A few months ago a friend said something to me that got me thinking about the perception of Christians by broader society (at least in the UK), and in particular the suggestion that there was an expectation that being a Christian meant that I would, or at least might, be judgemental rather than loving.
That is not my understanding of how Jesus would have acted in such a situation, and so it should not be how a Christian would act, but so often society expects us to be judgemental. It is sad that this perception is so common. I want to explore first why that is not how we should be, and then why society has that negative expectation of Christians.
How should we behave?
Jesus was unequivocal. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. He challenged “any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone”. When no-one did condemn the woman then he did not either, even though he himself was the only one who was without sin and who therefore could have judged her.
In fact Jesus modelled radical living, that we should attempt to emulate, which put love above everything else. When asked about the greatest commandments, both of the ones he referred to were about love – for God and for each other. In fact none of the ten commandments given to Moses were an invitation to judge others. In becoming the ‘new covenant’ Jesus replaced the thousands of intricate rules that God’s people had taken upon themselves, covering cattle, cleanliness, food, tassels on clothing and numerous other oddities, with a simple (in some senses) command to follow him. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
The only sort of “judgement” that the church should undertake, according to Paul, is over those who claim to follow Jesus but step out of line. In other words, Christians might judge those who profess to follow the same principles as us, but not those who don’t. According to my wife (a theology student) this was meant specifically in the context of those we are actually in community with.
God will judge us all, in the context of grace and the light of Jesus, but it is not our place to play God.
Therefore it should not be judgement that characterises a Christian’s response to those around them, but love.
So why is that not what society does expect from us?
How does the church behave?
Often the church, or parts of it, sadly does not consistently behave like this. There is a very broad spectrum of churches and individual Christians, but right across the board are many that seem to forget the bit about love at some point. No-one is perfect, and no church is perfect, that is after all why Jesus came. For some it is temporary lapses that may be unintentional, for others they seem to consistently prioritise other things. Too often (and even once is too often) the message that appears to be coming from churches looks like (and may actually be) bigotry, hatred, hypocrisy or judgement. Not love.
Some of those churches might claim that they are doing it in love, or out of love, but judging has never been one of the 5 love languages.
It is those churches and individuals and on those occasions that their negative response gets picked up by the news media in relation to any topical issue, because as always disagreement or conflict makes a much better news story than love. The reaction portrayed as being that of the church is then potentially misrepresentative of the church as a whole, and almost certainly of Jesus’ response.
Even if a church or individual is good at living God’s love in many ways, if they lapse into judgement that has a negative impact then that will be felt not only by those directly affected but also noticed by those around them, and the ripples from that will have a disproportionately large impact.
It will be noticed more than the ways that love is quietly being demonstrated.
I have referred to the impact of general news reporting above. There also seems to be a tendency for portraying Christian characters in TV drama in certain ways. (I suspect it may happen in books as well, but I don’t read enough fiction to know.)
It seems to me that when a character in a TV drama is described as a Christian then more often than not there will be negative aspects to that that will be key elements of the plot. In crime dramas it generally seems to me that someone who is highlighted as being a Christian has a disproportionately high chance of being the murderer, out of some strange perception of justice and belief that they have authority to act as both judge and executioner, or that the character who is a Christian will in some other way be overly religious or dogmatic.
It doesn’t seem very often that a character will be identified as Christian but will be a ‘normal’ person.
There are exceptions that prove the rule – Father Brown and Sidney Chambers (Grantchester) are both pragmatic individuals who see the person first, not what they have done. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are seen as mavericks by their churches who are uncomfortable with their approach. Nevertheless that is a good thing, after all seeing the individual and challenging the establishment is precisely what Jesus did.
So what can we do? Well as individual Christians we can actually try harder to live a life of love, and to resist any urge to judge. I know I have learnt to do that more in some areas in the last couple of years. We can challenge attitudes in others around us, including at times within our churches. We can show love, as Jesus would. Because the story of the Bible is ultimately of God’s love for his people overcoming the worst we can do.
Or to summarise it another way, Love is bigger than anything its way.
Official video, which also encapsulates the message:
Since writing this I came across this blog post which says largely similar things, albeit in a different context. At least that confirms I’m not the only one who thinks like this.
We are all different, so those opinions expressed above are mine and don’t necessarily precisely correlate with anyone else or with any church with which I have ever been associated.