Ezekiel 3:17-21 and When is it ok to Judge

GAVEL_SCALESX390Christians in America have a reputation for being judgmental. This is somewhat deserved. There are many different behaviors and attitudes that are described as sinful in the Bible and Christians, for the most part, have not shied away from sharing that information with others. In fact, I would venture to say that many of them believe they are fulfilling the role set forth to Ezekiel in this passage:

17 Human one, I’ve made you a lookout for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from me, deliver my warning. 18 If I declare that the wicked will die but you don’t warn them, if you say nothing to warn them from their wicked ways so that they might live, they will die because of their guilt, but I will hold you accountable for their deaths. 19 If you do warn the wicked and they don’t turn from their wickedness or their wicked ways, they will die because of their guilt, but you will save your life. 20 Or suppose righteous people turn away from doing the right thing. If they act dishonestly, and I make them stumble because of it, they will die because you didn’t warn them of their sin. Their righteous deeds won’t be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their deaths. 21 But if you do warn the righteous not to sin, and they don’t sin, they will be declared righteous. Their lives will be preserved because they heeded the warning, and you will save your life.

“We are following the precepts of the Bible in sharing with people what is sin, just as a lookout declares impending destruction,” they would say. Then they could point to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 to further support this position that it is a part of our Christian duty to proclaim sin as sin and call it out.

Each of these three passages, Ezekiel, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians, all have one thing in common: they are directed towards a group of people who are intimately known by each other and a part of the covenant community together. Ezekiel was sent to his community of exiles in Babylon to prophecy to them. The Matthew passage specifically references when a fellow Christian sins against you, and the attempt of reconciliation, and the 1 Corinthians passage is about sin within the Church at Corinth. None of these passages is about sin in the society at large, only within the covenant community (Israel or the Church), and then even more specifically only among people who know each other. Ezekiel did not act as the lookout for the exiles in Egypt or Assyria, only those he knew in Babylon. Matthew does not write that Christians anywhere could bring anyone from anywhere else before the Church for judgment. 1 Corinthians does not allow the Corinthians to judge the Christians in Ephesus or Rome. This is very personal, and very close to home.

As well, the main thrust of the Matthew passage is what Jesus says to Peter and the disciples after this statement. The point is not that we are to judge, but we are to forgive–even if the one seeking forgiveness is abusing our forgiveness! We have been forgiven by God, therefore we must forgive others. If we do not forgive, then we will not be forgiven.

Finally, there is the passage in Matthew 7 where Jesus says

Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

The passage in 1 Corinthians has the whole Church come together for the judgement (which is explicitly only directed towards those inside the Church). The Matthew 18 passage has the Church come together for judgment. The Ezekiel passage has a prophet explicitly sent by the Lord, who can only speak when the Lord opens his mouth to speak. In each case it is obvious that the Holy Spirit is guiding the decision and judgment made–a judgment only on those inside the covenant community who are personally known to all the others involved in the process.

Why is this important? Because we do not know the circumstances of anyone else’s life. Their obvious sins may be the least detestable things with which they are struggling and having victory over through God’s grace in their lives. But if we, as Christians, try to take the moral high ground and single out someone else’s sins, we ought not be surprised when God singles out our own sins for judgment (even if ours are more hidden sins than someone else’s sins). And this is just dealing with others inside the Church who we do not personally know who have sin.

We are explicitly told in 1 Corinthians we are not to judge those outside the Church. Without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives we have no hope of overcoming sin in our own lives. Why would we expect those who do not have the Holy Spirit to live up to the standard of holy living and then judge them when they fail?

But are we not supposed to act as a lookout or watchman like Ezekiel? If God has personally spoken to you and commissioned you to a specific people group you know to act in that capacity, yes. Anything short of a direct, divine commission would have to answer no. Why? Because as Jesus said in John 16:8 that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts people of sin, not us. We have a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), not a ministry of judgement.

Does this mean we are soft on sin? No. It means we are large on love and share in the ministry of Jesus Christ, our head.

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