Only forty years ago the most commonly quoted verse from the Bible was John 3:16. Most Americans, Christian and non-Christian alike — whether they believed it to be true or not — knew that the verse concerned "God's only begotten Son." It wasn't uncommon to see the verse written on signboards in the cheering sections on Monday Night Football.
Perhaps it was inevitable that our "post-Christian world" — as modern scholars have labeled it — would replace John 3:16 in an attempt to remove any effort to scrutinize moral laxity or confront it. Admonitions to cease and desist from immoral behavior are commonly met today with references to a permissive, milk toast Christ who doesn't demand change from those who follow Him.
Any attempt to claim the moral high ground in arguments about abortion, homosexuality, adultery, and assorted other activities until recently regarded as "sin" are opposed with a different verse these days. Jesus' warning in Matthew 7:1, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged," rolls off the golden tongues of lobbyists for numerous agendas as easily as the old standard from the Gospel of John rolls off the tongues of those in the church.
Ironically, the deployment of the words "do not judge" by those caught in behavior once deemed unacceptable has proven a great countermeasure against Christianity. Christians all too often say, "Well, you're right. Jesus did say that. He did say 'don't judge.' I'm sorry. You're okay. I'm okay. Let's hug and call it a day."
Still worse, Christians who have fallen into immoral behavior have used the verse as a bulwark against the discipline of the body of Christ.
Christians have allowed those who do not accept the authority of Christ or the Bible to convince us that they are as qualified to interpret the words of Scripture as the church. It ought not to be so. The interpretation of the Bible belongs to the church, to the priesthood of all believers, to those who are willing to recognize that they are not God and authorities unto themselves.
Did Jesus mean that we should not declare certain behaviors unacceptable? Did He mean that human beings have no right to set boundaries for society? Did He mean that those within the church have no right to confront a brother or sister in Christ about an egregious sin? If any of these questions are answered in the affirmative, both apostles and governments must apologize. Worse than that, Christians today must preach an impotent gospel which doesn't confront its hearers with the inescapable reality of human sin Paul wrote about in Romans 3:23.
Jesus' admonition to His followers was not a prohibition of all judgments. Nor was His statement meant to be an excuse for bad behavior. Instead, it was intended to convey that His disciples should avoid unfair and unusually harsh judgments. On a personal level, He was encouraging intense self-examination. They should not be more critical of others than of themselves.
Calling attention to the violation of one of God's commandments in the church or of a generally accepted moral standard in society is another story. Sometimes Christians need to say, "This is wrong." Sometimes greater damage is done to society and the church when those who follow Christ choose, in contradiction to the character of Christ, to remain silent.
Where would the world be if Christians throughout history had remained settled in their cozy recliners, indifferent to the world around them? Would William Wilberforce have argued for the abolition of slavery in England? Would Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been imprisoned and hanged for his opposition to Adolph Hitler's control of the church? Would Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers have labored for civil rights?
Such men might have chosen another saying as their motto: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Jesus said that, too, in John 15:13, shortly before his crucifixion. It was never all about Him. It was about His love for us. That brings us back to, "For God so loved the world..."
Gregory Tomlin is news director at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.