I would like to share with you an easy technique for avoiding moral accountability. Whenever you are caught and called to account for doing something wrong (that is, when you are “busted”), you simply invoke the figure of the Pharisee. Tell your accuser that he is being judgmental and Pharisaical, and that he has no right to judge you. After all, the Lord says, “Judge not”. It works almost every time, functioning as a moral Get Out of Jail Free card.
It is true, of course, that our Lord did bid us not to judge or condemn, and that He did tell us to pardon (Luke 6:37). And the Pharisee in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee was indeed a judgmental character, one who condemned those around him as being less righteous than himself. But does this mean that any accusation of wrongdoing must be avoided and that there can be no accountability in the church? That seems odd, especially when St. Paul himself commands us to judge our brothers and to hold them to account when they sin. “What have I to do with judging outsiders?” Paul asks. “Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Here we are actually commanded to judge to the point of excommunication. If the person Paul was referring to (he was living with his step-mother as man and wife) thought he had some kind of Get Out of Jail Free card, Paul knew nothing about it. He was judged and expelled. When he repented and changed his life, he was later restored. To judge or not to judge; that seems to be the question.
The sense in which we are to judge is clear: everyone knows what is right and what is wrong, and when a brother or sister does very badly, he or she should be reproved. On this both the Old and New Testament agree. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reprove your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). “If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15).
Being a disciple of Jesus involves getting rid of our sinful habits, not our moral compass. If we are truly members of one another as Paul insists we are (Ephesians 4:25), then we are in some measure responsible for one another. Being our brother’s keeper entails more than feeding him when he is hungry. It also entails reproving him when he goes badly astray and (to take the Corinthian example) starts living as man and wife with his step-mother. To refuse to perform this office of reproof and to watch serenely as he sins and walks away from God is to hate him in your heart. We would want him to do the same for us, and restrain us if we also began to walk heedlessly over a moral cliff. He may or may not accept the reproof, but that does not alter our responsibility.
Note: this necessity of rebuke involves actual sin, like the one for which Paul expelled the sinning brother in Corinth. It has nothing to do with such minutiae as whether or not a brother keeps the Lenten Fast, or comes late to church, or votes for the “wrong” political party. We are talking about sin which destroys a brother’s life, not things which we simply find annoying.
It is these latter things which we must not judge. The Pharisee in the Lord’s parable was condemned for judging because he had no love for those around him. He considered his score to be much higher than anyone else’s. He looked at the swindler and thought: “two out of ten”. He looked at the unjust and thought: “three out of ten”. He looked at the adulterer and thought: “one out of ten”. He looked at the publican and thought: “zero out of ten”. But for himself? Ten out of ten, for sure. And for all the sins of the publican, did he think of going over to him to reprove him and urge him to repentance and righteousness? Certainly not. That would be no fun. He needed the publican to have a low score so that he could look better by comparison. Comparison was the name of the game. Luke says that the Lord told the parable “to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (v. 9).
Here is the difference between good and bad judging, between godly accountability and ungodly judgmentalism. When Paul reproved the sinner in Corinth and judged him, he did it for the sake of the sinner, to lead him to repentance and pardon and joy. Paul did not suggest that he was better than the sinner. Indeed, Paul was not in the equation at all, because it was not about comparing the sinner to anyone. But when the Pharisee judged the publican, the comparative equation was everything. The purpose of the judging was not the repentance and reclamation of the publican, but the self-exaltation of the Pharisee. And we know where such self-exultation leads. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” the Lord said. So, “judge not.”