If there is one portion of Scripture that is en vogue today it is, “Judge not”. It is the one phrase that both the perverts and the softhearted Christians can agree upon.
Over the years of my education and ministry I’ve heard this said many times. Softhearted Christians and those attempting to be charitable to others will refuse to pronounce a sin as a sin out of a misguided fear of “judging” and thus coming under God’s judgment. I’ve heard this said most recently about the subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage issues. People are genuinely afraid to identify these as sins because of this text. Of course, the people who revel in perversity love to reinforce this idea when you confront them and say, “Who are you the judge me? The Bible says ‘Judge not’!” With such a rant the poor softhearted Christian is bullied and ashamed to the point of withdrawing from the fight.
There is a great meme going around social media which illustrates how people read this verse. “Judge not” is the only part of the passage that isn’t scribbled over. Without that larger context it is easy to misunderstand this two-word text. The context in Matthew is very clearly about being a hypocritical judge of someone else’s sin. The comparison is between a “speck” in someone else’s eye versus a “board” in your own eye. The self-righteous, hypocritical person is quick to judge the smallest sin another person has while ignoring the major sin problem he has. Know anyone like that? If you do, I’m sure that you don’t like them very much.
In Luke’s gospel there is less context to the saying. It is preceded by a call to love your enemies, be merciful as God is merciful, then this warning not to be overly judgmental is then followed by a call to be like the “teacher”, and then the same “speck of sawdust” passage as in Matthew. In short, all of it is a perspective on proper behavior: be like God, be like Jesus.
My paranoid friends are so traumatized by the recognition that they have sin in their lives that they do not want to be perceived as being hypocritical so they don’t want to even acknowledge that someone else has sinned. This is born, in part, out of the contemporary idea that “all sin is equal” in that it separates the person from God. While it is true that any sin would separate a person from the holiness which is God, it is not true that all sin is equal in God’s sight. Even the Bible has hierarchies of sin. We know this because the punishments vary. Some sins require a small sacrifice, others a larger sacrifice, and others can only be properly punished by execution. See the difference?
Everyone struggles with some residual guilt over their past sins. People also struggle with guilt over their present temptations. When this guilt inhibits the ability to recognize and confront obvious sin in others then it becomes problematic. To reverse the image Jesus paints for us above, imagine that the person with the “speck” sees the person with the “plank” in the eye but doesn’t say anything. Would that be in keeping with Jesus’ desire? No. The converse of Jesus’ command not to be a hypocritical judge of others is not to refrain from judgment but to do it properly: mercifully, compassionately.
Commands to Judge
The New Testament commands us to judge actions – especially those of our fellow Christians. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that those within the church are to make judgments about the sins of other church members. He himself had no problem in passing judgment on a man guilty of incest in the Corinthian church even though he had only been told about the situation and wasn’t there while it was going on. He wrote, “. . . I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this” (1 Cor. 5:3). So Paul saw no conflict with anything Jesus said about “judge not” and his ability and duty to “judge”. Neither did he see a conflict in telling the Corinthian church members that they should be judging as well. He rhetorically asks, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12). The answer is “Yes, you are to judge the people inside the church.”
In fact, Jesus gives us directions on how to properly judge people within the church. We are not to do it hypocritically or with harsh condemnation, but lovingly and with consideration. See Matthew 18:15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (NIV). Notice that this text makes us all responsible for helping to keep our fellow church members in line. Doing this with responsibility and a compassion for the other person helps to build the bonds of trust and holiness in the church. It makes the church a self-policing entity and that cuts down on a lot of problems within the church as everyone is focused on doing what is good and right as well as helping others to do what is good and right.
What God has already judged
Judging what is right and wrong is much easier when you realize that God has already told us much about what He has judged as right and wrong. We don’t have to question whether fornication, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, greed, theft, slander, malice, and so forth are wrong. They are. To say so is not to be judgmental in the least. It is simply pointing out what God has already judged to be wrong.
Getting It Right
The Message is a paraphrase of the Bible and it has this for Matthew 7:1-5. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”
When judging is done the proper way it brings health and healing to the person involved. That is, if the person is of the proper mindset to accept gentle correction. There is never a guarantee how a rebuke will be received but it does not relieve us of the responsibility to judge.