We have an ambivalent relationship to the matter of people passing judgment on others.
On the one hand, we don’t like it. We’ve been the recipients of the unfair, arrogant, or overblown judgments of others, of those who want to tear us down to build themselves up, or who seem to care more about vengeance than truth. But in all honesty, we sometimes do it too: we pass judgment on others, hastily and automatically. Someone cuts us off on the freeway, and we shout “Jerk!” without truly knowing anything about the other person’s character or motivations. It’s in our nature to quickly seek causes when we experience negative emotions. In practical terms, that means looking for someone to blame, and we’re quite good at it.
On the other hand, we can’t imagine a world as broken as ours without moral judgment, without mutual accountability, without the restraint of people at least sometimes being justified in saying, “That’s not okay.” The alternative is chaos.
And thus we may also feel ambivalent when Paul tells the Corinthians to judge those who are inside the church, to cut off from the fellowship those who are habitually sinful, to “drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5:11-13; see also Deut 17:7, 19:19, 22:21-24, 24:7). We know that we can’t simply turn a blind eye to sin, but we’re nervous about letting loose a tide of arrogant and hurtful condemnation.
But let’s be frank: this side of the consummation of God’s kingdom, the responsibility to exercise moral judgment will always entail the risk of abuse. Suffice it to say that to Paul’s mind, abdicating the responsibility poses the greater risk.
Paul is not advocating the creation of a congregational vice squad whose job it is to police behavior and punish infractions. When he says, “Don’t even eat with anyone like this” (1 Cor 5:11, CEB), he’s not envisioning snobbish cliques in a high school cafeteria. What he hopes for instead is a congregation that fully understands its calling to reflect the character of their Lord, that mourns sin in their midst and desires holiness enough to strive for it in “sincerity and truth” (5:8, NRSV).
The church’s job is not the moral arm-twisting of others, but to be holy. Paul’s vice lists are not to be used arrogantly as moral sledgehammers to condemn and vilify, but more as mirrors, reminders that force us to ask humbly if we’ve abandoned our calling.
There is a necessary and appropriate place for judgment, as long as it’s not the gnat-straining legalism of who’s-broken-what-rule. Proper judgment is grounded in the grateful desire to embody the truth of the gospel in humble holiness, both as individuals and together as a church.
Where such is the case, we have nothing to fear from judgment.