December 18, 2005

To Judge or Not to Judge

The biblical verse, "judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1), seems to be the most quoted verse these days, perhaps mostly by non-Christians (even the secular world has its "memory verses"). Usually it is thrown at Christians in response to the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ in salvation, which implies other paths are wrong, or in relation to moral issues. But does this verse suggest that we should judge nothing at all? I think we may understand on both intuitive grounds and Scriptural grounds that the answer is "no".

No one (but a psychopath) would agree that we shouldn't judge a murderer, and I don't think even the most liberal Christian would be comfortable qualifying an atheist as a "Christian," so there is certainly some level of judgment that is warranted. It wouldn't make sense if this verse were prescribing a global ban on judging.

Since the claim is based on an appeal to Scripture to begin with it is only reasonable that we look deeper at Scripture to sort out the issue. Note these sample passages:
"Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." — Hebrews 5:14

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." — 2 Timothy 4:3

"[hold] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict." — Titus 1:9

"But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." — 1 Thessalonians 5:21

"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." — Luke 17:3
And I could go on and on, in fact, I think I will: I Co 2:15; 6:2-3, Mat 23, Acts 13:10, Lev 19:15-17, Ez 22:2 & 23:36, Is 58:1. All these verses certainly make it clear that we should be discerning about good and evil and about proper theology, even being so bold as to confront those who are in error. So, this leaves us with a question: What is it that we should NOT judge? Here are some passages that may give us some clues:
"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." — Romans 2:1

"Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment." — John 7:24

"For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges." — 1 Corinthians 5:12-13
What I see here is that we should not judge hypocritically and ignorantly. Also, there is some sense in which we should avoid judging those outside the church (a point I won't explore here), but it at least first requires us to identify who is indeed "outside" before we can commend them to God, and that is a form of judging.

In any case, the most important thing we can do is to look at Matthew 7:1 in its proper context. Note verses 2 through 5:
"For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,' and behold, the log is 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."
This seems to be saying that the admonition to "judge not" is in the context of hypocrisy. A sample application of this might be someone judging a homosexual for their sexual sin when all the while being engaged in an adulterous relationship. Note, though, that the final conclusion is that if you are able to clean up your own act, you might then be qualified to clearly "see" another's sin and perhaps help them to deal with it.

I see no blanket prohibition on judging in Matthew 7, nor even does there appear to be a categorical prohibition here. It is simply referring to the conditions and prerequisites for a certain kind of judgment. Christians should not allow others to use this passage to bully them into surrendering their discernment and to consider all beliefs and practices of equal value.

Labels: ,


At 12/18/2005 11:46 AM, Anonymous Pat said...

Thank you. I appreciate this clarification.

At 12/18/2005 3:26 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

That's how I always read the verse. It makes no sense at all if it's not specifically directed at hypocrisy. Plus, the moment someone says "uh uh uh, judge not, lest ye be judged!" You can reply, "ok, then what are you doing right now to me? Stop judging me for judging you!" =)

At 12/18/2005 4:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Good point dale.

Generally, people don't appeal to this in a thoughtful way (though there are exceptions); it is mostly used to "squid" a Christian. By this I mean that they throw out this phrase to abort and flee the conversation. Other similar phrases are "who are you to judge" and "that's just your opinion."

At 12/18/2005 6:57 PM, Blogger -Joseph said...

Indeed, this is a interesting issue. We also need to remember that the Lord only knows the heart of the individual we perceive.

Fruit is also very important...

At 12/19/2005 12:32 AM, Blogger roman said...

"You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won't the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Genesis 18:25

Yes there are many citations that one may quote from scripture to either promote or prohibit judgements of all kinds. Like lawyers citing arcane historical cases to boost their arguments, this may indeed be a fruitless endeavor. Only God can truly know what is the true nature of a person's heart.
When we judge anyone it is a grave matter because we assume a task that is only done with 100% accuracy by Him. Errors in judgement can have far reaching consequences. Throughout scripture, the term "judge" was only assigned to someone like Moses or a king of Israel. We need to take great care not to judge casually.

At 12/19/2005 2:37 AM, Blogger daleliop said...


Arcane or not, citing historical cases is a perfectly valid form of argumentation and with the exception of highly ambiguous and controversial subjects, is certainly not fruitless, neither in a court of law nor for a particular biblical interpretation.

I do not see how the issue of biblical judging is any different. I do admit, however, that the issue is often misinterpreted and misunderstood, but a proper exegesis can clarify the issue greatly, as Paul has done.

Furthermore, while I agree that only God can judge with 100% accuracy, one has to be reminded that God can do anything with 100% accuracy. But humans can not - we are not perfectionists - no one is perfect. By your logic, we should therefore worry excessively about doing anything at all -- judging, reading, smiling -- because we can never judge, read, or smile with perfect accuracy, unlike God.

Finally, I agree that errors in judgement can have far-reaching consequences, we all know that. But I think what you are forgetting is that errors in non- judgement can have similar far-reaching consequences as well. At the very least, the effects can be seen by observing a mother too afraid to discipline her spoiled, mischievous boy, and at the worst, watching the effects on society should the entire United States prison population be suddenly pardoned and released back into the general population.

Perhaps you are trying to say that one should not have a knee-jerk reaction to judge others, I agree perfectly. But these days I think the most common knee-jerk reaction is to rather suppress judgement of others, which is the (il)logical conclusion of postmodern thinking.

At 12/19/2005 3:12 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Good post, Paul. I realled liked Greg Koukl's comments on this topic in Relativism, especially in his chapter on "tactics."


At 12/19/2005 12:38 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I agree with Dale that we could apply your philosophy to any issue at all. Christianity is certainly not about having no opinions and making no distinctions. A high view (the Christian view) of Scripture is that it is attempting to communicate important matters to us. Any apparent theological conflicts are simply our lack of understanding, which a good systematic approach may clear up. You may find verses which appear to rule against judging and I find others that say we should do so, but this does not mean that they contradict each other, only that we need to look a little deeper. I'll grant that there are doctrines that we simply don't have enough data to go on in order to sort out, but this is not one of them.

I think that part of the problem here is that the word "judge" is being used in multiple contexts. You can be a judge in the judicial sense, you can judge one idea inferior to another, you can judge someone's actions to be out of line with Christian principles, or you can judge someone as lost and eternally separated from God. I think it is the last application that is not our place. Only God will judge persons in the end, and, as you point out, only God knows a person's heart. However, we can certainly work with what the person gives us.

If a self-proclaimed "Christian" says that Jesus was a mere human, or that God told them they should be a prostitute, then we have every right to point out that these things are out of line with Scripture and historical Christianity. We might even use these cues to make reasonable assumptions about the state of their heart. But it is still in God's hands to do the ultimate judging, as only He can anyway.

To make any headway with me on this issue you'll have to first show me where I've gone wrong in my exegesis of Scripture. Throwing other "contrary" passages out is not enough. In any case, the Genesis passage you site does not seem relevant to this discussion. It is merely saying that when God passes judgment there is no collateral damage. It says nothing about what we ought or ought not to do.

At 12/19/2005 2:36 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I've always found it helpful to draw a distinction between two types of judging: discernment and condemnation.

We're exhorted constantly to be about discerning. The passages against judging probably apply to personal condemnation. (condemning behavior was done by Christ all the time, condemning of persons not).

At 12/19/2005 4:27 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...

When anyone tells me not to judge, I just asked them if my judging is wrong. When they say "yes" I ask them "who are you to judge?"


At 12/20/2005 11:53 AM, Blogger Jim V. said...

While I do agree that it's very easy to point out to someone that they are themselves judging when they either quote this verse to the Christian or ask the question "who are you to judge?" that must only be the beginning of the argument. Once the absurdity of their "non-judgment" position has been exposed you must also go on to properly exegete the passage in question showing them what the context of the passage is and what the original intent of the author was when penning the words. Also, the cross-references that Paul uses to show other parts of Scripture where judgment is practically mandated are essential to not only make the point of the passage clear, but to show the perspecuity and cohesiveness of the Scriptures. This also goes a long way in showing that you are an educated and thinking person rather than the mindless drone that most skeptics believe Christians to be.
Excellent post.

At 12/20/2005 1:25 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Jim V, makes a great point if you are dealing with a Christian of one stripe or another.

But to a non-Christian you are dealing with someone who believes that the morality of non-judgmentalism is self-evident.

To this person, an argumentum ad absurdum approach can work to show them it's not a self-evident ethic.

And yet, that approach can be pulled off in a winsome manner to minimize the insult.

At 12/20/2005 2:36 PM, Blogger Jim V. said...

That was actually my point. I apologize if I was unclear. I was saying that the argumentum ad absurdum should not be the be-all-and-end-all of the dialogue but rather a starting point into a Bible-based apologetic encounter. Hope that clarifies the point.

At 12/20/2005 4:25 PM, Blogger roman said...

My comments on this post were meant only to convey the point that judging of any kind is not to be taken lightly. At no time was it my intention to draw an absolute restriction against such action. I guess that sometimes the perception is clearer than the intention. We make judgements of all kinds almost every minute of the day.
Some matters should not be judged by us at all especially when they deal with personal viewpoints on faith. Who benefits? Our ego?

At 12/20/2005 5:17 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Roman, your point is well taken. We should always be very careful and thoughtful when we are considering arguing over someone's deeply held convictions.

To the extent that someone's 'personal viewpoints' are truly subjective things (such as favorite color) there really is no point in taking issue whatsoever.
If, however, we have an article of 'faith' that is an objective claim of truth about the nature of the immaterial then it can be true or false just like a claim of science. Isn't truth worth discovering even if it means a little bit of potential for friction among friends? Or perhaps even a lot of friction among enemies as in the case of Islam and their desire to conquer us?

If these things about the immaterial realm are unknownable with any certainty then you are right and it would be wrong-headed to argue over them. If some of these things are knowable, then we can rightly argue for them. As Christian apologists we believe that we can know that many things the Bible teaches are true, even without appealing to Scripture as our evidence.

Your admonition to avoid the motive of ego-building is one that I'll take to heart.

At 12/20/2005 11:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are going to judge, judge by the fruit. Perhaps Christ was referencing something else here... What does the greek say? What common Jewish idea would the people have had in mind? How does that apply to white, nonjewish, americans?

At 12/21/2005 6:54 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Red, that's a good point about the fruit. However, I see Scripture using fruit as a clue or evidence and not as proof.
I doubt you need specific examples of places where Christ took people to task for motives even though their outward behavior was fine.

And the idea that a person's fruit is all that matters would mean that we would have to consider Buddhists very godly. They are among the best people in terms of personal righteousness, but they are nowhere in God's eyes.

You seem to have some knowledge about Biblical exegesis. You are right that the ultimate approach to Biblical interpretation is to go to the original Greek (or Hebrew) and to put the words in the context of the culture. If you are claiming that Paul's interpretation fails in this regard please be specific and show us the Greek that contradicts what he has said, or the Jewish cultural point he's missed.

I have no idea what you mean about white, nonjewish, americans.

At 12/21/2005 11:46 AM, Blogger roman said...

Have a peaceful Christmas and joyous new year.

At 12/21/2005 5:21 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


I see your web page is with lifeway, are you southern baptist?


At 12/21/2005 8:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Doug, I work for LifeWay as a web/ecommerce developer and I volunteer as contributing editor for their apologetics website, but I am not now a member of a Southern Baptist Church. I am presently attending a (conservative) Presbyterian church where I teach H.S. Sunday School, but when I move closer to Nashville in the near future I would consider joining a Baptist church, so long as it leans toward Reformed theology. There are also some good PCA and independent churches in the area that are on my list.

At 12/21/2005 8:42 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Have a good Christmas too, Roman. Thanks for being willing to mix it up a little. Remember that iron sharpens iron. Perhaps you have a similar desire to keep your mind and theology sharp.

At 12/21/2005 10:23 PM, Blogger Vman said...

Happy Holidays to all. I hope you guys have fun decorating your holiday trees and singing your ******mas carols.

At 12/21/2005 11:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Is that a slam Vaman or a good natured ribbing from an outsider?

At 12/22/2005 9:23 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I vote for good-natured ribbing. :)

At 12/22/2005 5:19 PM, Blogger roman said...

Mixing it up sharpens the mind. Heck, I've learned much in the process. The word exegete. I never even heard of it before this post. Thanks for your patience.

At 12/23/2005 1:27 AM, Blogger Paul said...

That word has been used a lot in the comments here. Here's another one you'll want to be ready to hear (as a careful thinking Christian) that's very similar: Hermeneutics

At 12/27/2005 12:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yah. What I meant was: Jesus (being not-white, jewish, eastern, and not american) would have a different unmderstanding of his words than we. To interpret his words literally would be wrong. So, can we subscribe ideas to him that are foreign, all in good conscience?

At 12/27/2005 7:27 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Red, you are right that we must understand Jesus' words as He meant them. For that matter, the same is true of any ancient author.

But I don't think it's as hard as you might be implying it is. The question is mostly grammatical. When He said something that was recorded in Greek, then it's a simple matter of understanding ancient Greek grammar. When it was spoken, it was spoken to the standard of the day (same when it was written down). Now that part hasn't always been simple because ancient Greek was quite different from modern Greek and isn't spoken or written anymore. But over the years scholars have nailed it down pretty well.

Then, in a few places, there are cultural idioms. For instance, the statement that it's harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. That one probably hints at the back door to Jerusalem that was meant as a doorway for a man to walk through and was called the "eye of the needle". Camels that entered through there had to get down on their knees and crawl through. So this could have been a reference to repentance (kneeling) that would only be understood through a cultural context.

That's why Biblical scholarship is very important.

At 3/10/2007 9:27 AM, Anonymous nancy said...

Most people say don't judge in order to cover up their sin. We cannot judge a heart that's why truth should always be spoken in love

At 3/10/2007 11:13 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Some deny that we should speak it (tolerance) or that what we speak is actually true for them (relativism). Unfortunately, this kind of postmodern attitude is non-biblical. Consequently, it does a postmodern no good to appeal to this verse, or to the Bible at all for that matter.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN