It has been observed that we live in a post-Christian society, where many people both inside and outside the church are not particularly biblically literate. The time of simply alluding to a Bible story and having most of your audience understand is gone. There are only a handful of Bible passages that have remained in our collective memory. One of them is Jesus’ teaching to not judge.
Where as some passages such as the 23rd Psalm or the Prodigal Son have been remembered because of the beauty of the poetry or the images of the story, that is not the case for judging. I believe that people have gravitated to this verse on judging because it speaks to the way people want to live their life. What people hear when they read this verse is that we should not make any value judgments on what other people do and we should be free to live our lives doing the things we want to do. To many, the problem with religion is that it teaches that some things are good and some are bad. So these same people see Jesus being critical of religion here. However, if we are going to really understand what Jesus is saying about judgment, we are going to have to read this passage carefully and within context.
Is Judging Always Wrong?
Jesus tells us not to judge. So we shouldn’t judge. Except that there are passages in the Bible that tell us to judge. Jesus elsewhere says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:24) This assumes that there is something such as a correct judgment. The Apostle Paul talks about judging as well.
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! (1 Corinthians 6:1-6)
What is happening here is that there is conflict within the church and the Corinthians are going outside of the church to find justice. Paul argues that these things should be settled within the church and that this takes place by appropriate judgment from within the church.
This is perhaps where the church has gotten a bad reputation when comes to be judgmental. I will get into who we should judge but right now I want to focus on what we should judge.
If we are going to judge, we must judge based on things that the Bible clearly talks about. I have heard people judge people for listening to certain kinds of music or watching movies. I know of a pastor and family who if they went to see a movie, had to go to a different city because their church would not accept it. I once witnessed a woman walking up to a friend of mine and telling him that God hated his earrings. The truth was that she hatted his earrings but God has a bit more authority on these things. It is good to have personal convictions and there is nothing wrong wrong with having a self-discipline that is stricter than biblical standards. But we don’t get to judge others based on what we feel is best for us.
At the same time, there are things that go beyond opinion. If someone is gossiping in such a way that it is harmful to the people around them and possibly damaging the church, there is a place to judge. If a person is harming themselves by abusing addictive substances, there is a place to judge.
What both Jesus and Paul would fully agree on is the reason for judging. Judging is never acceptable for the sake of making us feel better our own sins. It is not good to judge the liar so that you can feel good about your gossip, since at least you only gossip the truth. Any judgment that is acceptable is that which is done out of love. If the motivation is not to help the person out of genuine concern for their wellbeing, it is not healthy judgment. If we really love someone, we should respond with truth, even if it is difficult.
Who Should We Judge?
So perhaps there are some circumstances in which we can judge. Not placing a judgment of condemnation on everything that we dislike, but staying with what is clear in Scripture and doing it out of love. But who should our judgment be aimed at?
When I hear about people being frustrated with the church and upset about judgment, it is often about the church trying to judge those outside of the church. There have been times when the church has expected that non-Christians should live according to Christian values and have used our influence to try and make that happen. This is unfortunate as the Bible specifically tells us not to do that. The Apostle Paul taught: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) Our business is not trying to control the private life of those outside the church. Not only does it not help a non-Christian to live like a Christian, it often becomes a stumbling block to them coming to faith. Judging the actions of people outside the church sends the message that God is more interested in what we do rather than putting our faith in Jesus.
Having said that, I will say that this does not mean that we should not be active in issues outside of the church. As much as we are citizens of heaven, we are also citizens of our nation. We have just as much right to vote according to our consciences as any other citizen. We are also free to speak out on issues that are important. Many Christians are involved in activism with regard to abortion and euthanasia. There is nothing wrong with that. We just have to be clear that our activism is not an attempt enforce Christianity on non-Christians but rather this is about justice issues that would exist with or without religion.
Instead of beginning with those outside of our church, we really need to begin by judging ourselves. This is really where Jesus is going with this passage. The concern is that people can uncritically judge others without seeing that we have our own problems. Paul said this: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1) Jesus tells us to take the plank out of our own eye before trying to take the speck out of someone else’s eye.
Again, I need to be clear by what I mean by judging ourselves. I’m not talking about self-condemnation. There are many people with low self-esteem who believe the lie that they have no value. We are created in the image of God and we must both acknowledge and celebrate that. But we also need self-reflection. What areas do we need to improve in our life? Where can we change for the better? A good way to do this is to check ourselves when we feel that judgmental feeling come up toward another person. Have a “plank eye” moment and ask yourself where you are when it comes to that issue. You might see that you bicker, natter or gossip just as much as that person who is bothering you.
We can, as we have already seen, judge to some extent those inside the church. But we really need to be careful. In truth, what we need to judge is the action and not the person. Again, why are we doing it? Is it to make ourselves feel better? Is it to make ourselves look good in front of others? Is there a way that we will personally benefit from our judgment being accepted? All of these should raise red flags. What we need to do is apply the golden rule and judge others the way we would want to be judged.
Who is Our Judge?
As I looked at the topic of judgment in the Bible, there was one them that came up more than any other and that was God is our judge. This comes as a surprise to many Christians. A common understanding of many Christians is that God will judge non-Christians, but we who are followers of Jesus get to skip that step completely. That is not the case at all. Here is where people go wrong. People identify judgment as an examination of what we do or what we believe and that it is a decision about heaven and hell. There is much more to judgment than that.
It is true that if a person sincerely puts their faith in Jesus Christ, that there should no longer be fear of eternal punishment. But that does not end the judgment. This is the mistake that the only motivation God has for us is hell. If you read Paul’s letters, you will see that Paul has high expectations for the Christian life and yet he never uses the word hell.
As a parent, I judge the actions of my children. When one of them lies, that action is named and labelled as something that is unacceptable. When one of them does something nice for their siblings or does a chore without being asked, we name it and label as something praiseworthy. But we never use the threat of kicking them out of our family as motivation to do the good and avoid the bad.
So how shall be judged? We shall be judged by our faithfulness with what God has given us. This is for both us as individuals and as a church. You have mouth that can speak words of blessings or curses. How did you use your words? You have resources, whether money, food or home. How did you use them? You have relationships with family, friends and community. What did you do with those relationships?
If we are found faithless, we will have to answer to that. Not with eternal punishment but knowing that we disappointed the God who has given us so much. We will also have to face our own hypocrisy if we lived a life of judgment toward others, while being content with our own shortcomings.
Judge not and you will not be judged. Jesus did not give this warning as a free pass to live our life any way we want because judgment has been done away with. Jesus is dealing with a very specific type or judgment and that is hypocrisy. The biggest problem with the church is not that we see certain activities as bad, the biggest problem is that we do so while embracing the same sin within us. Jesus does not want us to rush around and try to clean up people’s lives, when we have never lifted a finger to clean up the dirt within us.
Hypocritical judgment is always wrong. But there is a place for judgment. When there is conflict in the church, we need to deal with it and not ignore it out of fear of being too judgmental. We just need to do it from the right motivation and this love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Don’t focus on how people outside the church are acting in ways inconsistent with Christianity. There is no good purpose in making non-Christians live like Christians. Besides, we have enough work to keep ourselves on track. Listen to the impulse to judge, not to jump on another person or to feel superior, but as a little alarm to reflect on our own thoughts, words and deeds. Let the judgment start within us, not out of fear, but out of a desire to become more of the way God intends us to be.