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Evangelical Questions: Why You So Judgy?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about worthiness. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
A common question from Evangelicals is why our church spends so much time and energy, “being judgy” – meaning, why do we care about worthiness? Why do we say our Bishops are, “Judges in Israel.” Can’t we just follow Jesus’ words and refrain from all the judgment?
This is a huge issue, and there is not enough time in a video like this to parse through all of it, so I’m just going to cover the parts the average Evangelical would be worried about. And they are worried about it. If you remember a couple videos back we talked about the history of the Evangelical movement and how they can be considered “Double Protestants” because they come from a tradition that protested against the Catholic Church, and then they did it again and protested against their own Protestant churches. And that same dynamic is going to come into play here, especially as it comes to them being Protestants who have moved away from the Catholic Church.
So, an Evangelical’s understanding of what is happening in a Catholic Church is that the priest sets himself up as God and directly forgives sins, or refuses to forgive them, and that people have no direct access to God. Now, that is not what is happening in a Catholic Church – all of you who have a Catholic background can take a deep breath, I know that is not what is happening in a Catholic Church, but that’s what Evangelicals (largely) think is happening. And in reaction to that they have a very high value on the idea that only God can judge and no other human ever has to be involved in the process at all. It’s actually a really unfortunate over-reaction to their misunderstanding because what happens is that the individual is left utterly alone to learn how to repent and change and grow. There is no communal support for how to repent. They’ve created that culture for what they think is a good reason – a really important reason – which is that they see themselves as the ones who take down barriers between people and Christ.
How Does This Work
So you, Latter-day Saint, you know how this works in our church. Let me try to explain how this works in Evangelical churches. You remember from our previous videos that Evangelical churches place a really high value on the conversion experience or, “saying the sinner’s prayer.” Not all Protestant churches function this way, but at least historically in Evangelical churches the entire point of everything is to get people to say the sinner’s prayer….and what happens next varies greatly, depending on the particular church. Some churches are content to pretty much stop there – oh they certainly want people to keep attending, and keep learning about God, but not much more is going to be expected of them. They’ve already done the thing – they said the prayer. One hugely popular Evangelical author says it’s like going around the bases in baseball, once you’ve gotten to home plate you’re done and now your main job is to cheer on the other members of your team so that they can get to home plate too. Sure, you probably need to learn and grow a bit, and that includes confession of sin, but that’s a private thing that you do alone on purpose. No one else is to be involved because that would be putting a barrier between you and God. They don’t even really have a conceptualization of getting help in the repentance process because if a person asked for such help they would be told to go pray in private, confess their sins, and move on. The best case scenario is that this is a system which fosters self-reliance and forces a person to build up their own relationship with God – and the worst case scenario is that it leaves people without much help or hope on difficult issues when they know what they should be doing but can’t quite bring themselves to do it.
So, when your Evangelical friends or family members learn that we require adults and teenagers to sit for worthiness interviews, or that we sometimes say bishops are to function as a, “judge in Israel,” their defenses go up pretty high. They’re worried that we’re doing unnecessary gate-keeping and leaving people separated from God unnecessarily. Interestingly enough we both have the same worry about each other – we worry a bit about them abandoning people to have to handle every act of repentance entirely alone; and they worry that we are causing people to feel abandoned by God because we’re putting up barriers for them to repent.
But at the end of the day, we both want the same thing – for people to repent from their sins and grow in holiness. And still it seems kind of hard for many Latter-day Saints to explain why we do what we do. I don’t have the definitive answer on that, but I do have some thoughts about why what we’re doing is worthwhile and how you might be able to talk about it with your Evangelical friends in a way they can understand, and might even learn from.
Maybe you’ve had this experience, I certainly have….if the topic of worthiness interviews comes up, your Evangelical friend is going to look at you like you are a crazy person for voluntarily submitting to that. They’re going to think you are handing over your autonomy and will probably quote Jesus’ words to you about, “judge not lest ye be judged.” But what is Jesus actually saying there?
In my day-job I’m a mental health therapist and this question comes up all the time. A client will be participating in a certain activity, or spending time with a certain person and the activity or person turns out to not be very good for them. They leave that person’s presence feeling more anxious, or they have some other bad consequence from spending their time that way. If I, as their therapist, suggest that they might need to reconsider who they spend their time with I am often met with the objection, “Well, I can’t judge them.” But, I don’t even know what that means, to be honest. When I go to the grocery store and want to buy a nice piece of salmon I have some choices to make. I can buy the piece that looks like it came off the boat that morning, or I can buy the piece that looks like it’s been sitting in the case for 5 weeks. Buying the fresh fish has one set of consequences, and buying the weeks old piece of fish has a different set of consequences. I get to choose which consequences I’d like. These days I know exactly how to go to the store and notice the signs of freshness in a fish, but I didn’t always. Someone had to point them out to me so that today I can properly judge which piece of fish is going to give me the consequences I want. Am I judging the fish? Yes. But what I’m really judging is the consequences of my own actions. The topics that come up in a worthiness interview are kind of the same thing. Let me use an old example to explain.
As you know, the worthiness interview questions have changed over time. A previous version of the questions asked members if they had, “stolen irrigation water from their neighbor.” I grew up in an agricultural area where irrigation water was, and still is, fiercely debated. Stealing water that does not belong to you is going to have bad consequences for you (you will be used to a certain amount of water for your crops, and when it becomes restricted after you get caught the crops you planted with that extra water will die); it’s bad for your neighbor (their crops will die), and it’s bad for the entire ecosystem (I don’t have time to explain that piece, just trust me). So if we’re looking at a behavior called, “stealing irrigation water” we can demonstrate how it will have negative effects on the individual and community. It will be negative in the same way that eating a bad piece of fish from the store will be bad. In our modern worthiness interview when you are asked, “Do you live the law of chastity?” is that an improper use of judgment, the kind Jesus was talking about? Or is that designed to help people consider the consequences of their actions and decide if those actions are going to have good or bad consequences for them and their neighbors? I think most members would say that this is intended as – and functions as – a question about considering consequences. Infidelity is an act that is not between two people in private, that’s an act that impacts everyone they love and have influence over. And those consequences – the natural consequences of infidelity – are far more devastating than eating a piece of bad fish.
Despite the fact that your Evangelical friends or family members largely are left to confess sin in private they could probably see the benefit of worthiness conversations when we think about them this way. The word, “judgment” has a bad reputation these days, and probably for some good reasons, but we’re left without a better word to explain what we’re after in those interviews. In this topic my mind often goes to the youth. Youth in Evangelical churches are going to be expected to sustain some form of chastity (for the most part) but without a vehicle to talk about that and potentially get help repenting over that, it’s an incredible burden to place on them and ask them to manage it alone. In this sense the very concept of a worthiness interview is similar to teaching someone how to choose good fish at the market. It’s not the kind of judgment that tells the person, “you’re a bad person,” it’s the kind of judgment that helps them discern which outcomes they would like to have the best chance at getting.
I hope this episode helps you think through how to talk about these things with your Evangelical friends and family members. The unique gift that our church has in this realm is that we provide a private place for every member to have a private chat with their local leader to think through these things, and that’s not just limited to a worthiness interview, but includes going to your bishop when an issue comes up where you can’t figure out how to repent on your own. If you’ve grown up in the church you might not realize how rare it is to have that option. There may be a few exceptions but for the most part Evangelicals don’t have that option – and at the larger churches their local pastor won’t even know their name, nevermind how they or their family are doing managing the challenges of life.
Join us next week as we take up another Evangelical question. If you have a specific question you’d like to see answered shoot me an email at [email protected] See you next time.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.
I so appreciate these posts. I particularly love the line about judging the consequences of our own actions as opposed to judging someone. That being said, we do need to make judgments regarding the personal influences in our lives or in the lives of those we love. And we do it all the time.
When the Savior was teaching for us to “judge not”, it seems most of the Christian world (mostly the denom part) interpret that to mean “don’t be mean”. My take on that is He is just reinforcing how important it is that we don’t overstep our roles and try to commandeer a ship that is only His to right. Truly only He and the person “on trial” can make any FINAL judgment because only they two will have all the facts, authority, and agency.
I meant “non-denom”, ha ha