Judge not. Or judge. Depends on the context.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 February

Matthew 7.1-5.

People, Christians and pagans alike, fling around the following Jesus quote a lot.

Matthew 7.1 KJV
Judge not, that ye be not judged.

Usually for one of two reasons. Both incorrect, though sometimes with the best of intentions.

  1. Be kind to other people. When they offend you personally—when they’re clumsy or awkward, boorish or rude, look and smell and dress funny, have horrible taste in music and movies and comedy, or even sin in ways which really bug you—remember God still loves them, and so should we. Besides, it’s not like we don’t sin either. Or have our own offensive flaws.
  2. Hey, don’t you judge me. “Judge not,” right?

Since kindness is a fruit of the Spirit it makes sense to remind people to be kind and compassionate towards the weird or the sinful. Jesus didn’t drive such people away; he ministered to them and befriended them. Thing is, he didn’t just tolerate them: He forgave them. And forgiveness means they did do something wrong; otherwise there’d be nothing to forgive. Forgiveness means we did judge them as either sinning or trespassing against us—but we’re gonna overlook it, and pay God’s grace forward. It’s not mere tolerance, which ignores their behavior, pretends they didn’t sin, pretends we’re not bothered... and festers within us like a sour tumor.

As for those folks who quote that verse in order to use our religion to their advantage, so they can evade judgment and consequences… well, they’re just being jerks.

The context: No double standards.

If we’re gonna follow Jesus, we must make absolutely sure we understand him correctly. Never quote him, of all people, out of context if you can help it. And here’s his context, from the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7.1-5 KWL
1 “Don’t criticize. Thus you won’t be criticized.
2 For you’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with.
The measurement you measure with, will measure you.
3 Why do you see the wood chip in your brother’s eye,
yet not notice the support beam in your eye?
4 How will you tell your brother, ‘Let me get the chip out of your eye’?
Look, there’s a beam in your eye!
5 You hypocrite, first get the beam out of your eye!
And you’ll see straight enough to get out the chip from your brother’s eye.”

Jesus’s point was never to tell us to keep our mouths shut, and let people walk around with wood chips in their eyes. It was to recognize sometimes we have our own problems: Our own sins, flawed behaviors, hangups, prejudices, serious character defects. Sometimes we’re hardly in any position to critique others. We need fixing. We need to deal with our own stuff before we declare ourselves experts and life coaches.

Jesus doesn’t casually use the word hypocrite to describe such people. If I’m gonna counsel couples on their marriages, my own marriage had better be working. True, if it’s not, it’s not necessarily my fault; my wife might be the one who’s really into anonymous sex with junkies, whereas I’m totally faithful. Still, I’m responsible for my end of the relationship, and I should have my act together if I’m gonna pass myself off as an authority. Otherwise I’m no authority; I’m a fraud.

And I’ve known a number of pastors (thankfully a small number) who tried to counsel couples in their churches, while hiding the fact their own marriages were in a shambles. Since (when married) a stable marriage is one of the qualifications for Christian ministry, 1Ti 3.1-13 any such ministers have no business staying in their positions. They need to take a sabbatical, work stuff out with their spouses, and then return to ministry—now with a life experience which makes ’em much better counselors than before. But too many of ’em figure their job (or bluntly, their paycheck) takes priority, hide their problems like hypocrites, and try to look like everything’s copacetic. In my experience God has little tolerance for such behavior. Invariably they get found out. Unfortunately they also tend to lose their jobs and really injure their churches.

Hence Jesus’s example of the person with the beam in the eye, offering to help the person with the chip. Jesus exaggerates, but you get the idea: When we’re dealing with the same problem, or even a much bigger version of the same problem, we’re no help. Overcome, then help. Like a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery, who struggle with addiction same as everybody else in the group, but they’ve been successful at resisting temptation, and that’s what makes ’em valuable resources. Whereas a person who lapses frequently, or who pretends they have no such problem: Useless. Even destructive.

Back to “don’t criticize”: If I critique you, I critique myself as well, for it’s only fair that I be held to the same standard. There’s not a different metric for the Christian and the pagan, just like there wasn’t a different Law for the Hebrew and the gentile, Nu 15.15 nor a different Law for the rich and poor. Lv 19.15 There’s not a different rule for the new believer and the elder Christian, just as there’s no different rule for children and adults, young and old, women and men, wise and foolish, smarter and denser, anyone. There might be different expectations—newbies aren’t used to the standard, so they’re gonna fumble more often. But we’re all equal in God’s eyes. So don’t judge them in any way different than you’re prepared to be judged yourself.

But we do judge. We have to.

Everyone judges. ’Cause it’s part of the decision-making process. You decided to read this article, instead of all the other stuff on the internet. You judged this more worthy of your time. (Man, was that a bad call. But still.)

Whether it’s our English word judge or the ancient Greek word kríno, it means to decide between one thing or another. Everyone does that. Really you can’t not do it—unless you’ve handed over your decision-making process to someone else. And even then, you decide whether to obey them willingly, or grudgingly.

From time to time we’re commanded to judge. “Don’t judge by appearances,” Jesus instructed; “judge with right judgment.” Jn 7.24 He ordered us Christians to judge matters among ourselves instead of taking one another to court. Lk 12.57-29 James judged, as head of the early church, to not obligate gentiles to obey the Law before they could become Christians. Ac 15.19 Paul judged, in absentia, a Corinthian who was banging his stepmother—and judged the Corinthians for tolerating it, pointing out they should be dealing with it instead of him. 1Co 5 He further wrote,

1 Corinthians 6.1-6 KWL
1 When one of you has something on another,
they have it tried by the unrighteous, not by the saints.
2 Didn’t you know the saints will judge the world?
If the world’s to be judged by you, are you unable to judge trivia?
3 Didn’t you know we’ll judge angels?—much less mortals!
4 So when we have mortals under our purview,
sort out the irrelevant issues within the church.
5 For shame, I tell you. Isn’t there anyone wise among you?
Someone who’ll be able to evaluate things among the family?
Yet brother sues brother—and tries this by unbelievers.

No doubt the Corinthians believed it was tolerant and forgiving of them to permit bad behavior among them. But because they didn’t deal with their church’s problems, it meant Christians took their problems outside the church—to civil courts, to pagan judges, whose standards of right and wrong aren’t based on God, but how far they or lawyers can bend local laws. Or the court of public opinion, and you know the public’s opinion is based on shallow self-centeredness.

If we, as Paul said, are gonna judge angels, humans, and the world at the End, along with Christ Jesus, why aren’t we judging far less significant matters right now?

Humans being creatures of extremes, sometimes we go overboard with such judgments, and start judging the world right now. Which is neither timely nor appropriate. Right now, the world needs to hear grace: They already know they’re in the wrong with God, and they need to hear Jesus took care of their sins and offered them a restored relationship with God. They need to experience Christians’ kindness, not our judgment. Priorities, folks.

And when we judge one another within the church, we still have to remember to be gracious and kind. Love one another like Jesus loves us. Jn 13.34 Concentrate on restoring relationships, not punishment and censure. Concentrate on making things whole, not even. Reciprocity is for pagans. Love is for Christians. Judge with love.