Wisdom, Judgementalism & Slander

Discerning other people’s thoughts, opinions and conduct is a good thing. We need the gift of discernment in order to survive and even to flourish as believers.The Bible clearly teaches that discernment and wisdom are gifts of God and to be pursued. Further below you will find some scriptural examples. Going a step too far beyond discernment, though, leads to judgementalism, something Scripture warns against. Unclear understanding of the Bible on these issues can cause problems. At one extreme we have those who discredit discernment as something “human” and somehow inferior to waiting on God in all matters. At the other, we have people believing they have the right to be judgemental. Both these positions are in serious error.  Let’s consider error number one first. Advocates of this idea believe that we should not rely on our own “human” wisdom or insight but ask God how to do things His way and in His time. In response to this, the Bible does not consider true wisdom and insight as products of our being human but rather as gifts that God gives His people if only they would ask Him through prayer and a genuine searching of Scripture. It is thus built up in a person over years of prayer and deep reflection on Scripture. We can see the fruit of true wisdom and insight from God when we learn to recognise truth from error and the truthful from the liars. King Solomon asked God for the gift of discernment/insight/wisdom. Solomon’s asking and God’s response are recorded:

1 Kings 3:9-12 (NASB) 9 So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” 10 It was pleasing in the sight of the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, 12 behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you.

Other biblical exhortations to pursue insight and wisdom can be found throughout the OT and NT. Here are just a few:

Ezra 8:16-18 (ESV) 

Psalms 37:30-31 (NASB) 30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,

And his tongue speaks justice.

31 The law of his God is in his heart;

His steps do not slip.

There it is. We can’t divorce wisdom from righteous living. Wise handling of anything from parenting to other matters results from righteousness. But what does “righteousness” mean? See these commentators:

(Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary) 30, 31. The righteous described as to the elements of character, thought, word, and action.

(ESV Study Bible Notes) A person like this, with the law of his God . . . in his heart (v. 31), is one whose words are worth listening to: he utters wisdom (v. 30).

(Barnes, biblehub.com) The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom – That is, It is a characteristic of the righteous to speak “wise things;” not to utter folly. His conversation is serious, earnest, true, pure; and his words are faithful, kind, and just… 

Proverbs 1:1-7 (NASB) 

Proverbs 2:1-15 (ESV) 

Proverbs 4:5-8 (ESV) 

Daniel 9:13 (ESV) 

There are more examples in the OT. Here are a few in the NT :

Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)

2 Timothy 2:7 (NIV) 

Revelation 13:18 (NIV) 

At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that Christians have the right to be judgemental. Sometimes people have their terms confused so let’s unravel these with some online dictionary help:

Judgementalism

*Cambridge Dictionary (online)

“tending to form opinions too quickly, esp. when disapproving of someone or something:”

*Collins Dictionary (online)

(Judgemental people)…”form opinions of people and situations very quickly when it would be better for them to wait until they know more about the person or situation.”

Synonyms: condemnatory, self-righteous, censorious, pharisaic

*Merriam-Webster (online)

1: of, relating to, or involving judgment

2: characterized by a tendency to judge harshly

Examples of judgmental in a Sentence – 

“He’s judgmental about everyone except himself.”

Definitions of judgemental will now be compared with the word ‘judgement’, again using online dictionaries:

Judgement

*Merriam-Webster

1a: the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing

b: an opinion or estimate so formed

2a: the capacity for judging : DISCERNMENT

b: the exercise of this capacity

The term ‘judgement’ aligns with the term ‘discernment’ in these dictionary definitions. There is nothing wrong with judgement or discernment but judgementalism carries the added connotation of being hyper-critical with not enough grounds on which to make a proper judgement. Rather, judgementalism involves premature conclusions based on misreading and misunderstanding people and their words or worse, described below. In other words, judgementalism is misguided, self-certain and results in judgements that are ill-founded because they are too hastily made and their evidence can be, and often is, a misunderstanding. Bible passages on judgementalism include Psalm 15:3, Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:4, 10-13, 22 as well as those following, some with commentary added :

Matthew 7:1-5 (NASB) 1 “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

James 3:14-17 (NASB) 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

(ESV Study Bible Notes) 3:14 Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are the antithesis of true wisdom as characterized by “meekness” (v. 13). They are also far different from the righteous character of a “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; see James 4:5), who appropriately yearns for his own honor and the loyal devotion of his people, while the envious yearn for what does not belong to them. “Selfish ambition” is a divisive willingness to split the group in order to achieve personal power and prestige (it is translated “rivalry” in Gal. 5:20; Phil. 1:17; 2:3).

James 4:11-12 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12 (ESV SB Notes) 4:11 James restates the basic problem behind the issues discussed in 3:1-4:10: the misuse of the tongue to speak evil or to slander others. Speaking ill of others is the result of all the arrogant boasting (3:5), jealousy (vv. 14, 16), self-centered desires (4:1, 3), and pride (v. 6) that James is warning against. Such slanderous conduct is decried in both the OT (Lev. 19:16; Ps. 50:20; Jer. 6:28) and NT (Rom. 1:30; 2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Pet. 2:1)…Those who inappropriately judge others (Matt. 7:1–5; Rom. 2:1; 1 Cor. 4:5) break God’s law and show contempt for God. 4:12 When a person begins to “judge the law,” he is usurping the place of the one lawgiver and judge. God alone gave the law, and he alone is judge of all (Ps. 9:19; Isa. 2:4; Joel 3:12). 

James 4:11-12 (Gaebelein, biblehub.com) The attitude towards other brethren is made clear in James 4:11-12 : “Speak not one against another, brethren.” …Evil, of course, must always be judged, whether it is unsound doctrine or an evil conduct; this belongs to the responsibility of a believer. But God alone, the Righteous judge, knows the heart and its motives. Speaking against a brother and judging him, that is, pronouncing a sentence of condemnation upon him, is the same as speaking against the law and judging the law. But if one judges the law, the same is not a doer of the law, but a judge; doing this we take the place of Him who is both, the lawgiver and the judge, that is the Lord.

We are not here looking at the merits of a lawful justice system operating to serve the interests of justice. Such involves a well-functioning courtroom with a hearing followed by careful and unbiased deliberation by judge and often jury, then a verdict given, and rightly so. This is not a piece about crimes but is concerned with fairness, justice and proper Christian interaction and conduct that ought to operate according to biblical truth and not personally-motivated lies. In summary, the judgementalist goes further than forming a judgement through discernment. The judgementalist condemns as well, a prerogative reserved only for God. To go beyond discerning error in someone’s thinking to casting them in cement as an enemy and worse, setting the mob on them, is a great evil. Slander was a problem in parts of the early church as we see from the passages in James. See how Paul addresses those who were engaging in slander against one another:

Ephesians 4:31 (NASB) 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

Colossians 3:6-8 (NASB) 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

Finally, just to be clear, we’ll define ‘slander’:

Slander

*Cambridge Dictionary (online)

a false spoken statement about someone that damages their reputation, or the making of such a statement:

eg She regarded his comment as a slander on her good reputation.

*Merriam-Webster (online)

1: the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation

2: a false and defamatory oral statement about a person

The term ‘slander’ involves falsehood with the intention to smear someone’s reputation. Of course, the term can be misapplied as when the late Cardinal George Pell was accused, I believe falsely, of being slanderous. Such a man of virtue and honour as Cardinal Pell would never have engaged in slander. I can see this from snippets of him and about him across various media, from mainstream to conservative to Catholic. Slander is denounced throughout both the OT and NT. New Testament writers Matthew, Mark, Paul, Peter and John all denounced it. Discerning and pointing out evil and error in a purported believer’s public actions and teaching, if done in a gracious manner, is absolutely worthwhile but persistently justifying one’s judgementalism as has been defined, using sledgehammer tactics and judgements, gives licence to denouncing what has been misunderstood as well as to casting final judgement on people. True understanding of words, phrases and ideas is sometimes lacking, either knowingly or unknowingly, often out of a dull and inaccurate reading of any given text including that of Scripture with the unfortunate result of forming wrong extrapolations. An unrepentant defence of judgementalism by a self-confessed Christian may be a sign of several qualities, one of them being the psychological condition known as a God complex. This can result in the God-complexed treating others as though answerable to them rather than to the One to Whom everyone will one day give an account, God alone.