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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
213 pages
Dec 2005
P & R Publishing

Who Are You to Judge?: The Dangers of Judging And Legalism

by Dave Swavely

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Judging is a hot-button issue in the church today. In the 1960s and 70s the most familiar verse was John 3: 16. Not today. Now the most commonly known verse is "Judge not that ye be not judged." Dave Swavely looks at the issue from the perspective of I Corinthians 4:3-7 in Who Are You to Judge? Swavely is the author of several other books and is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is also planting a church in the Philadelphia area.

Swavely defines judging as "evaluating someone or something and then reaching a positive or negative conclusion." (6) He defines legalism as "creating moral standards beyond what the Scripture has revealed. This can happen in the minds of individual Christians, causing them to be unnecessarily restricted in their own behavior and judgmental toward others who do not practice the same standard."(55)

His discussion of the principle of legalism grows confusing at times. In one place he says that Mamma Hyles has the right to set the standards for her home (56) while in the next chapter he says that "(i)f you believe that smoking and gambling (and other similar practices) are sinful in themselves, you will run the risk of developing a proud attitude toward people that engage in them." (74) Then in another chapter he provides a good analysis of the principle of edification. So does Mamma Hyles get to set her standards or not?

In the first five chapters Swavely discusses the issue of judgment based on I Corinthians 4: 3-7. In chapter three, he offers five questions that we should ask ourselves before making judgments. He points out that God sometimes commands us to judge, but he misses a good opportunity of providing a positive examination of when and what we are to judge. He also nods toward the Jew-Gentile controversy on which I Corinthians is based, but does not recognize how that debate affects the understanding of the passage.

His next chapter warns of the danger of pride. He suggests three valuable questions based on Scripture to prevent sinful judging.

One example that Swavely uses surprised me. In his discussion of fasting, he considers it in a negative light. "Furthermore, Jesus implies in that passage (Luke 5: 33-37) that fasting is an infrequent and almost involuntary response to some great hardship or challenge that we face in our lives." (109) He may be right, but it is contrary to the common teaching, and I've not taken the time to study it myself yet.

Toward the end of the book he takes two controversial issues, entertainment and education, to show how to base our lifestyles on the Word and not go beyond it. Because these are controversial topics, one can expect some differences in establishing standards. Swavely takes a dangerous position in misapplying Jesus’ statement in Mark 7: 18-21 about "whatever goes into a man cannot defile him" to mean that we can be lax in the standards we set for what enters our mind. Jesus was talking about eating during the "intake" side of his equation. Swavely takes this completely out of context by writing "(w)hat we take into our eyes and ears can certainly tempt or influence us, as we will discuss, but it cannot necessarily cause us to sin." (132) Doesn't this detract from Jesus’ warning that a man should not look lustfully on a woman? If a man would not necessarily lust after a stripper, does this make strip joints all right? Should we place ourselves under the influence of tempting music, movies, television, Internet sites, and books because we won't "necessarily" sin? Is that wise if it might lead us into sin? Don't some of us argue that the music, movies, or Internet sites won't affect us just because we don't have the wisdom to see how it already is affecting us? Doesn't this put Swavely right in the midst of the Corinthians' Sadducee Judaizers who refused to judge the fornication in their midst? (I Corinthians 5: 1-2)

Swavely does stress the importance of our hearts being right with God, but ignores the reality that those who have lived the closest to God in the past have shown it in their behavior, too. His position often excuses entertainment that is not edifying and might lead others to sin. He justifies love songs with lyrics that promote fornication if he can transfer the ideas mentally to his own wife.

His chapter on education displays problems in his position. Some of his arguments on neutrality in education seem disingenuous. He compares adults in business and children in soccer leagues to uneducated children in school as though they were direct comparisons. He also sets up a straw man argument that because a public school teacher and a Christian school or home school teacher could teach the exact same lesson on math using the same words, the myth of neutrality is not true, ignoring that the most dangerous teachings occur in history, science, and literature.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the book is the assumption that others are legalistic because their interpretation of Scripture leads them to stricter standards. For instance, I have friends who understand the first section of I Corinthians 11 to mean they should wear prayer coverings all of their waking hours. Many evangelical Christians assume that they are legalistic and judge them to be unsaved regardless of the fruit in their lives based on the difference in interpretation. Swavely judges those with stricter standards as legalistic, but shouldn't the warning of judgmentalism work both ways? – Debbie W. Wilson, Christian Book

Book Jacket:

The sin of judging and the error of legalism cause many of the interpersonal conflicts we experience as believers. Plaguing many of our Christian institutions, from churches to schools to families, these problems sap our spiritual strength and weaken the work of God in our midst.

This helpful book defines judging and legalism in a biblical manner, and discusses two often-overlooked biblical commands: Do not pass judgment before the time and do not exceed what is written (1 Cor. 4:5–6). Learning to identify and avoid these problems will help promote peace and joy in the body of Christ, and release believers to serve God in the freedom of His grace! All Christians have, at one time or another, borne the brunt of inappropriate judging and the burden of legalism, and will welcome this book.