What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? – I Corinthians 5:12
Recently a fellow blogger a blog post about a believer’s dilemma when seeing someone in church dressed in an inappropriate way.
On the one hand, inappropriate dress is a distraction from worship. On the other hand, we’re admonished to “judge not.”
I was thankful the blogger specified addressing the problem if it’s someone you know. In such a case it might be fitting to take that person aside and gently admonish.
If, on the other hand, the distracting person is a visitor to the church, especially a first-time visitor, I would prefer to extend a welcome and talk to the Lord about that person’s appearance instead, considering the unknown situation and possible reason for being in church.
The post reminded me of a (true) story a pastor once told that has stayed with me for many years. A woman had visited his church one Sunday, dressed in a way that was what some might deem inappropriate, others might call downright “slutty.” The women of the church warmly welcomed her, while the men treated her cordially, albeit maintaining a respectable distance.
The next week she returned, dressed a little more appropriately. Again, she received a warm welcome – respect at arm’s length from the men, and this time hugs from the women.
A few weeks later she went forward to receive Christ.
Shortly after making that commitment, the woman gave her testimony at her baptism. She confessed that when she first came to the church she had been determined to dress as she always did. She had also determined that the moment anyone said one word about the way she was dressed, she was going to walk out and never come back. But that had never happened. Instead, she had been won over by the unconditional love of Christians. At this point she may have been open to receive correction from her spiritual sisters, but by now that correction was unnecessary. The Holy Spirit Himself had been speaking to her heart and had given her, among other things, the desire to present herself “in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
How I wish this story reflected the norm, but sadly most churches lean either in the direction of judging visitors and driving them away, or tolerating, even covering up sin in their own congregation, for fear of “offending” a brother or sister – especially one who is a major donor. Some churches do both.
The best teaching on this topic comes directly from Jesus, beginning with the words that have recently replaced John 3:16 as the favorite Bible verse, especially among non-believers:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there’s a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:1-5
Notice two things about this passage: first, Jesus is addressing hypocrisy. He warns that if we want to correct others, we’d better be doing it from a position of humility and purity, having already corrected ourselves, because we will be judged by our own standards.
Secondly, Jesus, does not say we are never to judge anyone. In this context of a fellow believer, He is saying that we must first “take the plank out of our own eye” (correct ourselves), “and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” We’re to help one another live godly lives, but prayerfully and with an awareness of God’s grace toward all of us.
In the context of unbelievers, we should recognize that without Christ we are capable of every kind of evil we see in them – and worse. Being saved doesn’t mean we are better than they are, just better off. We should seek the same grace for the lost that we have received, and being self-righteous is not the way to win them over.
Paul gives a clear guideline for discerning when to judge and when not to judge:
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. – I Corinthians 5: 9-11
Once a person is saved, we should start to see the actions and attitudes of a changed life. Belonging to Christ transforms us, and although we will never be perfect this side of heaven, true believers have a desire to live for Him. One who calls himself a believer and yet willfully continues an ungodly lifestyle clearly doesn’t understand the purpose of grace. As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”
The woman in the pastor’s story clearly had the fruit of repentance. What about you?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we acknowledge that without You we are helpless sinners, bound for death and hell. But You extended Your grace when You died to pay for our sins. May we never take our salvation for granted. Give us wisdom to examine our own lives before judging others. Give Your Church the grace to help one another live as You have called us to, in Your name. Amen.