“Judgment Calls and the Bible”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations
Along with most other members of churches of Christ, I believe that the word of God is the sole authoritative guide to serving Him. In particular, I believe that within the New Testament, we can discern a pattern of work and worship in the first-century church that God expects all Christians to follow.
However, I also believe that this pattern is limited in its scope. The Bible does not provide an answer for every question that we might ask about the church. Should the congregation meet on Sunday night? Should there be three trays of bread on the Lord’s Supper table, or four (or trays at all, for that matter)? The Scripture leaves these issues, along with a host of others, to our judgment and discretion.
Judgment also plays a role in the way that we interpret many commandments. Sometimes, the role of judgment is limited. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 doesn’t leave Christians with a lot of discretion about praying for the government. We have to.
At other times, though, our understanding of a passage can’t be anything more than a judgment call. I have read numerous explanations of what “the husband of one wife” means in 1 Timothy 3:4. However, I don’t think there’s any way to conclusively determine from the text what the phrase means. Nor can we duck the question altogether—not, at least, if we want to appoint elders! Instead, each congregation must judge for itself what a husband of one wife is.
So too, the application of Scriptural principles is left to our judgment. I can clearly define what adultery is, but I can’t do the same with modesty or uncleanness. I can offer my judgment about whether a particular garment is modest, but that will never be anything more than my judgment. On the extremes, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that my judgment is wrong, but on the margin, that argument is very easy to make.
All of this is important for several reasons. First, we must acknowledge that we do make judgment calls as we apply the word. Some brethren have real trouble seeing this. They are every bit as confident in what they say about modesty as in what they say about adultery, even though the Scriptural witness in each case is very different.
This is problematic. We need to be able to distinguish between our judgments and the judgments of the Lord, or else we will end up in the same boat as the Pharisees! Additionally, Christians who turn their judgment calls into matters of faith bring the Restoration project itself into disrepute. It’s easy for critics to point out their error and use that error to deny that a first-century pattern exists at all.
Second, we must acknowledge the right of others to make their own judgment calls, particularly when they differ from ours. Just because I see the right answer to a spiritual question so clearly does not mean that the answer is, in fact, clear. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not as broad as the world wants to make it, but it is perhaps not as narrow as we want to make it either.
Third, we must confess that not everyone’s judgment is equally good. We all differ in Biblical understanding, life experience, and good sense, and all those things affect the quality of our judgment. No, there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly says, “Thou shalt not drink any alcohol, ever.” However, it’s also the judgment of countless elders, preachers, and older sisters in Christ that drinking is a bad idea. Is it wise to reject the judgment of the wise? Probably not.
Rather than being a flaw in our conception of the Biblical pattern, the exercise and development of our judgment is one of its strengths. Just as God has given each of us the right to read the Scriptures for ourselves, He has given us the right to interpret and reason from them. As we grow in our ability to judge, we mature in Christ. May we use this gift wisely, yet fearlessly, so that the longer we walk with Him, the more we become like Him!