“We are a non-judgmental and non-condemning group of people.”
This is a line that I have written or spoken quite a few times recently. I find that many people feel that they might be judged when they go to church, and I usually print or issue a statement saying that this is not the case. I want people to know that their brokenness is safe with us and that they are welcome, no matter what.
This thought and line has been challenged by quite a few people recently and I feel the need to bring it up and think it through. I am well aware that I am a novice compared to so many pastors and church leaders and I don’t want to take anything for granted. So I did decide to hear what others have had to say about judgment and the role of pastors as revealers of truth.
The comments that were the most interesting in regards to this statement were from two very different sources. These two sources addressed us personally and wanted to talk about this phrase. Of course, as well, I am well aware of Mark Driscoll’s attitude toward judgment as well as many other church leaders that I have worked with.
The two interactions that we had with people recently were:
1. A worship pastor from an Acts 29 church here in Marysville. I did not have this conversation but only heard it second hand from Brandon, our Worship Pastor. Brandon sat down with him just to get acquainted and talk. At their first conversation, this pastor told Brandon that he felt that statement on our site was not the right attitude for a church and that there definitely is a place for a Pastor to judge someone and let them know about the imperfections in their life. He also went farther to talk about some of the authors that we had listed as inspirations on our site. People like Brian McLaren, Brennan Manning, Mike Yaconelli etc. He could tell by these names that we were going down a path that he did not agree with. And he let us know.
2. Brandon, Kim and I had dinner with a family that we had met here in town a few weeks ago. This family was extremely nice and wanted to learn more about Hillside. They had contacted us and invited us. During our conversation after dinner, they asked us an interesting question: “How would you rate your holiness on a scale from 1-to-10?” Hmmmmm. My answer was that I wanted to talk about their definition of holiness before I shot out a number, and also that my rating of my own holiness meant nothing compared to God’s perception of my holiness. Her quick reply was that I was deflecting the question and didn’t want to answer.
*quick side note to this interaction. Because we are planting and because we really want and covet and need people to be involved with us, my first reaction is to be as open and accommodating to any small and subtle differences in theology with anyone. I want people to be a part of what we are doing so badly that some times I am very tempted to say what they want to hear in order to get them on board. Of course, there are positive and negative consequences to this. In all reality, if a friend or stranger who was uninvolved in our church plant and could not be involved in our plant asked me that question; I would not have answered at all. I certainly would have engaged in the conversation and carried on a discussion, but I would not have answered.
Continuing the discussion… I assured her that I was not deflecting, and that I wanted to know what her motivation for asking was and what her definition of holiness was. She said that her definition of holiness was the same as the Bible’s definition. I asked her to kindly explain that. My paraphrase of her answer was that holiness is how God sees you and your abstinence from sin. I told her that my definition was not simply about abstaining from sin, my definition would include not just what we separate ourselves from but also what we give ourselves to. She said ‘ok’ and asked me to give an answer.
I flippantly answered “ok, I guess…aaaah maybe an 8 or so.” She seemed shocked and immediately asked why I would answer an ‘8’. I told her that in comparison to the holiness of God, I would have answered the most minute fraction of a decimal because of how holy and perfect God is compared to us. I also answered that I do a good job abstaining from a great deal of sins that I see dragging other people down, but I had room for improvement and that I have fully given myself and my future to church planting and all of the struggles and hardships that might entail.
Her reaction was to tell me that in God’s eyes, anyone who believes that they are saved are a perfect ‘10’ in holiness. I told her that she was more accurately asking about my level of ‘redemption’ not my level of ‘holiness’ and that certainly I place my faith in God that I am redeemed and forgiven.
I should also state for the record that this conversation took more than an hour to flesh out with a lot of intense questioning. It was frustrating, but in the end there was some sort of resolution.
She also asked what we thought of homosexuals. I told her that we welcome them to our church and want them to be involved in what we are doing. We want them to feel loved and not judged. She kept trying to interject that we should certainly love them, but that it is fine to let them know that they are doing the wrong thing. My response was that they already know that the Bible has some harsh things to say about homosexuality, and that most churches and Christians want them to understand that, however I would rather that if they feel judged, it is not from my eyes, but from the words of scripture and their encounters with God. Where we should all feel like we fall quite short. She kept adding “but it’s ok to tell them that they are wrong and that they are hurting themselves.” I kept telling her that certainly any kind of promiscuity always has negative consequences, and that they do not need my perspective on their lifestyle, they need to know God’s. I told her that I would much rather motivate them to study and find for themselves what God’s perspective on their life is.
I know that she was not satisfied, but I was trying to let her know, in the kindest of terms that I would not condemn homosexuals from the pulpit. This, of course, was not fully satisfying to her. I was actually quite glad that the conversation was interrupted, because I didn’t have the energy to be so diplomatic and delicate in my conversation.
It is interesting to note that both of these conversations were had with Christians and not just Christians, but people who had much experience in Christian leadership.
After thinking about it quite a bit here is what I really think about the whole judgment thing.
First off, the human issue. As human beings we have a tremendous desire to be ‘right'. Along with that, we have a tremendous desire for other people to know it. This pertains to so many different types of issues. When Kim and I argue about directions to get to a place, I am rarely right; I actually know this going in to the conversation. So when I am right, I am always happy to say: “I got this one right!” I am not saying she is stupid or anything like that. I am just saying: “I got it, finally!”
But sometimes our desire to be right, includes in it a feeling of superiority. ‘If I am right, everyone else is wrong. I am informed and you are deceived!’ We have been told this in regards to faith forever. “We are going to heaven, they are going to hell. Idiots. Why would they choose to be deceived and go to hell?” This also includes the thought that life is like a shipwreck and Christians are the ones in the rafts with life preservers. We can save you if you would let us know you’re drowning. The only problem is that we are the ones who know you are drowning when you do not. It sounds elitist and condemning, but also, it is somewhat true. We who know Jesus have something we want everyone to have.
But think about this… How much are they going to want it when the act of telling them that they are sinners is a judgmental, arrogant, condemning, elitist exchange? The process itself is quite hypocritical when you think about it. I am insulting you, judging you, treating you like a second class person in order to tell you that YOU are a sinner.
Many non-Christians are over sensitive to this. They think that our act of telling them that their current belief system does not lead them to a real relationship with our God according to our interpretation of the Bible is sinful, judgmental and arrogant. Buddhists believe that people who live strong, moral lives are still increasing toward enlightenment even if they don’t claim to be Buddhists. Mormons believe that people who live moral lives can go to heaven, just not the level of heaven that they will attain. So obviously Christians come off as arrogant compared to these belief systems.
Secondly. The Pastor thing. Are Pastors OK to judge? Lay people are dumb sheep right? They need their shepherd to tell them when they are about to walk off the cliff and do something dumb. They need us to protect them from the wolves, right? Can you show me what the Bible says about Pastors? Does the Bible even address what a Pastor is, or if they even exist? Does the Bible call them a Pastor from the latin root that means shepherd? There is one mention in Ephesians 4, about how some are called to be pastors. There are some potential references to Pastors in the book of Hebrews and possibly 2 John or 3 John. But none of these talk about what a Pastor should do, or give them authority to judge.
Paul does model and guide some Pastoral duties. He judges the congregations as a whole and talks about resolving issues in the Christian communities that he created through leadership. But any time I can find or think of a call to be judgmental, it is ONLY in the context of a relationship where there is an expectation of guidance or mentoring.
If a Pastor is a shepherd, then that is of a later creation than scripture. In fact, if you look at what a shepherd is in scripture you might think back to David penning the Psalm where the Lord is our shepherd, not a man. In fact, to lead us, communicate to us, and to save us, God sent Jesus, not to be a shepherd but to live as a sheep. It seems arrogant to me that we would consider ourselves a shepherd with the capacity of judging and discerning because we took some Bible classes and receive full-time pay to be a Pastor. Jesus led us as a sheep, leading by being a servant.
Thirdly, perhaps people misunderstand what it means when I say “non-judgmental.” They could believe that I mean to say that I won’t care if you are abusing your family or cheating on your spouse. Let me make it clear, if there is someone who is at our church who is obviously doing something like that, I will find a way to intervene. Perhaps they think that I will only preach that “everything is OK and that sin doesn’t really matter.” Of course I will talk about strong morals and a desire to live a morally healthy life while citing examples of what this might look like. But it occurs to me that if someone misunderstands the term “non-judgmental” to this level, they really are reaching to imagine some weird extremes.
Fourth. The whole Jesus thing. The Sermon on the Mount, the Woman at the Well, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus, the Centurion, the thief on the cross, lepers, the bleeding woman, the prodigal son, all of the lost parables, the sheep and the shepherd… I could go on. But read these and talk to me about the judgment of Jesus and how we should respond to any person that we consider ‘lost’ or ‘broken’ or ‘living in sin.’
Fifth. Practically. I am trying to lose weight. But that does not mean that I want to enroll in a program that tells me I am a fat slob. When I enroll in a program, I am doing so knowing that I am not perfect. That is why I am making the program a priority. Feeling like crap is a lousy motivator to change. I could be the first to cite the amazing theological church leadership strategy employed in the movie Dodgeball. I don’t need White Goodman to tell me I am out of shape. I need Peter Le Fleur telling me that I am OK and that I can be a part of his team as I am.
*this of course makes me wish that I had structured this entire article based on the movie Dodgeball. But I have already written too much to go back to scratch.
Plenty of churches resemble Globo-gym already. I would be proud to be Average Joes!
Also Practically… If a church projects how perfect you need to be in order to be in leadership and in order to please the pastor or God, for that matter: you will develop a culture of fakers, posers and wannabe’s. Is this what church was meant to be? A place where we can learn to fool others better and justify our judgmentalism more? Isn’t this what we see happening in all of the church scandals?
To clarify… Here is what “non-judgmental” means to me. When you walk in the door, I will expect your brokenness. I will believe that any person who seems to have it all together is equally as broken as anyone else in the room. I will tell you that God loves you AS YOU ARE and not as you should be. Your holiness or cleanliness do not qualify you to be loved more. Your knowledge and exegesis of scripture does not qualify you to have extra favor in His eyes. The sins and pain of your past are not indicators of God’s love for you. I will do my best to see you through eyes that are not my own and to love and respect you the way that I see Christ act toward the broken. I will believe that none of us are a perfect ‘10’ on a holiness scale and that all of us have a goal to strive toward. I will encourage and affirm the broken. I will believe that your attendance at Hillside communicates your knowledge that you need something deeper and are acknowledging your own brokenness. It is to your credit if you take the time to worship, to study, to listen to a sermon, to volunteer or to be involved in any way. If you have had a past marked by sin and bad decisions, you are welcome at my table at home as well as at the communion table.
Perhaps in my answer I am looking to justify what I already believe to be true. But, if I am wrong, I would rather enter the Kingdom of Heaven asking forgiveness for loving and respecting the broken rather than for judging and turning them away. And when it comes down to it, I really think that there are plenty of churches doing the judgment thing. They have honed the crafted and perfected the science of judging. I will be happy to do a new thing. I’ve said it before, but Average Joes is where it is at.