It happened again. Today I was out eating with my family and I heard the all familiar cry “don’t judge me” or “Judge not”. This is a rather popular thought in our day and time. This idea of Christians not judging, that no one can pronounce any kind of verdict on another, comes from a misrepresentation of Matthew 7:1.
“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt. 7:1). This verse is often hurled at another who states that a certain action is wrong. It is often used to prove the argument that Christians are not allowed to say anything regarding the actions of another if they hope to avoid judgment. Is this what Jesus is teaching? Is Jesus attempting to have his followers avoid all decision-making and recognition of good or evil in an attempt to avoid being guilty of “judging?”
The Text Misapplied
The verse concerning judgment appears in a group of chapters referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus was discussing various themes, correcting many misunderstandings about the old law, revealing what true devotion to God looks like, and then he deals with how we are to treat others (Mt. 5:21-ff, 6:1-4, 16-18, 7:1-6). In the text about judging, Jesus is not outlawing all judgment or discretion, he makes this very clear throughout the remainder of the chapter. Jesus is not saying that one must never point out sin in the lives of others if so, he would find himself guilty.
What Jesus is addressing in Matthew 7:1-5 is “hypercritical,” biased judgment based on personal preference, and prejudiced criteria. Jesus is correcting notions that were often popular in that day like if someone had on a longer gown he or she was more holy, or the more verses one could fit in their phylactery, obviously, the more righteous they were (Mt. 23:1-7). To judge others who fall short of our personal, self-made standard of righteousness is wrong and proves that we, in fact, have the bigger problem or the “log in our own eye” (Mt. 7:3-5).
In Matthew 7:6 Jesus cautions his disciples that they would have to use some discretion about who they share the treasures of the truth with. Jesus uses plain language as he tells them not to give holy things to dogs because they will not appreciate them. How can I determine if someone is a dog (an uninterested, impure-minded individual) spiritually if Jesus just said five verses ago that I am prohibited from “judging?” Jesus wants one to make an informed decision based on the individual’s receptivity of the message and pray for guidance when doing so, but do not give things of great value to those who will not cherish or take advantage of such (Mt. 7:7-8), This requires “judging!”
In Matthew 7:15, Jesus says “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15). One can hardly be on guard or aware of false teachers as commanded by Jesus if all judgment is abandoned and outlawed based on Matthew 7:1. The truth is, we are to make proper decisions based on the “fruit” or evidenced behavior of another, and this tells us whether one is a false teacher or not. This is the criteria Jesus gave for determining such (Mt. 7:16-20). This requires judging!
Judging, or using discretion and making distinctions is something that must be done in order to be pleasing to Jesus. On one occasion, when approached by others for healing on the Sabbath day, Jesus responded by telling them to “judge with right judgment” (Jn. 7:24). Jesus was teaching that one cannot be his or her own standard for judgment on whether an action is right or wrong, but to use the proper standard for judgment, as was even taught in the old law (Lev. 19:15, 35). The early church was to point out sin that was not repented of, and make a proper judgment (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
The church was admonished by Paul to judge matters among themselves of wrongdoing, as opposed to going to a worldly court (1 Cor. 6:1-8). Apostles were called out by others for inconsistencies and prejudice, this required judging (Gal. 2:11-14). Early Christians were to test messages and messengers to determine the authenticity of the message taught, this likewise required judging (1 Thes. 5:21-22, 1 Jn. 4:1-2).
To strip Christianity of its discerning nature due to a misrepresentation of Matthew 7:1 is false and creates huge problems. Jesus was speaking against judging others based on faulty, prejudicial assumptions. Jesus was condemning nit-picking and over-emphasizing of small, irrelevant matters (hence the use of “speck” in verses 3-5 to show the minute nature of the scruple).
Don’t Preach the Caveat Too Loudly
Someone might respond, “That’s exactly what I thought, I can judge anyone I want as long as it’s a big deal.” Let us not run too far to the opposite extreme. Many times when the caveat (or exception) is taught concerning a text, the exception is all that people go away with remembering. Caveats can often be used as a “get out of jail free card,” especially this one. Let us not be so concerned with what Jesus isn’t saying that we miss what he actually is saying.
While we don’t have the phylacteries that the Pharisees dawned in the first century, we still often use the eye (and the “I”) as a standard for righteousness, and this is wrong. Do we ever see a woman with four or five kids struggling and assume that she is a single mom living off the government because we see no wedding ring on her finger? Is there a chance that she is married and she and her husband can’t afford rings yet, or she left it at home (my wife and I didn’t have rings our first three years of marriage)? What a faulty criteria to use for judgment and Jesus condemns such in Matthew 7:1.
Do we ever judge people in our assemblies as irreverent or out of touch spiritually simply because, while neatly dressed, they lack the tie and cufflinks adorned by all the “spiritually elite” among us? Is it possible that the individual we think is most spiritual is struggling with porn addiction and doesn’t even read his Bible during the week, but the one we slight based on mere appearance alone is reading, studying and applying God’s word more than us all?
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The fact is, we can judge by the fruit and deeds of others, but let us remember that as humans we are limited in our information and that God sees the heart. This is not an excuse for sin, immodest dress, or worldly behavior, under the banner of “Only God can judge me!” This is a simple word of caution to not be too hasty in pronouncing uncertain verdicts where we should not and cannot. We need to call sin what it is and let people know that they can’t go to heaven with it (Isa. 59:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21), but let God be God!
We need to know that making certain judgments is necessary, and making certain other judgments is rather obnoxious, if not sinful. Let’s be discerning people that please God. Jesus will judge one day, and what a fearful thing to be out of step with His word.