The tyranny of, “Judge not.”

I was recently surprised, by the suggestion of a local church leader, that it is wrong for us to judge people. He said of a particular new church leader, “We must respect her,” (because of her office), and “I do not want her judged.” He then went on to generalise that we must not judge anyone.

This cartoon was in my email today.
This cartoon was in my email today.

As is my normal practice, I did not enter into debate or argument on the spot, but could not reconcile this ‘judge not’ teaching with my reading of the Bible. I believe that the Church, and our whole society, is under a bondage to the false doctrine that, ‘It is wrong to judge anyone, ever.’

In the church, if you question a doctrine, teaching, or practice, you are accused of being divisive. If you question the belief or practice of anyone outside the church, then you are at risk of prosecution for a ‘hate crime.’  

Where would the church be today if great teachers, preachers, and men of God had said, “We better not judge?” What if Luther, under the heretical teaching of the Roman Catholic church had just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Better not judge?”

There is little need to ask where our society would be if we did not question and stand against wrong beliefs and practices: we are pretty much there now. 

But does not the Bible forbid judging?

Just before we look at what the Bible says about judging, there are two minor points that I want to get out of the way. 

  1. Using loaded language – This church leader used the term, being ‘Judgmental,’ to say you must never judge anyone. In proper, brotherly debate over Bible teaching we should avoid the use of loaded language. We could all agree that one should not be ‘judgmental’, but that does not mean that we should not judge.
  2. The very act of saying that I was being judgmental is… being judgmental. You cannot tell someone off for doing something that you are yourself in the very process of doing. It is like saying, as so often today liberals do, “The one thing we will not tolerate, is intolerance!”

But more importantly, to the Bible.

Matthew 7:1 says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” One website calls this the “most taken out of context verse in the Bible.” I could not comment on the quantity of times it is misused, but it must be up there with the top few, ‘taken out of context,’ verses. 

People use Matthew 7:1 to excuse wrong behaviour and to defend erroneous teaching, and to justify all kinds of evil.

  • Every time you correct a false teaching, they say, ‘Judge not.’
  • Often when you tell someone they need Jesus, they say, ‘Judge not,’ or some variant of that thought.
  • If you speak out against immorality in society, you are hit with, ‘That’s not very Christian. Why are you judging me? The Bible says you are not to judge.’

“Judge not,” is one of the most common excuses for sin and for not confronting sin or error, both within and outside the church. Christians take this one verse out of context and make an erroneous doctrine out of it. But we should always look at the context of a scripture as well as study the subject in the whole of the Bible.

The context of Matthew 7:1

Matthew 7:1 stands in the context of the sermon on the mount, a sermon full of what might be called Hyperbole or the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or as a figure of speech. This sermon includes instructions to pluck out your right eye and cast it from you, (I would need to pluck out the left one too), to cut off your hands, to “resist not evil,” we are called to be, “perfect,” and not just perfect, but “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect!” We are told to take no thought about what we eat, drink or what clothes we wear. If we took this passage literally and carried out each instruction mindlessly we would have a church full of perfectly blind, armless naked people who have not had anything to eat or drink for a long time. So we should not be surprised here to have an admonition to, “Judge not.” when the Lord does not mean that we should never, ever judge anyone or anything. So we need to read Matthew 7:1 carefully and in context.

Most older commentaries seem to interpret this as, ‘do not be over censorious,’ or ‘do not judge harshly.’ Which is no bad way to look at this instruction, especially in the light of verse two “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:2). If you want God to be merciful to you, then be merciful to others. Lightfoot puts it like this, “Judge every man in the scale of merit;” i.e. let the scale incline towards the side of merit or acquittal.” We see this principle in the parable of the unforgiving official (Matthew 18:23-35)  or in Romans 2:1 “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.”

James MacKnight says that we should, “judge charitably, making proper allowances for the frailties of your brethren, and are ready to pity and pardon their faults, God and man will deal with you in the same kind manner; but if you always put the worst construction on every thing that it will bear, and are not touched with the feeling of your brother’s infirmities, and show no mercy in the opinions you form of his character and actions, no mercy will be shown to you from any quarter; God will treat you as you deserve, in the just judgment he shall pass upon your actions, and the world will be sure to retaliate the injury.”

But maybe we need to clarify this a little. I think in the light of a broader reading of scripture we might look at Mathew 7:1-5 like this.

Judge charitably, do not be censorious, (or in the words of this church leader, do not be “Judgmental,”) about the faults and failings of your fellow brothers in Christ, maybe in fact of the faults and failings of everyone. “Hey, we all make mistakes; we all fall into sin or temptation; we all have our failings; we all have areas in which we still need to grow in grace and in the likeness of Christ.”

But of their deliberate stance; of their habitual and constant way of life; of their living in sin; of their teaching of error; of their leading of others in wrong ways; of these we should be concerned and may at times have to make a judgment. Foe example, Do I oppose this or that teaching? Do I withhold fellowship from that person? Do I denounce that person as a heretic?

So of weaknesses and of failings – are they struggling to stop smoking; do they lapse back into using bad language at times; do they still wear immodest clothing – we are, and do, not judge them. We are merciful. We “Judge not.” However, we should not overlook deliberate error. If they are teaching that Jesus is not God, or that there is no hell, we take them to task over such things, or if they are living an immoral life style. This we do not turn a blind eye to.  

Other Bible teachings on judging

In John, Jesus says, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24). Here we must judge, but with a right judgment, not one prejudiced by appearances, assumptions, or by our preconceived ideas.

Paul says, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators,” (1 Corinthians 5:9), He warns us against, dogs, evil workers, (Philippians 3:2)  and of Satan, who may appear as an “angel of light,” (2 Corinthians 11:14). You cannot follow Paul’s teaching unless you make judgments. Paul also encourages the church to, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), again you must make a judgments about what is true or false, good or bad and then act on those judgments. You cannot follow this teaching, while closing your eyes and saying, “I will not judge… everybody is entitled to their own ideas… nothing is wrong… Laaa laaa laaa” 

John says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1). Again it is imperative that you, as a biblical Christian, use judgment or you could end up following a false prophet. 

James tells us that “… if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; v20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19–20). How are we to help those who err from the truth if we must not judge anyone or anything?

Paul says, (and I paraphrase), I am not even there, but I have judged this matter already… “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,” (1 Corinthians 5:3). Was Paul wrong in doing this? NO, we are called to judge and to contend for that which is right and true, honest, just etc. and to stand against that which is wrong, unjust, heretical etc. We can only do this by judging a matter. 

Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 5, that we do not judge those who are outside the church, but those that ‘call themselves brothers’, fellow Christians. Those, we should make sound judgment about and be carful as to whom we have fellowship with. “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. v12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? v13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” (1 Corinthians 5:11–13)

It is not our place to judge the person outside the church, but we are to love them and seek to lead them to Christ. But, for example, if a worship leader in the church is involved in sexual immorality, we, the Pastor/Church leadership should take him to task over his behaviour and if he will not put his behaviour right, we are to put them away from among us. Not because we hate them, but for their good and for the good of the body of Christ. 

Far from “never judging,” the Bible calls upon us as believers to be constantly judging. 

We are to judge…

  • Who we fellowship with.
  • The teachings we take to heart.
  • The teachers we listen to.
  • Whether the Bible version you are using is an accurate translation of the words of God or merely man’s politically correct re-write?
  • The people we are sharing the Gospel with, (are they swine or not)
  • etc

How can we live as Christ has called us to, if we do not use judgment and discernment?

But you may say,  “surely, we should actually be seeking to just get along with all believers and live in peace.” Well, Jesus does say, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).” But they are peace makers not peace keepers. We should not cover up division and hope for the best. Rather we should bring unity, through adherence to the Bible and its teaching. 

This is becoming a long post and I want to bring it to an end soon, but must not leave it with a bald call for us to be judging. Let’s take as our last verse Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” We MUST judge. In almost every avenue of our lives we have to judge. Do I take this action or that? Do I follow that teaching or this teaching? Do I fellowship with that person or not? Do I continue to try to reach that person with the Gospel or move on to someone who may actually want to hear of God’s love? But in all of this we must do it with love. 

I have just been sent an article on the internet called ‘Are You A Christian Fraud?’ It asks, “have you done one of the following today: judged another person, looked upon another with disdain (or even worse, disgust), or just flat out been sickened by the actions of someone?” and suggests that if you have, you are a Christian fraud. If that were the case, people like Martin Luther, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, not to mention Paul and probably all the other apostles, as well as Jesus himself, are Christian Frauds! I would plead that it is not the judging that is wrong. but judging without love or loving without any judgment. In Ephesians 4:15 the word “love” modifies how we speak the truth, it does not change the fact the we are to speak the truth to each other.

Speak truth, judge a situation rightly, but do it in love.

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