By Derek Penwell
Judgmentalism. It's one of the things Christians do best according to those outside the church.
Unfortunately for the church, emerging generations find any kind of judgmentalism off-putting. Consequently, they tend to seek the broadest possible parameters for what previous generations would call orthodoxy.
Now, let me just say that some of what passes for non-judgmentalism is simply an unspoken social contract in which I promise to keep my nose out of your business if you agree to keep your nose out of mine. I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting Christians should approach faith and morality as a laissez-faire proposition—in which the church, to avoid appearing judgmental, agrees to keep its mouth shut about important matters.
What I am suggesting, however, is that no matter how the church feels about being labeled judgmental, it would benefit mainline churches to think carefully about the way they come across.
Growing up as a religious conservative (an Evangelical, I would have said) I took it as an article of faith that salvation was like an obstacle course. Once you began to move toward the goal, you couldn’t go back, and every step was a potential hazard, threatening to disqualify you from finishing.
I was convinced that having the right beliefs about God was of equal importance with doing the right thing. In fact, having the wrong belief might be even more problematic than doing something wrong.
If you screwed up and said “Dammit!” because you bent your dad’s driver trying to hit rocks in the back yard, you could always repent and ask forgiveness.
Wrong belief, on the other hand, assumed a kind of intentionality, a willfulness that was much more difficult to recover from. You couldn’t accidentally believe in evolution or that the Bible might contain some mistakes in it.
Additionally, I believed that among the barriers Christians must negotiate on the obstacle course of salvation the need to “save” other people was a high priority:
If you observe a toddler wandering into the middle of a busy intersection, you have a responsibility to try to protect the child from being hit by a bus. Looking the other way is sin of omission. In the same way, if you see someone boarding the express train to perdition, you have a responsibility to help jerk them back onto the platform. Not to do so is to have saddled yourself with the responsibility for someone else’s damnation. You get enough of those lost souls in your column and the sheer weight of them might just drag you down, too.
Now, I’m willing to admit that my description of my childhood beliefs doesn’t necessarily represent all of Evangelical Christianity. However, they were my beliefs, and they are often the same things I hear people describe as “what Christians believe.” It’s important to name the reality that “Evangelical Christianity” has largely become a placeholder for “Christianity” in our culture.
That Christianity has become known by many people more for its beliefs than for what it actually does is problematic for the church in an emerging world. Part of the way I read the common charge against the church as “judgmental” has to do with the conviction on the part of emerging generations that Christians tend to believe more than they actually live.
That fact, turned back upon the individual is hypocrisy (another post) —that is, “I believe this, but I don’t think that means I actually have to make it a part of my life.”
Turned outward, however, that conviction about believing more than you’re willing to live, often expresses itself as judgmentalism—that is, “I believe this (and I’m right); and therefore, I’m holding you responsible for living up to my expectations.”
Hint: The combination of hypocrisy and judgmentalism is deadly for the church, since it communicates an inordinately high opinion of oneself and one’s abilities to determine what’s right—an opinion of oneself that isn’t mapped onto reality, and therefore, need not be taken seriously by the individual.
At the heart of the criticism of judgmentalism lies an accusation that Christians feel themselves superior. In other words, when people look at the church what they see is a collection of overweening know-it-alls who assume that everyone is breathlessly awaiting a word about how to improve themselves. Any deviation from “Christian expectations,” these observers believe, cannot but be met with moralizing opprobrium from those who “know the mind of God.” Christians, on this reading, have nothing better to do than to think up rules for everybody else to follow—then set about in earnest being exceedingly disappointed in everyone else when the moral revival doesn’t take shape.
“That’s not fair. I think people ought to live right, but I’m not the judgmental person you so sarcastically describe.”
In the absence of information to the contrary, I’m perfectly willing to concede that that’s not a fair description of you. I don’t even know you, after all. That’s not the point, though. The people who believe you’re judgmental, probably don’t know you either. As far as they’re concerned, if you’re a Christian, they already know as much as they need to know about you.
Among emerging generations, “Christian” is metonymous with “judgmental.” That is to say, for many people the sentence, “Derek is a Christian,” is a shorthand way of communicating that “Derek is judgmental,” since “Christian” is merely a placeholder for “judgmental.” Whether it’s true or not, the perception is, for my purposes, what matters.
Why is it the perception that matters? Because, as a very wise man once told me: “The difference between reality and perception is that reality changes.” If you want perception to change, you must work not only on the reality, but also on the perception.
Not only must the church adopt a positive understanding that it is called to be something for the world not just believe something about the world, but it must do so in a way that communicates its own humility.
After all, in our culture judgmentalism is the new heresy.
And for Christians used to occupying the role of heresy hunters, being the target of the new hunters of heresy is going to be extraordinarily uncomfortable.
We're Christians, and technically we don't believe in karma . . . but, dang!