I suggested that, as a law student, it may interest her to examine the use of the word “condemn” from a legal perspective. Seldom is the word used to describe a person who has been sentenced to a fine, community service, or a moderate prison term. Rather, it seems the word is typically reserved for those who have been “condemned” to a life of imprisonment or execution, the most severe sanctions a state can impose.
This raises interesting questions for this conversation, such as how Jesus used words such as judge or condemn and what implications this may have for his followers. To be clear, etymology should not be mistaken for theology, but perhaps examining how our culture understands (or misunderstands) the words of Jesus could prove useful.
A COMMON EXAMPLE in Scripture is the Pericope Adulterae, or the story of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11). Interestingly, while this may be one of the most quoted passages in Scripture, it is commonly disputed by biblical scholars and was not likely part of the original text. Authenticity aside, few other passages have shaped the American understanding of Jesus more than this story.
It tells of religious leaders who brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus. They asked if she should be stoned, in accordance with their law, hoping to ensnare Jesus in an ethical trap. Jesus replied by asserting that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” One by one, from the oldest to youngest, each man departed until only Jesus and the woman remained. Jesus asked the woman, “has no one condemned you” [italics added for emphasis], to which she replied “no one.”
The final verse of this passage is rich with nuance and meaning. Jesus then said to the woman “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
A PLAIN READING of the text suggests that Jesus’ use of the word “condemn” closely resembles the aforementioned description, that is to say, none of the woman’s accusers chose to execute her. The text does not suggest that he neglected to judge her behavior as sinful.
Rather, he acknowledged the sinfulness of her behavior and instructed her to change course. Several other passages describe Jesus’ remarkable ability to both directly and winsomely confront sin, including his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and the immoral woman who washed his feet in Luke 7.
Conversely, the contemporary understanding, heavily influenced by the new tolerance (see my previous article), seemingly perceives any effort to describe a particular behavior as sinful as a call to take up stones.
Paul the Apostle would later instruct Corinthian believers to judge their fellow members (1 Cor. 5:12-13). He asserted that, while God will judge the unbeliever, it is the responsibility of the church to confront sin within its membership.
The notion of church discipline is a difficult one. It has sadly been practiced in ways that are selfish and unloving far too often.
HOWEVER, it is the responsibility of the church. It may be fair to say that a church that does not judge its membership (albeit, patiently and graciously) is not a church. It may be a community-gathering place, a platform for philanthropy and civic engagement, or a catalyst for change and social justice. It may function as a performing arts center, relief agency, or community-building organization. It may be any number of good things- but without the careful discernment of fellow believers rightly judging those within its membership and holding one another accountable, it is not a church.
Perhaps this explains some of the public reaction to the document at Shorter. In a cultural milieu where everyone is considered the master of his or her own morality, when efforts to describe a particular behavior as sinful are perceived as a visceral condemnation of a person’s humanity, and where even the church cannot hold its own membership accountable to its shared values, an educational institution that informs its practices with a traditional view of these passages will be deemed intolerable.
MY HOPE is that Shorter community, as they remain steadfast in their belief and practices, will be able to spur on a more robust and multi-dimensional understanding of Christ, his church, and our relationship to one another as fellow believers.
Joshua Arnold currently serves as the Director of Residence Life and Student Conduct at Shorter University. His previously published article, “Shorter University and the Trouble with Tolerance” and other writings can be found at jarnoldcr.wordpress.com.