It is unlikely that when most non-churchgoers hear the word “church” that the first thing they think of is a “judgment-free zone.” I have experienced my fair share of judgment and engaged in some myself. But passing judgment is not something unique to the Church.
Judging, An Inherently Human Problem
Being Judgmental is not a Christian thing, but an inherently human thing, and there is both a positive and negative side to it. We can use it to discern truth and make good decisions (good judgment) and we can also berate and condemn one another (“judging” someone else)
The “how” and “why” of human judging comes down to three basic principles:
(1) rational powers of discernment and thoughtful discrimination, (2) our natural perspective to see each other more objectively than we see ourselves, and (3) our sin nature that skews the first two.
(1) Rational Powers of Discernment: We are created with rational powers of judgment, something both good and necessary. We might step into a city street, look left and right, and then back left coming to an abrupt stop. Thankfully our powers of judgment discerned the speed of the oncoming car to our left traveling too fast for us to clear its front bumper before reaching the opposite side. In the same way, we make moral judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of an action. Judgment powers are native to just being human and are quite critical to survival. In a more primal era, deciding to not found your prehistoric village near the den of a 1200 pound Saber Tooth cat is simply sound judgment.
(2) More Objective Perspective On Each Other: As visual creatures, it constantly presents us with a “perspective” toward others we do not have for ourselves. If you have dirt on your face, or food in your teeth, it will usually go unnoticed by the bearer until a friendly neighbor points it out. We would not even know what we look like as people without a mirror or at least a puddle of water. Hence our perspective on ourselves is inherently weaker, so our perspective on others is then inherently stronger—it always gives us a clearer vantage point on others. When we see things that look amiss, it is very easy to miss our own faults, while immediately calling attention to our neighbor’s. Since we see our neighbor more readily, it naturally drives us to critique what we see, rather than what we don’t see, which is ourselves. This puts us in a tempting position to be far more critical of others than ourselves.
(3) The Fallen Sin Nature: We have a fallen sin nature as humans, and this leads us to naturally judge others more harshly than ourselves. Again this is nothing unique to Christians or any other group. It is just how we are as humans.
What is most critical to this third point is the reason we are often so skewed in our perspective of both ourselves and our nature. There is an inherent thirst to be “right” in all of us, the need to “self-justify.” The Apostle Paul spends more than half of the letter to the Romans discussing both the innate need and desire for “justification” and how it leads us to judge others. Paul answers that justification does not come through comparison to our neighbor but through faith in Christ’s gift of grace.
Where judging often becomes a problem for Christians is in having a uniformly agreed-upon standard of truth—the Bible. A standard makes it easier to discern error. When you take the above natural human tendencies, and couple them with this standard, it can increase being judgmental—at least in less-mature Christians who do not understand the nature of the Gospel itself. This is why many new Christians often temporarily get worse before they get better.