Many Christians struggle with the admonishment to “judge not” while at the same time maintaining a set of moral rules for the good of society. This fear of judging has led to an ever-increasing permissiveness which is largely to blame for the ongoing moral decline of our culture.
There are several distinctions that need to be made when balancing judgment against moral rules. The first is to separate the attitude of the individual from the rules of society at large. As a Christian individual, our attitude toward sinners (a group that includes all of us) should be one in which we acknowledge that we all stumble and fall short. Indeed we stumble repeatedly. But we all should try to do better. We should encourage each other to be better. We should not beat each other down with moral condemnation.
But the Christian as a citizen must help to maintain a strong moral framework for the society. The Christian does not condemn the thief as an individual, but does support rules and subsequent punishments to discourage the act of stealing. God forgives us for our sins, and we as Christians forgive each other, but there are still consequences for our actions. The civil society enforces those consequences.
The second distinction is the distinction between mercy and anarchy. Mercy acknowledges rules and the need for them, but allows for forgiveness. Sometimes a person may be spared from the consequences of their actions or receive leniency. But throughout the entire process there is an acknowledgement that there are certain rules that need to be followed. Mercy does not negate the rule, but rather it provides a mechanism for the redemption of a fallen individual.
Anarchy does not acknowledge any rules. Individuals are free to act as they see fit. It is permissiveness taken to the ultimate extreme. But in the end, it becomes the opposite of a “judgment-free” society because each person ends up creating their own set of rules and judges their fellow citizen according to them.
The third distinction is between retribution and reconciliation. Retribution is the act of gaining satisfaction by exacting punishment on another. Punishment is a justifiable act and a necessary one in order to maintain a civil society. But we as individuals should not derive pleasure from the act of carrying out or witnessing punishment. I know it is difficult to suppress a feeling of satisfaction when someone who has wronged us is brought to justice. But we need to put the event in perspective. A fellow child of God has fallen to the point where he or she must be corrected; lest they continue to fall and through their fall damage themselves and society. As hard as it can be at times, we need to find ourselves in a position of hoping for the redemption of a sinner instead of seeking revenge.
That brings us to reconciliation. To judge not does not mean to turn a blind eye to sin. To judge not is to look beyond the sin and to reach out to the sinner with an open hand. We must provide an avenue for reconciliation for sinners. If we fail to do that then we all will either go mad through perpetual shame and isolation or we will give up our belief in God and his laws because we find it impossible to live in a world where there is no hope of redemption.
I think most of our confusion regarding the balance between “judging not” and maintaining moral rules stems from a misinterpretation of the story in the Bible where Jesus comes to the defense of the adulteress who is about to be stoned. Everyone remembers how he admonished the would-be executioners by challenging “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. What many people fail to remember is the order he gave to the woman he rescued. He told her to “go and sin no more”.
Just because Jesus came to her defense it did not mean that he condoned the actions that brought her to that point. He loved the woman enough to protect her from death (and to ultimately save her from her sins), but he made it clear to her that the path she was on was wrong and she needed to change her ways. Many modern Christians might accuse Jesus of being judgmental on that point and that is the problem.
The balance we need to strike is the one that Jesus struck. We must seek to save the sinner from harm, but we must remind the sinner that there is a moral standard that must be upheld. We do not do anyone any favors when we fail to point out that there are certain actions that are wrong. If you stand by and let a child touch a hot stove your silence has brought harm to the child. We must not be silent where sin is concerned. But we must also be vocal in expressing our love for those who fall, so that they might find the will to rise again.