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Can you make a moral judgment about someone you don’t know?

Aug 22, 2018

Over the weekend, author and writer Jonathan Merritt posted the following to Twitter:

Merritt goes on to criticize conservative evangelical pronouncements on LGBT issues for their supposed failure to know, interact with, or be in regular fellowship with individuals who consider themselves to be LGBT. According to Merritt, you should not render a moral judgment about a person you don’t know. Unless you have taken time to understand their personal struggles and pain, then you have no grounds for making pronouncements that impugn their personal choices. According to Merritt, morality is a matter of proximity. But is Merritt correct in saying this?

Scripture, for certain, calls us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). We are to put on a “heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” toward everyone (Col. 3:12). The Lord Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to be slow and humble about forming judgments (Matt. 7:1-5; 19:19). There is no dispute that we are called to this kind of self-giving love to our neighbors, even those with whom we have deep disagreements. Furthermore, just because Christians can speak to the great moral issues of our day, it does not mean that we can speak arrogantly, prejudicially, or harshly.

Nevertheless, Merritt goes beyond this and suggests that we must suspend moral judgments about people that we don’t know personally. We run up against a problem with his analysis here. There is no clear place in Scripture, much less an “incarnational” litmus test that Merritt demands, that suggests moral judgment is only legitimate if a person is intimately acquainted with the an individual's personal battles. You are extrapolating more from the Incarnation than what it was meant for, especially concerning ethics, if you use Jesus’s Incarnation as the ethical hurdle one must jump to legitimately make a moral claim.

I do not need to know a pornographer to know that pornography is wrong. Why? Because Jesus condemns sexual immorality categorically (Matt. 15:19). I do not need to know what motivates one man’s adultery to know that adultery is wrong. Jesus stated it as a moral absolute (Matt. 5:27-28). The Protestant principle of the perspicuity of Scripture is undermined by Merritt’s argument. What do I mean by that? I mean that Scripture is written clearly and intelligibly; it speaks truthfully about the types of actions that are sinful, regardless of whether a person is tempted to that particular sin.

Furthermore, Merritt’s view is based on caricature more than it is in reality. He claims that evangelicals are disqualified from rendering moral judgments on LGBT issues because they don’t know or spend time with LGBT people. How can he possibly know this? Who is he referring to? It’s an accusation easily made but not easily substantiated, which is probably why Merritt doesn’t try to. He does not know, nor can he know, the day-to-day rhythms of Christians and their interactions with LGBT persons. Merritt’s litmus test looks more like a silencing tactic than it does a faithful interpretation of how to make ethical judgments. His point is also arbitrary. How many LGBT persons must an evangelical know to sufficiently render moral judgement? One? Three? Forty-six? Seventy-three?

Lastly, Merritt undermines the Bible’s teaching on sin. If each of us inherits a sin nature, it means that regardless of the type of sin each of us is tempted with, they all originate from the same fallen internal nature. Whether it is homosexual desire that one man has for another, or one man’s heterosexual lust for a woman, the same fallenness underwrites the evil desire that entices us. In a fallen world, there is no special class of sinner, nor is there the category of sin in others that is not also present in me. We are all sexual sinners. We have all committed murder in our heart. The good news is that while each of us was sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:8).

Christian morality does not exist for its own sake. It exists because it reflects God’s character. The unchanging, immutable nature of a holy and just God means that Christian morality reflects those attributes as well. Christians must speak humbly, knowing that the ethical standards we hold others to are the same standards we are accountable to as well. In this sense, Christian morality is always personal.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. In his role, he researches, speaks, and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public policy, and the church’s social witness. He also... Read More