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

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.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 28th, 2007 at 11:46 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • http://www.answersbc.org Craig Forrest

    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
  • http://thisislyfe.blogspot.com Todd

    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
  • http://www.JesusJournal.com Donald L. Hughes

    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.

  • Toby Atencio

    You wrote:  [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.  ]

    I read this article and applauded it all the way until the end where I saw this quote.  It is apropriate strictly in this context (because there are so many lousy leaders), but it is VERY incomplete for this reason:  it points the guns at the leaders with little regard to the congregation.  This is a tremendous frustration of mine.  Please understand my meaniing:  your article was excellent, it just needed to draw attention to more of the problem.  Please allow me to widen the scope a bit.

    As a church staff member, I get to see the uglier side of our members.  Our church, and most of the churches I have worked with over the past 20 years, are loaded with people looking for an excuse to be lazy; to point out flaws in leadership, usually so they don't have to commit to participation other than showing up on Sunday and Wednesday.  Giving them license to "rise up, and stop our giving, write letters, and call these leaders into account," is not what they need.  About 80% of the congregation I serve was offended last week when I announced that we were going to make changes in the youth ministry that would require the involvement of every member in some way.  The idea from Ephesians that "he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and knowledge in the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ," (emphasis mine, of course) is offensive to so many regular church goers.  By suggesting this from the pulpit, as I did, I am now expecting a cascade of criticisms, tithes witheld, membership withdrawn…  you see, in the mind of so many Christians, the tithe is supposed to be given so that the pastors can be freed to do ALL the work.  This is not the Lord's plan.  Leaders must prepare people to do the work.

    My fellow church members do not need any encouragement to judge the leaders of my church.  They need to accept the accountability of their leaders and strive to lead lives of excellence themselves.  You pointed out well (it is so true) that there are horrible church leaders among us, but the sword is double edged.  If those who aren't leaders don't take Colossians 3:17 and James 2:22 to heart, then congregations wither away… unless there is an excellent show on Sunday morning.  People seem to be drawn to the churches of excellent performance, places where they can be entertained with an excellent praise band, an excellent orator, great childcare.  Those are good things, but if members can squeak through it all without having to do anything, they usually will.  You see, excellence comes from leaders who teach the hard things, train the hard things, and enable the hard things.  This almost always is perceived as a threat to a congregation when it is first introduced, and usually results in one of two things: a congregation that pulls up their bootstraps and prepares for a wild, exciting spiritual adventure (rare), or a congregation that throws tomatoes (common).  Most Church leaders respond to the common congregation by creating an excellent sunday perfomance rather than an excellent discipleship and church mission program (do we have any churches out there that have a church mission-different from foreign missions-program?).  This tends to produce a mile of "inch deep" Christians, mildly committed or uncommitted to excellence in their own lives.  In fact, I believe it enables shallowness in the average Christian.

     So, in my longwinded sort of way, I simply want to point out that spinless leadership is a problem especially if it is masked by excellent presentations of various kinds, and so is spinless followership. 

    Before all you readers "rise up, stop your giving, write letters, and call [your] leaders into account," check yourselves.  Are you doers of the word, or only hearers?  If you are only hearers, this leader is not listening.  I have heard enough criticism from monday morning quarterback Christians.  I want to hear from the people in the game.

  • Larry W. Poland, Ph.D.

    Your column on the "J" word puts the finger on one of the most misunderstood and miss-applied concepts in the Church (and outside)–"judging." How many times have we been nailed by others with the verse, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" for pointing out absolutely clear violations of God's moral law and sinful behavior?

    It is clear that that passage refers–even in the word Jesus used–to "condemning," rendering a sentence on evil. It has nothing to do with making moral discriminations based on God's Word and Jesus' teaching. To me, the difference is illustrated in our legal system. We have every right–and responsibility–to "file a legal complaint," "press charges," or "confront a law-breaker" with a violation of criminal or civil law. In fact, not to do so gives all kinds of evil an environment in which to flourish. We are not, however, given the authority to render the "judgment" and determine the "sentencing." God reserves all judgment, in that sense, to Himself and His Son. He rules the courtroom. We bring the matters to court.
    Passages like "Hate that which is evil and love that which is good" are nonsense, if, somehow, making moral determinations is verboten.
    One dimension not treated in the dialogue so far, is the venue in which the determinations are made. It is absolutely demanded of us in Matthew 18 that problems with the personal behavior of siblings in Christ be taken confidentially to the person, not to the press, the public, nor to our blogs. I resent the angry Christian journalists and bloggers who attack my behavior or views in public–with my name attached–without coming to me with their concerns first. In many instances, a personal conversation would have clarified that (1) their information was incorrect, (2) my motives were not what they assumed, or (3) I owned my error and was genuinely repentant.
    My motto is, "Take it UP before you take it OUT." Take a concern about a brother or sister in Christ UP to God in prayer and UP with the person before you take it OUT, even if it is to the elders of the Church.
    For what this is worth.
    Larry Poland
  • Farbs

    Mr Hughes in response to your comment on the power of media and it’s potentially limited future – I think you’re letting media off the hook a little too early. I definitely agree that change needs to be brought about by the individual, (especially in the third world), but what if our supply of willing individuals runs out because of a steady diet of everything that is contrary to the word of God? The next generation are supreme consumers of all things media and whether they know it or not, they make most of their daily decisions based on the values, ethics and aspirations that media has told them are socially acceptable – compare something like the OC with what Jesus describes in Matt 5 as key to a blessed life. A shift in the balance of what young people consume can be the difference between a hardened or open heart – this will not come quickly, nor will it come through sub-par programming. While media is not the complete process of transformation, it is most often the starting point.

    Media is the enemy’s territory and change will certainly not come about without individuals working with an anointing from God. I don’t think God will use rubbish to bring about such change otherwise it would only be temporary – in the same way had Nehemiah built a sub-standard wall the fear in his enemy’s hearts would have lasted as long as the construction. While God may have used less than impressive people, His methods, in my opinion, are always top notch.

  • http://www.JesusJournal.com Donald L. hughes

    I really appreciate your heart, Phil, and your thoughtful reply. 

    We may be somewhat off-topic here as your original post was about accountability, and we have drifted from that. You may wish to move this discussion to another thread. What I have been responding to is your comment that:

    "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?"

    Just to clarify in reference to several of your comments, I want to repeat that it was only the idea that I thought was elitists (not you personally). Also, I want to emphasize that I do not advocate mediocrity, but rather think that each Christian should do the best he or she can with the gifts and abilities that God has given, then leave the results to Him. What may seem like mediocrity to a media guy may be right on target with God.

    It is my view, after a few decades as a foot soldier in Christian media, that perhaps we are headed in the wrong direction with our notions about the nature of Christian media. In addition to my suggestion that obedience is more important than excellence, your comments evoke two other responses. In saying these things, you may think I am claiming the Emperor is wearing no clothes, and actually, that may be true.

    First, I think we must deal with the mistaken idea that we live "in a media driven world" and therefore should minister correspondingly. To me, that's a very dangerous premise for Christians to promulgate because it allows the tail to wag the dog. It puts the emphasis is on the medium rather than the message, and as a result we only end up mimicking pop culture. Marshall McLuhan (a Christian, by the way) had it right in his seminal work, Understanding Media, when he said “the medium is the message.” Today Christians mistake the medium as being radio, television, film or the Internet, when in reality the medium is the Holy Spirit, and the message is the saving power of Jesus Christ.

    Popular media, as we understand it today, is only one electrical power outage away from extinction. We think the grid will be up forever, but as a Christian journalist I have covered stories in places like Kosovo, when the power supply was unpredictable and generally available only a few hours per day. Even the best written and directed Christian film won’t help further the cause of Christ under those conditions. On the other hand, caring, sharing Christians there can still do their work when the lights are out. The spread of Christianity has, from the beginning, been though relational networks.

    Second, I think we should consider the likelihood that Christianity and media (in the way we use it today) are not a good match in the first place. I know there will be those who think I’m a Luddite or a Fundamentalist (not guilty to both!), but the fact is, “televangelist”  is a negative word in our society. I have been embarrassed in Russia and other places on several occasions when I met people who equate the Christian faith with the antics of Paul and Jan Crouch.  Ted Haggard had a wired church, with light, sound and video, sermon notes on his PDA and all the other accouterments of our media culture, but apparently his own message did not get through to him. It could be that media is just getting in the way. Our faith, of course, is far more important than the theatre we are reducing it to.

    I have a lot of respect for you Phil, but I do not think technical proficiency figures into the equation to a very high degree. Christian media needs a re-thinking from the ground up.  This may get us back to your original point about the “J” word.  We need sound judgment when it comes to the way we do ministry, and some accountability too.

    Donald L. Hughes, Editor
    JesusJournal.com

  • Bruce ford

    You guys are true Bereans keep it up.  Some of the comments remind me of a cartoon I used to have posted in the sound booth."We had intended to exalt and magnify the Creator of heaven and earth in our worship today but unfortunately our projector bulb has burned out".