The dominant impression of Christians in popular media isn’t very flattering. Christians are often represented as mindlessly dogmatic, harshly judgmental, and openly antagonistic toward those who don’t share their view of things.
This impression can be challenged, of course. Christians come in many varieties, and it is often those with the most extreme traits who grab our attention. Christians can be stereotyped, just like any other group.
But often those who are most vocal about their Christianity seem to live up to the stereotype. You don’t have to search much to find videos of people who are loudly shouting condemnations at those they find guilty of violating God’s commandments. Those offering the condemnations apparently view themselves as delegated to enforce their understanding of God’s rules by relaying threats of terrible punishment.
Some Christians apparently think that God has appointed them to pronounce harsh judgments on those whose assessments of how to live differ from their own. But the last I heard, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), so it seems surprising that some of his followers would view doing so as a primary mission.
When I was in first grade, the teacher had to leave the classroom for a few minutes one day. Before she left, she told us what we should be doing in her absence. After she left, I observed another student trying to violate one of the class rules. I don’t remember now what he was doing, but I took it upon myself to wrestle this student to the ground to stop him from whatever it was. No one appointed me to do this job. I apparently took it on myself.
I don’t intend to deny that some things are wrong or that some rules need to be enforced. My point is a different one. It is that people can imagine that they have been appointed by God to be enforcers and think that performing this job is an excuse for obnoxious and clearly unloving behavior.
When Jesus warned about the dangers of judging others, I assume that he meant it. One of the reasons for caution that he mentioned was that we are so much more likely to see faults in others than we are to see our own faults (Matthew 7:4-5). But I think that another reason for the warning is that our eagerness to find fault often gets in the way of responding to others in more loving ways, and loving others is central to what Jesus told his followers to do.
The tendency to develop a judgmental form of Christianity is connected with the tendency to think of your beliefs as unquestionable truth and to deny the legitimacy of ways of thinking that differ from yours.
But a faith that seeks understanding involves a recognition that seeking the truth is not the same as possessing it. Even when we know some things, what we know is often riddled by misunderstandings and half-truths that are correctable only by taking a humble stance that admits the deficiencies of our understanding.
People familiar with a wide range of Christian traditions realize that some teachings that are taken for granted in many churches are disputed by major Christian thinkers. In some cases, there are decisive reasons for judging ideas that are widely accepted among Christians to be mistaken. In other cases, these ideas may be thought of as just one option among many.
But those who are unaware of the larger context often just assume that the narrow version of Christianity they have learned is the only possibility. Anyone who deviates from it should be viewed with suspicion.
A faith that seeks understanding will sometimes mean questioning doctrinal claims that are taken for granted by Christians who are unaware of the complexities of understanding biblical revelation. Even if you think the biblical revelation is infallible, that does not mean that your understanding of it is.
It will also involve critically examining the all-too-common conflation of Christianity with attitudes or behaviors that are presumed in a particular social circle but reflect a failure of empathetic understanding toward those who are outside that circle.
A faith that seeks understanding needs to drop the idea that our current construal of Christian teaching is an unalterable indication of truth. It operates with enough humility to recognize that we can be wrong, which is often needed before we can be open to learning better ways of thinking.
Such a faith does not mean giving up on firm convictions, but it does mean recognizing that people can be misguided about what is genuinely central and what needs to be reconsidered. A faith that seeks understanding will mean reconsidering forms of faith that raise intellectual or moral problems or that tend to produce behaviors that are at odds with the way of life Jesus taught.
Faith that seeks understanding has the kind of humility that recognizes we are often not in a position to adopt the sort of superiority that allows us to condemn others. Even when we do know enough to see that someone is on the wrong path and see the need to say something, our task is to say only what can be said in love (Ephesians 4:15).
What seems striking to me about the widespread representations of Christians as closed-minded and eager to judge is how different this sort of behavior is from the way Jesus comes across in the New Testament. What he displays, it seems to me, is not an inclination to focus on our failures, but an impulse to celebrate when we find our way home (Luke 15:22-24).
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series at Good Faith Media. If you would like to contribute to the series, please submit your column to email@example.com.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy. Holley taught philosophy at universities in Kansas, Arizona, and Mississippi for over 40 years. His latest book is Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Cascade, 2022).