Less Condemnation, Greater Humility

The dominant impression of Christians conveyed in popular media isn’t very flattering. They are often represented as mindlessly dogmatic, harshly judgmental, and openly antagonistic toward those who don’t share their view of things. This impression can be challenged, of course. It is typically the most extreme examples who grab our attention, and Christians come in many varieties.

However, those who are most vocal about their Christianity often seem to live up to the stereotype. You don’t have to search much to find videos of people who are loudly shouting condemnations at those they find guilty of violating God’s commandments. Those offering the condemnations apparently view themselves as delegated to enforce their understanding of God’s rules by relaying threats of terrible punishment.

Some Christians apparently think that God has appointed them to pronounce harsh judgments on those whose ways of living do not match their own. But the last I heard, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world …” (John 3:17), so it seems ironic that some of his followers would view doing so as a primary mission.

When I was in first grade, the teacher had to leave the classroom for a few minutes one day. Before she left, she told us what we should be doing in her absence. After she left, I observed another student getting ready to violate one of the class rules. I don’t remember now what he was doing, but I took it upon myself to wrestle this student to the ground to stop him from whatever it was. No one appointed me to do this job. I apparently took it on myself.

I don’t intend to deny that some things are wrong or that some rules need to be enforced. My point is a different one. It is that people can imagine that they have been appointed by God to be enforcers and think that performing this job is an excuse for obnoxious and clearly unloving behavior.

When Jesus warned about the dangers of judging others, I assume that he meant it. One of the reasons for caution that he mentioned was that we are much more likely to see faults in others than we are to see our own faults (Matthew 7:4-5). But I think that another reason for the warning is that our eagerness to find fault often gets in the way of responding to others in more loving ways, and loving others is central to what Jesus told his followers to do.

The tendency to develop a judgmental form of Christianity is connected with the tendency to think of your beliefs as unquestionable truth and to deny the legitimacy of ways of thinking that differ from yours. But thinking this way presumes a greater level of certainty about the correctness of our interpretations than we generally possess.

In some cases, there are decisive reasons for judging ideas that are widely accepted among contemporary Christians to be mistaken. In other cases, these ideas may be thought of as just one option among alternative ways of understanding the faith. But those who are unaware of the larger context of Christian tradition often assume that the version of Christianity they have learned is the only possibility and that anyone who deviates from it should be viewed with suspicion.

People sometimes take it for granted that their particular understanding of Christianity is validated by what the Bible says. But even if you think that biblical revelation is infallible, that does not mean that your understanding of it is. Too often those who are most confident in their pronouncements are unaware of the complexities of understanding biblical revelation. What they take to be authoritative in the Bible is typically shaped by what other fallible interpreters have assured them they should believe.

We are also prone to underestimate the extent to which our version of Christianity is conflated with attitudes or behaviors that are presumed in our social circle. We filter teachings about what it means to be a Christian through our middle-class values or our notions of patriotic citizenship or our political stances.

The point is not that we need to give up on having firm convictions; it is instead that we need to hold our convictions in a way that does not assume that our current understanding of Christian teaching is unalterable. What we know is often riddled by misunderstandings and half-truths that are correctable only by a taking a humble stance that admits we can be wrong. Such a stance allows us to reconsider forms of faith that raise intellectual or moral problems or that tend to produce behaviors that are at odds with the way of life Jesus taught.

As we seek to gain better understanding, we should be wary of presumptions of superiority that license us to condemn others. Even when we do know enough to see that someone is on the wrong path and see the need to say something, our task is to say only what can be said in love (Ephesians 4:15).

What seems striking to me about the widespread representations of Christians as closed-minded and eager to judge is how different this sort of behavior is from the way Jesus comes across in the New Testament. What he displays, it seems to me, is not an inclination to focus on our failures, but an impulse to celebrate when we find our way home (Luke 15:22-24).