“JUDGE NOT, THAT YOU BE NOT JUDGED.” (MATTHEW 7:1)
Even those who couldn’t pick John 3:16 out of a lineup could probably still (mis)quote this well known yet rarely understood passage of the Bible.
With just seven short words, the ultimate trump card is played and any sin or shortcoming is magically justified:
Who are you to judge me for cheating on my spouse or to judge that celebrity for the latest scandal?
Who are you to judge when Jesus tells you not to?
Mic drop. Checkmate. Game over.
But do these words mean what we think they mean? Is Jesus intending to condemn any and all judgment? No, He isn’t.
How do we know?
Consider how this defense is often employed. What is the person who says, “don’t judge me,” typically doing? Judging you for judging them. Apparently, according to their logic, the only person we should judge is someone judging us. We have nothing to judge except judgment itself! That seems silly and unstable…and it is.
More importantly, “judge not” cannot mean what most people assume it means given the immediate context. Let’s keep reading:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1–5)
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say to leave the speck in the eye of your brother. He actually commends taking the speck out. To do so is not unloving or unkind, anymore than it is unloving or unkind to point out that your friend has a bit of spinach in his teeth. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who love others will manifest that love in a million hard conversations. So rather than prohibiting all judgment, Jesus actually commends judging others, but only after judging yourself. Keep reading:
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)
If all judgment is anathema, how then would you discern, assess, or judge who or what falls into each category of verse 6? Who is a dog, who is a pig, and what is holy? Obviously, Jesus can’t be saying that all judging is bad, lest He contradict Himself in the span of a few verses. Let’s skip ahead a few verses and keep reading:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15–20)
If we are to distinguish between sheep and wolves (false prophets and good teachers), then it seems like some form of judging is appropriate and expected; whatever “judge not” means, it can’t mean “don’t judge anyone ever for any reason.”
In fact, Scripture actually explicitly commands us to judge. Later in Matthew, Jesus commands believers to correct and rebuke one another (Matthew 18:15-17). And in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13)
These passages are just as inspired and just as authoritative as “judge not”—and in both God actually commands His people to pass judgment on others.
So how should we understand what is happening here?
Well it all depends on what we mean by judge.
In the 1 Corinthians passage, the context is critical. Paul is dealing with the question of sexual immorality. To understand what is happening in this passage, we need to know that God’s will regarding human sexuality is not ambiguous. Scripture clearly reveals that any and all sexual activity apart from monogamous heterosexual marriage is sinful. Therefore, the church IS to pass judgment on this circumstance because God has already passed judgment on this situation.
The same could be said in cases involving divorce and remarriage, abortion, cheating on a spouse, cheating on your taxes, murder, rape, assault, and so forth. In such cases, “judge not” doesn’t apply because these are cases of overt sin.
Ironically and unfortunately, it seems like the overwhelming majority of cases where someone plays the “judge not” card don’t actually apply to the “judge not” command! The one who yells “don’t judge me, bro,” the loudest is typically the very one who most needs to hear God’s judgment. Those who protest “only God can judge me,” fail to realize that His word has already done just that.
However, it is true that there are times when we should not judge. There seem to be four related categories in which judgment is improper for a Christian:
1. JUDGMENT WITHOUT SUFFICIENT INFORMATION
Perhaps very few theological truths are as relevant to social media as the fact that God forbids His people from judging in instances where they don’t have access to sufficient information to render a just judgment.
Was a police shooting justified or not? Is governmental intervention in the midst of a pandemic justified or not? Should we believe the alleged victim of a sexual assault? Which spouse should we believe in marital conflict? Should we trust a click bait news headline?
Being the first to give an uninformed opinion is so tempting, but some temptations are worth resisting. And so within Scripture, we see such rash judgment condemned. Consider the following:
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Proverbs 18:13)
The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does? (John 7:51)
This is also why Scripture demands that two or more witnesses are necessary for conviction in capital crimes (Deuteronomy 17:6) and bringing a charge against elders (1 Timothy 5:19) and so forth. Why? Because truth and facts are necessary for the sake of rendering just judgments.
On the basis of these (and many other) texts, judgment is inappropriate when insufficient evidence is available to render a just judgment. Speaking of justice, let’s consider the next category.
2. UNJUST JUDGMENT ON THE BASIS OF PARTIALITY.
Related to rushed judgment, the Bible also condemns biased judgment. This is a common temptation in culture today. Some are tempted to believe all men, some are tempted to believe all women. Some are tempted to side with the rich, others to side with the poor. Some defer to the majority culture, others to those on the margins. But all such judgment is unjust because it is based on the face rather than the facts. Consider what Scripture says:
It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice. (Proverbs 18:5)
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:15)
You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ (Deuteronomy 1:17)
But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:9)
As Jesus says, Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. (John 7:24)
Note the inherent tension in Jesus’s statement: “Do not judge…but judge.” In some sense we are prohibited from judging (by appearances) while in another sense we are commanded to judge (with right judgment).
So judgment should never be based on outward appearances or some other condition, but rather on the merits of an actual case.
3. JUDGMENT IN A MORALLY NEUTRAL AREA
In 1 Corinthians and other passages, Paul talks about contexts where God’s will is clearly revealed. There is no question that pornography is wrong. There is no ambiguity regarding adultery. But what about morally neutral areas–what are called “adiaphora” (pronounced ah-dee-AH-for-uh)?
What of things like drinking alcohol, or playing cards, or dancing, or eating pork, or even eating meat sacrificed to idols–things which are, in and of themselves, morally neutral? In such cases, we are not to judge.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Romans 14:13)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16)
In other words, God’s people are to judge in areas where He has clearly revealed His moral will, but to withhold judgment in areas where He has not. Or, to put it more succinctly, judge what God has judged, don’t judge what He has not.
Again, when it comes to matters of sin, we pass judgment because God has passed judgment. When it comes to matters of opinion, or preference, or cultural rather than biblical virtues and vices, we do not.
4. A SPIRIT OF JUDGMENTALISM
There is an appreciable and important difference between the act of judging, in and of itself, and possessing a judgmental heart. While the latter is a form of pride, the former is actually an expression of humility. After all, it is arrogance to disagree with God’s judgment, but the humble willingly submit to the word of the Lord. In other words, not everyone who judges others is actually judgmental.
That said, Christ does condemn a spirit of judgmentalism, and such a spirit is alive and well in the Church today as it was in the first century. This vice manifests itself in various ways. For example, the legalist who judges another in order to justify themselves, the person who accuses others of being judgmental in order to reject proper correction, those who delight in pointing out the weaknesses of others while not recognizing their own–all of these are evidences of the judgmentalism Jesus warns us about.
Ironically, those who reject the criticisms and critiques of others are often guilty of the very judgmentalism that Jesus condemns. How so? By rejecting the standard of God’s judgment, and setting up their own standard of judgment, they judge God Himself. In effect, they say that all correction is incorrect, but in doing so they inconsistently and sinfully attempt to correct God. So those who reject criticism don’t just reject the people of God, but the word of God and thus God Himself.
CONCLUSION: DESIRING TO BE JUDGED
What do each of the four categories above have in common? They all represent ways in which I would hope to not be judged. I don’t want someone to rush to judgment against me when they don’t have all of the relevant information. I don’t want someone to judge me because I’m a man or American or more educated or less educated or more wealthy or less wealthy or lighter or darker than them. I don’t want to be judged for doing something that God has given me freedom to do. I don’t want to be judged in these ways, and I would imagine you don’t either.
But that doesn’t mean that I despise or disdain all judgment. In fact, I desperately desire to be judged. I know my own heart. I know many of my weaknesses. I need others to not only encourage me, but also to rebuke me, correct me, and admonish me for my own good.
Tragically, those who wave the magical wand of “judge not” deny themselves the grace of God supplied to His people through brothers and sisters who love them enough to see something and say something; it is often through the correction of those who love us that we ourselves avoid the judgment of God! So if you really want to avoid judgment, delight in the correction and rebuke of others!
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:6)
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it… (Psalm 141:5)
Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (Proverbs 25:12)