Ninety percent of people think Christians are judgmental. Why is this, and what needs to change?
One of the most dominant views about Christians today is that they are judgmental. According to a study of people ages 16–29 in the United States,1 nearly 90 percent of respondents articulated this opinion of Christians and the practice of their faith.2
It’s not hard to make the case that some judgments are, in fact, necessary and good. We can judge that the roads are too slick to maneuver in icy conditions, or that our coffee is too hot to drink, or that a particular relationship isn’t healthy. But these types of judgments are not the issue at hand.
Rather, it is the act of judging someone personally, derogatorily, and unfairly that the study’s respondents keyed in on so overwhelmingly. According to the study mentioned above, “Being judgmental is fueled by self-righteousness, the misguided inner motivation to make our own life look better by comparing it to the lives of others.”3
While it’s easy to point fingers at religious people and label them as judgmental, the reality is that we’ve all got a judgmental stripe in us, don’t we? Look at the recent trends in talk shows and reality television. Most of the shows depict the baseness and silliness of humanity. Why have they become so popular?
Is it possible that the reason viewers are so enamored with them is because they allow people to feel better about their own lives and situations? When you see a parent who’s completely inept at controlling their children, a hoarder who lives in a pigsty, or an unfaithful boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s hard not to compare your life to theirs and pass judgments.
But the fact that all of humanity has this tendency does not excuse Christian judgment of others. In the study noted above, the author writes, “Christians like to hear themselves talk. They are arrogant about their beliefs, but they never bother figuring out what other people actually think. They don’t seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something.”4 (Ironically, even this statement about Christians being judgmental is, in fact, judgmental.)
But doesn’t the Bible say, “God is love”?5 And wasn’t Jesus’ mission the exact opposite of judgment? After all, Jesus said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,”6 and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”7 So how do Christians justify this behavior?
The reality is that being judgmental should never be justified. But one reason it occurs is because of a misunderstanding of Christianity itself. When the Christian faith is taught and modeled, it often leans in one of two directions.
We’ll call the first the “God is love” mentality. In this line of thinking, God is solely all about love, compassion, and acceptance. God, because he is love, would neither condemn nor judge anyone. And his followers should follow his example.
We’ll label the second way of thinking the “God is just” mentality. In this approach, God is all about laws and rules. The Christian life is simply a list of dos and don’ts. Live by the rules, and God will bless you. But skew just a little, and there are consequences. In fact, if you believe or do the wrong thing for too long, you might just earn yourself eternal punishment.
But the truth about Christianity is this: it’s not an either/or proposition; it’s a both/and concept.
“The real problem,” write authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, “comes when we recognize God’s holiness [his justice] but fail to articulate the other side of his character: grace [his love]. Jesus represents truth plus grace (John 1:14). Embracing truth without holding grace in tension leads to harsh legalism, just as grace without truth devolves into compromise.”8 While it’s much easier to err on one side or the other, the Christian faith encourages people to embrace both God’s love and justice.
Admittedly, faith in God will—by definition—grate against a morally ambiguous culture. But what often fuels antagonism is the experience many people have had with overzealous Christians. When someone hears things like, “The Bible says you’re a terrible sinner and you’re going to hell if you don’t repent and convert,” they’re hearing exclusively about God’s justice.9 And yet, as noted above, justice is only part of the equation; God’s love is equally as important.
In cases like this, Christianity can become more of a checklist than a way of life: read the Bible, say your prayers, give your money, go to church. In this legalistic way of thinking, your value or righteousness depends on your ability to keep the rules effectively.
What’s worse is that religious people “construct their [rules] on the foundation of Scripture, which makes [the rules] even harder to detect. To the religious person, this moral performance trap feels righteous.”10 And, unfortunately, this often translates into arrogance, hypocrisy, and judgment.
When Christians are judgmental, it’s usually because of one of two reasons (or both):
- Imbalance: an emphasis on justice without or over love
- Insecurity: a need to feel good about their lives, just like every other human being (and one way to do that is to compare your life to another’s)
A Better Way
Unfortunately, few Christians follow the apostle Paul’s example in talking about and living out their faith. In chapter 17 of the book of Acts, Paul is spending time in the thriving metropolis of Athens.
While there, Paul sees that the Athenians are a very religious people. So he begins to ask questions about their faith. Soon a healthy conversation develops. Before long, he’s invited to discuss his views with the town leadership, where he can share his beliefs boldly, yet humbly.11
There is no judgment in Paul’s style. According to John Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Christians need to take lessons from Paul and learn to adopt a different, more humble approach to discussing matters of faith. This includes four simple (but sometimes difficult) steps:
- Ask questions.
- Declare the strengths, limitations, and weaknesses of others’ positions.
- Show appreciation for their views.
- Demonstrate modesty by saying, “I don’t know,” when you don’t have an answer.12
The Process of Faith
In the end, Christians, like most people, will unfortunately continue to judge others at times. That’s human nature—and the nature of the struggle against sin and wrongdoing. But, hopefully, as Christians endeavor to recognize, reconcile, and balance both aspects of God’s character—his love and his justice—they’ll become better able to communicate their truths with grace and humility.
For this is the epitome of the faith journey: not that we are perfect, but that we trust in God’s perfection and strive more and more to become like him.