we are all bound – the law of God. And through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the law of God no longer has any space for passing judgment. Jesus secured a permanent pardon for one and all. So when you pass judgment on another person, whether you share in their sin or not, what you’re really judging is just how effective God’s plan of salvation is.

In the traditions which came together to form the United Church of Christ, this principle of James’ found life in one of our early commitments: that no member or clergy person would be subject to a “test of faith.” Yes, we proclaim the Triune God, and claim as our own both the Holy Bible and the historic Christian Creeds as expressions of our faith tradition. However, we leave to each individual the freedom of conscience to decide for themself whether their faith life is in keeping with that tradition, even as we invite all to make themselves accountable to one another.

This is a messy way of living. On countless occasions, members of our denomination have been astounded to learn that something they took for granted as common among all Christians was not as universally accepted as they believed. On our best days, these surprises have led to fruitful conversation. On our worst, they’ve created schisms. Through it all, though, our denomination (and the traditions which preceded it) has held tightly to this principle laid out by James: rather than judging the validity of another’s faith, we trust that the law of God, and God’s love, grace, mercy, and pardon, are powerful enough to overcome any differences we might have.

What would need to happen for us to more fully live into this way of holding one another accountable without testing or judging?