“Judge not, that ye be not judged” is probably the most oft-quoted scripture verse, perhaps even surpassing John 3:16. And, I would guess, equally quoted by Christian and non-Christian as a weapon to deflect criticism. What this person is actually saying when they quote these words of Jesus is, “Let me do what I want without being held accountable or making me feel badly about myself. I don’t want to face my own sinfulness so don’t point it out to me.” In fact, they want to continue in their chosen behavior and not be condemned by others, especially Christians, whom they regard as hypocritical. So faced with Jesus’ very words, we back off and let them go on. “It’s true,” we think to ourselves, “who am I to judge. I am no better.” And we walk away cowed into accepting almost any behavior.
But I think we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ instruction and have become so myopic in applying this verse that we have lost the bigger picture. The problem is confusion about the word “judge.” If you look at the parallel passage in chapter 6 of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying,
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;
I think the point of Jesus’ instruction was to keep us from condemning another person. Condemnation is really an evaluation of the other’s heart and it pronounces the other person as morally or spiritually defective and flawed. By condemning we immediately elevate ourselves to a position of superiority over them. We actually usurp God’s prerogative. When a person says, “Don’t judge me,” they are rightly asking not to be condemned. However, that does not mean that we are forced to accept any behavior or teaching that comes along under the guise of Christianity. As one commentator says, “Jesus is not calling to a universal acceptance of any lifestyle or teaching. The Christian is called to unconditional love, but he is not called to unconditional approval. We really can love people who do things we do not approve of.”
There’s the challenge – to judge without being judgmental. It is possible, even necessary, for Christians to evaluate – to judge if you will – the fruit of a person’s word and actions to determine whether they are consistent with the Gospel message. It is acceptable to approach another person and challenge their conformity to God’s word, not from a position of self-importance, haughtiness or condescension but humbly, graciously and mercifully. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding or a difference in application of the Christian walk that can be cleared up. It is possible to differ with another and yet both be genuinely biblically based. In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds them that those who had differing views on “meat sacrificed to idols” are still to be considered genuine brethren and not be condemned. The same principle can be applied today to multiple situations, views and practices. Right after Jesus says, “Judge not…” we read in the rest of that passage in Matthew,
Why do you see 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,’ when there is the log 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.
The point is not that we cannot or should not take the “speck” out of our brother’s eye, but that first we must deal with the “log” in ours.
Not condemning another Christian does not mean simply accepting sinful behavior. The unapologetic must be held accountable. The immoral must not be tolerated. The “fruit” of a person’s life must be evaluated and action taken, especially if they call themselves Christians. Later in Matthew chapter 7, Jesus instructs us to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” We must be able to judge – to discern and evaluate – in order to recognize the fruit. And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says,
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
Paul expects the Church to judge those within the church. So, how are we to understand our “judgeship?” Here’s what I think. First, there is never a place for us to condemn another believer. We must remain humble and gracious in all our relationships. Second, we must evaluate whether a clear principle of Christian behavior or teaching is being violated. Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean that what you are doing is unbiblical. We must allow our brethren the freedom to pursue God in a way that is genuine and up-building, but biblically sound. Finally, if the fruit of a person’s life is clearly inconsistent with the Christian walk, then we must challenge them (if we are able) and if they remain unrepentant we must refuse further interaction with them. However, I would certainly pray for God’s intervention and mercy. No one is beyond God’s grace.
I understand that this short post barely scratches the surface of this complicated and important topic, but my hope is that it would make you think. Perhaps start a conversation, but can’t simply ignore it. You may disagree or think I’ve missed something. I would love to hear from you.