The Morality of Judgment
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The third section of an article that began with The Nature of the Good
Abba Theodore said, “If you are temperate do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. For he who said, ‘Do not commit fornication,’ also said, ‘Do not judge.’”
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited... He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward (tr), Sayings of the Desert Fathers, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, 80, 138-39.)
The church is caught in a dilemma between the many injunctions against presuming to judge another (Mt 7.1-5, Rom 2, Jm 4.11) and against the multiplication of laws and their imposition on others (Mt 23.4) on the one hand, and on the other the sense of responsibility to manage the oikonomía of the household of God (1 Cor 6.2-3) and to warn the sinner to repent. (Ezek 33.7-9) Can the GR help us to find a way out of this conflict?
Would I want to be judged, assuming I was doing wrong? Clearly, yes. If even pagan Plato’s Socrates recognized the evil of unacknowledged wrong, and the positive value of judgment, I as a Christian should want to be judged. So being judged is a good that I could wish that others might do to me. But who are the others? Who would do the judging? This is where the plural in the GR is important: it appears that judgment is reserved to the Body of the faithful, not to the individual. In this we can see Paul’s affirmation of the church’s right to warn and discipline its members.
But it is also important to remember that the GR applies to all parties in any action and requires reciprocity: the church can judge only as long as it intends to submit to the same judgment. Jesus’ criticism of “the Pharisees” is based upon their hypocrisy, their failure to do what they expect others to do, their lack of self reflection analogized to blindness, and their resentment at being judged — not on the fact that they judge.
This marks out two limits on the church’s freedom to judge: First, the church may judge only when it has fulfilled the commandment to do the work it is called to do, doing unto others (its members, and its “enemies” = those outside the church) as it would itself be done by. Secondly, the church may only judge when it intends to submit to judgment, and risk being found guilty or in error. For this reason, all pretense at infallibility or certain knowledge is unacceptable on the part of the church, for by this claim it seeks to place itself outside of judgment, and co-opt to itself the final judgment that belongs to Christ alone. It is part of the particular genius of Anglicanism to be one of the few churches to acknowledge the church of Christ can err, even in matters of faith. And it is a tragedy at this present time that so many seem to be so sure of the rightness of their position as to endanger the Body. It is no accident that the early church was more wary of schism than of heresy.
All judgments made by the church must, in the light of the rule of Christ and the limits of human knowledge (1 Cor 13.9), remain provisional to a large extent — and we must confess to being ignorant even of the extent of our ignorance. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle affirm the limitation of human knowledge in the fields of mathematics and physics — and similar principles apply in systems in which self-reference self-examination occur: and this is precisely what we’ve been exploring, when we look at how the church governs itself. Therefore, even when relatively secure in its judgments, the proper mode of action, after judgment, is forgiveness. This too is in accord with the GR, since all of us would want to be forgiven, indeed we pray (in those words our Savior taught us) for such forgiveness several times each day! Are these simply empty phrases, or does the church realize the judgment under which it places itself when it refuses to forgive? “With the judgment you judge you shall be judged.” (Mt 7.2)
In closing, I quote at length from a passage that sums up the argument I have made.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5.14-20)
There are many issues and concerns facing the church in this day. If we are content to accept the limitations of our knowledge, I believe that we can enjoy the freedom we share as children of God by applying the maxim that Christ left us in the Golden Rule. We can move, however imperfectly, from self-interest into sacrificial and mutual self-giving as members of his Body, participating in the never-ending, reconciling dance of the Triune God who is giving, self-giving, and forgiving.