The J Word: The Lost Art and Spiritual Calling of Sound Judgment

Judge with gavel

A shorter version of this post appears in this month’s “Charisma” Magazine:

Last year, on this online blog, I posed the question: “What’s Wrong with Christian Television?”  It started a firestorm of interest, and began an fascinating discussion of how Christians should be using the media to share the gospel in the 21st Century. But I also received a significant number of responses from people upset that I would even bring up the subject.

To be honest, most weren’t actually happy with Christian TV either, but it was the idea of “judging” that concerned them, saying that Christians have no business judging other believers.  I decided to explore some other websites and blogs that featured criticism of current Christian movies, political policies, theology, and even pastors who had experienced moral failure.  In nearly every case, many people responded the same way, indicating that as a Christian, it’s not our place to judge others.

They basically felt it doesn’t matter if you happen to be producing lousy Christian films, cheesy TV programs, or teaching wrong doctrine, these people are Christian leaders, and since their motivations were right, we have no business criticizing or judging their actions.  They apparently believed that criticism of believers is so distasteful, it’s far better just to let the problems continue than be critical or caught in judgment of another.

The mistaken attitude that we have no business judging other believers is so pervasive – especially in the Charismatic and Pentecostal wing of the church – that I think it’s time to re-consider what it really means.  The scripture from Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge” has been so misunderstood – particularly as it relates to Christians in the media, I think we need to re-examine it.  Did Jesus really mean that we should never judge others?

It’s interesting that when you examine the scriptures related to judgment, it’s not just the act of judging that Jesus is talking about as much as our attitude while doing it.  After all, common sense tells us that making judgments is an important part of life and we’re required to do it on a daily basis.  Who we let our children play with, what church to attend, where we work, who we associate with, how we spend our time, are all judgments, and if we didn’t make them, the quality of our lives would be poor indeed.

In a fallen and sinful world, people must be held accountable.  Today the culture tries to convince us that tolerance is the highest virtue.  Who are you to judge? is the rallying cry of deviant behavior, heretical teaching, and immoral living.  There’s nothing the enemy would love more than if we as believers gave up calling sinners to repentance, and what would our society become if we stopped evaluating student performance, calling failed leaders into account, or arresting criminals?   Without proper criticism and judgment, living in real community would become impossible.

Not only do we have to judge, but we are called to judge, and in today’s society, we need to be more vigilant about judgment than ever.  The question becomes, how do we judge like Jesus would, and how can we be sure that love, repentance, and restoration are the principles that we use in making our decisions?

First, anyone can have an opinion, but true judgment happens after serious examination, reflection, and consultation with the scripture.  We can’t be frivolous, especially when dealing with an alleged sin of a pastor or Christian leader, but if we follow scripture and investigate properly, we can arrive at a proper decision.  Paul’s writings to Timothy and also the church in Corinth are virtual manuals about judgment and correction within the context of the Church.

Second, lose the beam.  When Jesus taught in Matthew 7:3-5, he was speaking in the context of a hypocritical religious system that said one thing and did another.  The Pharisees couldn’t see clearly because of their own sin, and yet felt perfectly free to judge and condemn others.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say we have to be absolutely perfect in word and deed before we can practice discernment, but if we point the finger at someone else, we need to be living right before God and have a clean conscience.

Third, judging actions and judging people are dramatically different issues.  There’s never a place for gossip or personal attacks in the Church, but serious discernment on issues of doctrine, performance, quality, professionalism, stewardship, and skill are absolutely necessary.  We can love a pastor or media leader, but when their lifestyle becomes abusive or their teaching aberrant, it’s critical for the life of the Church that they be held accountable.   Likewise, when a Christian employee does a poor job at work, they need to be disciplined.  It’s not about them personally, it’s about their performance and the impact it’s having on others.

This may be my single greatest issue with the hesitation to judge today.  Evaluating a person is a grave and serious matter.  However, it’s of utmost importance that we judge the quality of our work, whether it be our teaching ability, people skills, preaching, or whatever.  If we’re ever going to raise the bar in the effectiveness of our ministries, we need the ability to evaluate the quality and worth of the work we do.  When God spoke to Solomon to build his temple, he didn’t hire good-hearted losers.  He hired the best craftsmen and artists in the land.

The gospel deserves no less than excellence.  Just as Olympic judges  determine the excellence of athletes, we need to call believers to excellence in the Christian community.  A hopeful Christian movie producer may have all the right intentions and motives in producing a movie, but if his skill is lacking, and the film is poorly made, what does that say to the culture about our stewardship of finances, or the botched presentation of the gospel?  Are we happy to sit back and watch other Christians damage our witness to the culture by producing lousy movies, or should we call them to a higher standard?

Recently, a major movie critic reviewed a new Christian film that he called, “…sadly and typically, another badly produced, over-acted, syrupy, spiritually themed movie.”  The reviewer had no problem with the Christian content – just the execution.  That’s the way the world looks at our work, because we’ve refused to hold Christian producers to a higher level of quality.

Recently, I spoke to a member of a mega-church in the South where the pastor had divorced his wife, but never missed a day in the pulpit.  The church member defended the pastor comparing him to King David, who he pointed out had sinned, but God forgave him and didn’t require that he step down as King.  I reminded him that David was the political leader of his time, not the spiritual leader.  The pastor in this instance could be better compared to Samuel – Israel’s spiritual leader of the time, and the scriptures require that we hold spiritual leaders to even higher accountability and responsibility.  (I also encouraged him to read a little further and see the staggering consequences of David’s sin.)

Remember that even after the salvation experience, we still are all fallen creatures, and without discipline and work, our natural tendency is often to take the easy way out.  Today, there is gross negligence and incompetence in numerous churches and ministries, and regardless of the intentions of the leaders, it’s hurting our witness before the world, and damaging our credibility in the culture.  As a church, we need to rise up, and stop our giving, write letters, and call these leaders into account.

The truth is, the Church today has it backwards.  We spend too m
uch time criticizing the outside culture, and not enough time criticizing the Church.  Paul wrote in First Corinthians 5:13, “God will judge those outside.  Expel the wicked man from among you.”  And yet today, churches and ministries raise millions to boycott and protest network television, secular movies, and mainstream culture, and all the while, we’re dropping the ball when it comes to keeping our own house clean.

If we can’t have a conversation within the church about religious movies that fail, books that miss the mark, ministries that are ineffective, or pastors who fall short, then our future will be a long slide into oblivion.  But if we can humble ourselves, pray that God gives us discernment, and always keep the goal of correction and restoration in mind, then we should feel free to seek the truth in all things.

It never hurts to keep in mind that our ability to judge is always limited, and one day, we’ll all stand on level ground  before the ultimate Judge.  But until that time, I hope we will stop being afraid, and continue calling each other to task for our many failures and shortcomings, so that we can, as Paul said, “…press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Phil, this is one of the wisest columns you have ever written. Period. Perhaps the most important phrase is somewhere halfway through: "The Gospel Deserves No Less Than EXCELLENCE." God gave us His best – Jesus Christ. I hope we take a moment to reflect as we look at our productions, shows, tv and film – what are we giving Him in return? If it's less than excellence, then we should rethink our talents and motivations. Either do it right or don't do it at all.

    As for the judging issues, I'm glad you made the apt distinction between one's actions and one's person. You hit it right on the head about ACCOUNTABILITY. I've worked for a few ministries scorched by scandal. Almost every time the "president-founder" failed because he placed himself in a position where he was accountable to no one but himself. The board was stocked with family and/or friends. No one was brave enough to question his life, motives, ministry, actions. Big, big mistake. 
    Lastly, about legalism/judging/Pharisees. I remember well a car drive I took with a gifted Yugoslav pastor years ago as we headed to a dusty Balkan airport. We had a lot a time to talk on the way. His words that day still stick with me almost 20 years later: "If you read the Scriptures carefully you'll find that Jesus was pretty easy on the sinners and pretty tough on the self-righteous. In the Church today we have it backwards – we're tough on sinners, way too easy on the Christians."
    Wise words. Very wise words. 
    Craig
  • Mr. Cooke, thanks so much for the absolutely incredible and necessary post!  I am so thankful that a man of your credibility and influence has the strength and passion to be transparent about this issue and actually confront it with diginity, grace, and wisdom.  I can only encourage you to continue the discussion and your great desire for the great change in Christian media that needs to take place.  Through growing up during the Age of Subpar Christian Media, my fellow young filmmakers and I are incredibly passionate about producing professional-grade films that will actually be watchable by those that we are making the product for…the lost.

    Perhaps the greatest folly in Christian media today and the reason for those believers who care not to change is the intended audience.  I feel as if we actually focused the art and its purpose on that of reaching the lost and not "entertaining the saved"…we'd have much better quality films, and ones that actually further the Kingdom.  With no intention to reach those that don't know Christ, a passive, bland, and "uncreative" project is produced that does little for the reason why we are here.  Are we not to "lose [our] lives for [Christ's] sake and the Gospel's"?  Just as you mentioned and last time I checked, Christ didn't come to save the righteous, but the sinners…
    Thanks again!  God bless!
    Todd
  • Phil, while I agree with your basic premise that there is a difference between judging and having discernment (I think that's what you were trying to say), I think you missed the mark otherwise.
     
    The concept that "The gospel deserves no less than excellence" is more a late 20th century American biz school idea rather than a spiritual one.
     
    In the Bible, we see God used people guilty of all sorts of sins, crimes and failures — things like incest, murder, deceit– to bring about His purposes. From Abraham to Peter to leaders today, God has put the emphasis on availability rather than mere ability.
     
    When we are open to God, obedient to Him, the Holy Spirit enables our abilities in ways we never thought possible. Human skill has little to so with it.
     
    I think the idea (not you personally) that "The gospel deserves no less than excellence" is very ego-centric and elitist. The spiritual reality is that God called the creation into being without our help, and He will bring the end of the age without our help too. We are only servants, and God uses our gifts and abilities according to His will, not our own. And, as we know from the Bible and history, sometimes He uses the orator to speak for Him, other times the mute.

    While I often cringe over TBN content, for example, I have no doubt that God is using that imperfect vessel to bring about His purposes. Whether something is "cheesy" is certainly not the point. Only media guys care about that aspect as ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste. Millions of people seem to like TBN, just as they do "American Idol," which I think is contrived and cheesy. 

    I like much of what you say, Phil, but I don't think your "Dreaded J Word" article speaks prophetically in any sense. It is more like a movie review. While you have panned Christians like me for the role we play,  we are still going to serve the Lord as best we can with the gifts and abilities He has given us, and will leave the results to Him.

    It's not about some objective idea of "excellence," it's about being obedient to God. Often, work that seems bad to others gets great reviews from God.

    Donald L. Hughes, Editor
    JesusJournal.com

     

     

     

  • Phil

    Don:

    Excellent points, and I appreciate your response.  My desire certainly wasn’t to sound elitist or egotistical, and if you knew me personally, you’d probably never think that at all.  There’s no question that God works through our faults and shortcomings, and my life is a testimony to his willingness to work with an idiot like me.  (I had no intention to speak “prophetically” by the way – that’s way over my head).

    I also understand the biz school comment and agree with that.

    However, working in the electronic media, you have no idea of the avalanche of poorly written screenplays, badly done TV programs, and horrible proposals that are sent to me by other Christians on a regular basis.  Most feel that they don’t need to be good writers, because God is speaking through them.  They aren’t interested in taking classes, learning directing, or increasing their skill level.  The most quoted writers and thinkers of our time spent years (some decades) developing their skills as writers – along with their spiritual development.  Flannery O’Connor is especially hard on Christians who have the arrogance to think they don’t need to understand technique. C.S. Lewis spent years writing before he published anything, and yet most Christians think that their first screenplay out of the computer should be a blockbuster success.  

    When I recommend they make changes, learn some technique, or increase their skills, they often become indignant and offended.  “Who am I to judge them?”

    I don’t think the fact that God works through our imperfections get us off the hook.  It certainly didn’t when He built His temple.  The truth is, we’re both right.  You’re understanding that God is a God of grace and works though our sincere openness to him is the foundation of anything we’ll possibly contribute to the Kingdom.

    However, we must call each other into account, just as you did to me in your letter.  (Which is a great example of my point by the way…   :-)

    I do disagree with you about the fact that bad programming on networks like TBN doesn’t matter.  Just as you would probably agree that had C.S. Lewis been a terrible writer, his impact would have been far less.  In fact, TBN acknowledges this, and is working to increase their quality and creativity in the hope of expanding their audience.

    In a media driven world, we have to be able to cut through the clutter to get people’s attention.  In LA, where I live, we have 500 channels on our cable TV.  We’ve discovered that the average viewer takes less than 2.5 seconds to decide what channel to watch.  In that world, no matter how anointed your message is, if they don’t watch long enough to see it, you’ve failed.  But through a more professional program, and excellent production technique, perhaps we can engage them long enough to see their life changed.

    In the meantime, I appreciate you, and wish you the best.