Judge Not (unless you need to)

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There are few personality types that are harder to tolerate than a harshly judgmental person. Being in the company of someone who is watching your every move—just waiting for the opportunity to sneer in disapproval—is nothing short of insufferable. Typically, people from this ilk are not so blunt or careless as to make their feelings obvious, but we all know who they are. More often than not, we could describe these individuals as being members of the “holier than thou” club: a select group who believe their personal piety outshines everyone else’s.

If you don’t know anyone who fits this description, then chances are that you don’t come from a very religious family, work for a religious organization, or even attend a somewhat sizeable church. In fact, perhaps nowhere is this type of attitude more prevalent than within deeply religious crowds. Sad but true.

Obviously, this presents us with an unavoidable conundrum. Aren’t Christians precisely the ones who are commanded not to judge others? Isn’t the Bible clear that we cannot set in judgment of anyone else?

If we define judgment in the way that I previously described—as a “holier than thou” attitude—then the answer would be a resounding “yes.” However, that is just one possible way that we could look at this. In reality, there are numerous ways that we might talk about judgment, and there are also a multitude of contexts involved. Before looking at some examples, it is important to understand the basic terminology presented in the Bible.

In the NT—where we (Christians) receive most of our instruction on such matters—the word primarily translated as (to) “judge” is krinó. While it could pertain to either a private or communal act, the term carried a legal connotation with it. Often, it involved deciding guilt or innocence, as in a court of law.[1] In fact, krinó is the word often translated as “to sue” in Matthew 5:40 and “to stand trial” in Acts 25:9. Even more seriously, the term is used to describe the ultimate judgment of the righteous and the wicked at Christ’s return (1 Pet. 4:5, Rev. 20:12).

While it doesn’t always carry such serious implications, casting judgment is always—at least, in the biblical sense—an important matter. One should not haphazardly cast judgment on others.

With that background in place, we can begin to evaluate what types of judgment are either permissible or impermissible. For several reasons, it may make sense to begin with the latter. One of the most famous examples we could point to came during the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus addressed the matter in this way:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 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” (Mt. 7:1-5).

On the surface, one might take this as Jesus’ way of sternly forbidding all manner of judgment. I will later describe why that is not the case. However, this passage certainly describes a context in which it is not permissible. There is an undeniable sense in which calling out the faults or wrongdoing of others is dangerous business. Jesus was clear: each of us will be judged according to how we exercise judgment.

By our “standard of measure” it will be measured to us.

Here, Jesus did not mean that we should set no standards for behavior, in an effort to prevent ourselves from being judged at all. Far from it! Rather, this was a general prescription about how we should approach those around us. This was a warning and a challenge. Could we handle the same measure of judgment we heap upon others? What type of judgment will each of us be able to bear before God?

These are excellent questions to keep in mind when dealing with our fellow man. More than that, this reveals that judging others in a stricter way than we judge ourselves is unacceptable. This idea led directly to what Jesus described as another scenario that is completely off limits: casting judgment on someone when we are guilty of an equal (or greater) charge. Jesus asks, how can we point out the “speck” in our “brother’s eye” when we are carrying “a log” in our own (7:4)? Such judgment is nothing short of hypocrisy: a sinful act in its own right. As you may have noticed, Jesus used two different words to describe our possible “eye obstructions” (i.e., sin problems). He noted that people often see the “speck” (karphos) in other people’s eyes while ignoring the “log” (dokos) in their own.

Jesus’ message was clear: we are often eager to point out the smallest faults in others but are willing to totally ignore even bigger faults that we personally possess.

Another interesting example is found in Romans 14, and it comes from the apostle Paul. In context, Paul was attempting to help Gentile and Jewish Christians settle their differences and unite under Christ. Specifically, this friction involved observance of the Jewish law and which practices believers were expected to adopt. Certain Jewish Christians were abrasively insistent that the Gentiles embrace aspects of the Mosaic Law. This proved to be completely overwhelming for the Gentiles, particularly because they had not been steeped in Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the Gentiles often expressed a type of freedom from the law that caused their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. Paul delivered powerful advice in this situation, saying:

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand . . . why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat . . . Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”[2]

It is crucial to note that Paul was specifically talking about two main things in this chapter: observing special days and food laws. As Paul indicated here and elsewhere, these matters should not separate believers from Christ or from one another. These were not salvation issues, since Christ had nailed much of the Mosaic Law to the cross (Col. 2:14).

Therein lies another type of judgment that is not permitted for Christians. There are beliefs that do not directly pertain to salvation and are left to each of us to decide for ourselves (Rom. 14:5). Eating certain foods, fasting, holding specific days as sacred, and many others, are matters of personal preference: things that are between ourselves and God only. As such, we are not to sit in judgment of one another on any such issue.

Contrary to the type of people I first described in the introduction—the “holier than thou” crowd— there is another group who takes the complete opposite approach to the issue of casting judgment. Far from looking to belittle others, they refuse to evaluate anyone else’s conduct no matter what. Or, at least they claim not to.

Common sayings you might hear are, “Well, it’s not for us to judge” or—when it is put to someone else—“Are you judging him/her?” I want to be clear about a couple of things with regards to this perspective. First, I think that most people who feel this way are sincere and do believe they are following biblical teachings. They honestly feel that they are not supposed to weigh in on anyone’s life. Second, I think this approach is far preferable to viewing ourselves as being better than others and looking for flaws wherever we can find them. I would much rather avoid chastising others—if only in my own mind—than I would to embark on a mission to call everyone out for their wrongdoings.

But that brings us to some interesting and significant questions. Are we ever permitted to point out the sins of others? Could it be that, at times, we are even charged to do so? According to the teachings of Christ and the apostles, the answer to both questions is yes. Not only are we allowed to do this, but we are commanded to.

The first example takes us back to something previously discussed. While Jesus did forbid certain types of judgment in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:1-5), he permitted some types at the very same time. Notice that Jesus did not tell his listeners they could never judge someone else. While we are not allowed to judge with an unfair standard or if we are entangled in sin, judgment can be done (carefully) if neither of those things apply.

Jesus said, “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” (7:5).

The second part there is just as critical as the first. If we are not—or are no longer—carrying sin problems in our lives, then we would be equipped to help others work on their own. Clearly, this is a high standard. Still, we are called to leave sin and help others to do so. Paul made this clear, saying: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Gal. 6:1a).

In both Jesus and Paul’s instruction, pointing out sin and leading others away from it is not an unacceptable form of judgment. However, it was only to be done if we are “spiritual,” meaning we have reached a higher level of faith where we are no longer slaves to sin. That is not to imply that we can become completely flawless or that we will never fall short. Instead, it means that we are at least being transformed into the image of Christ and are not continuously struggling with sin. Again, all Christians are called to this kind of life.[3]

Let’s move on to another example. One of the many things Jesus did that angered the religious authorities—even driving them to want to kill him—was that he “worked” on the Sabbath. Specifically, he saw no issue with healing people on the Jewish day of rest. During one particular Feast of Booths, Jesus secretly went to the celebration and began to teach (Jn. 7). To his detractors that were present, he said something very interesting:

“If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:23-24).

First, Jesus pointed out that healing someone on the Sabbath was not ordinary work at all but was actually in step with the meaning of the day; he had done good, not evil.

There is another important thing to consider: he instructed them to “judge with righteous judgment.” Just as Paul later instructed the believers in Galatia (6:1), Jesus was not telling those around him that they can never judge others for any reason. Rather, he was telling them to do it in an honest and sincere way. If they had been doing so, they would never have accused Jesus of wrongdoing to begin with. Jesus’ Jewish opponents had been casting judgment with ill intent and out of willful ignorance; they were more concerned with pointing out what they errantly perceived to be sin than they were with helping their fellow man.

This practice was unacceptable for them, just as it is for those of us living today.

While others could be examined, consider one more case where judgment is permitted. While reprimanding certain believers in Corinth, Paul explained that Christians should be more than capable of dealing with petty court issues on their own. While it had become typical to take one another to public court for even “trivial cases” (1 Cor. 6:2, 7), they should have been able to deal with them on their own.

More than being able to settle small court matters, Paul revealed that “the saints will judge the world” (6:2). In fact, some of us will judge the higher beings of the heavenly world: the angels (6:3)! In truth, Paul laid out three places where judgment is permitted in this one passage. We can judge civil matters amongst ourselves, and we will have some part to play in evaluating those outside of the church and even the angelic beings. While Paul did not go into detail as to what specifically we will be judging in each of these instances, it is clear these judgments are acceptable.

The mantra that “Christians cannot judge others” seems, at best, to be only partially true. Certainly, the Bible does restrict us from doing so in a variety of ways. Forbidden instances include judging others: 1) With an insincere heart or false motive; 2) By a standard that exceeds those we place upon ourselves; 3) When we are not morally fit to do so; and 4) On non-essential matters that can only cause a fellow believer to stumble.

Perhaps most importantly, we must always bear in mind Jesus’ teaching that we will be judged according to how we judge others. This means we must look at ourselves under the microscope before we ever look to put someone else under it.

While this most definitely dictates that we exercise caution—and a large degree of good judgment—Scripture not only permits this act in some cases but occasionally even instructs us to do it! The Bible does not, by any stretch, forbid judgement across the board and in all possible circumstances. The previous study revealed that judging other people’s actions are acceptable (or even necessary) if: 1) Our intentions are sincere and genuine; 2) Our own lives are in order; 3) We have honestly assessed the situation and know the facts; and 4) We are trying to restore someone who has fallen into sin.

Clearly, there is some gray area involved in this matter, and I am not claiming that these are exhaustive lists or “recipes for judgment.” Rather, these are biblically deduced guidelines. Above all else, it ought to be apparent that the matter of judging others is one we must take very seriously.

While we should not be eager to judge others, neither should we always avoid doing so.

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

[1] Strong’s Greek, “krinó.”

[2] Romans 14:4, 10, and 13. I recommend reading the entire chapter, in order to fully understand that situation at hand.

[3] For evidence of this fact, consider the following examples: John 8:11, Ephesians 4:22-23, Romans 6:2 and 1 John 2:1. These are just a few of the possible examples, as the theme is consistent throughout the Bible (especially the NT).

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "Mind Over Matter: the Necessity of Metaphysics in a Material World," "God Made the Aliens," and most recently, "Spiritual Things." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

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