Judging Versus Judgmental


I’m returned from a very pleasant and enlightening two weeks in Greece (including Crete) and ready now to once again set the world straight on any number of topics. Somebody’s got to do it.

The sermon Sunday in my church focused on the latter part of John 5, including the assertion that God the Father has given the role of judge to Christ the Son (v 27). Our pastor cited a survey indicating that the number one reason that unchurched millennials give for not attending church is that church people are judgmental.

My immediate, snarky reaction was that such an assertion sounds like an example of the behavior it is rejecting—that is, itself a judgmental accusation of judgmentalism. My second reaction was that the accusation is not baseless. Of course there has always been a streak of judgmentalism in the church—how could there not be, the church being made up of human beings? But thinking you can escape it by staying away from church folk is like thinking you can avoid cancer by staying away from hospitals.

What I want briefly to explore is the difference between two words: judgment and judgmental. They are often confused, especially in a relativistic age such as ours. We can’t live without judgment, we can do just fine without judgmentalism. I’ll start with the latter.

Judgmentalism is distinguished from judgment not by content so much as by attitude or tone. It is rightly associated with words such as harsh, condemning, morally superior, rigid, smug, and unloving. A judgmental assertion may, in fact, be true and accurate, but any truth or usefulness in it is negated by its manner. Style trumps content (note clever word choice). In fact style becomesthe content.

Judgment, at its best, is simply the application of wisdom to real life situations. We need it in our legal, political, educational, and medical systems, and we need it for ourselves. It is required, individually and collectively, every day of our lives. Lack of judgment is a threat to continued existence, not to mention an obstacle to human flourishing.

People who don’t like what someone else is saying are apt to call judgmental what, in fact, is only judgment. If you say a child is better off growing up with both a father and a mother, be ready to be called judgmental—facts be damned. Same with a whole host of social and moral issues (almost all social issues having a moral component). This is not a defense of conservative morality per se. You run the same risk if you criticize the bulk of society for being largely indifferent to the struggles of the poor.

It’s often not easy to walk the line between judgment and judgmental. Some behaviors are so spectacularly foolish that lapses into sarcasm and eye-rolling are hard to avoid. (Yes, I’m talking about myself.)

The best example I know of doing it right is the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8). He shows himself a wise judge, steering her toward what is true and good without a hint of judgmentalism. Let us all go and do likewise.