*Posted by Joe Wooddell
Definitions or meanings of words are important. Let’s talk about definitions and meanings regarding the idea of “judging” others. We live in a culture (both within the Church and without) where “judging others” is often condemned, but seldom do advocates of non-judgmentalism tell us what, exactly, it means not to judge others. “The Bible says not to judge,” claim such advocates, but further explanation is usually not forthcoming. Without such explanation observers are left, well, to observe what such advocates might mean. Here is what I have observed to be their meaning: Don’t make people uncomfortable about their looks, their beliefs, or their practices, and especially don’t be mean. In other words be nice, don’t “make waves,” and for goodness’ sake don’t argue about anything!
I should begin by saying I prefer the word “kind” to “nice.” In fact, I detest the word “nice.” “Nice” seems sniveling, pathetic, wishy-washy, and uncertain. “Kind” strikes me as strong, loving, caring, and sure. Jesus wasn’t nice, but He was kind. It is also certainly true that we should not be “mean.” That is, we shouldn’t be jerks, punks, or unnecessarily confrontational. Jesus was never “mean” on this definition.
So what should we do? Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV) says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:37 is similar: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Does all this mean believers should never point out sin, inconsistency, hypocrisy, or falsehood in others? No, it can’t possibly mean that. Here’s why: In the Matthew passage, just three verses later, we are told to “remove the speck” from our brother’s eye, and of course we can’t do that unless we know there’s a speck there. In fact, “specks” are rather small, and require a good deal of judgment or discretion both to identify and to remove. The Luke passage is nearly identical.
Another reason Matthew 7 and Luke 6 cannot mean we shouldn’t point out sin, inconsistency, hypocrisy, or falsehood in others is because Scripture as a whole cannot contradict itself, and several other Scriptures also say we should, in fact, be critical, judgmental, or discerning with respect to others’ behavior and teachings in some sense. Matthew 7:6 says not to give sacred things to “dogs” or valuables to “pigs,” but this requires us judging whether someone is doggish or piggish. John 7:24 says we should “judge with righteous judgment” instead of “according to appearance” (NASB). 1 Corinthians 6:3 says we will one day judge angels, in Galatians 1:8-9 Paul curses those who preach a different gospel, in Philippians 3:2 he warns us to beware of “dogs,” “evil workers,” and the “false circumcision,” and John tells us to “test the spirits” because “false prophets” abound (1 Jn. 4:1). All of these passages require believers to pass judgment, to be critical (in an analytical sense), and to evaluate others’ beliefs and practices.
So if the passages in the second half of the previous paragraph are, in fact, perspicuous (that is, relatively easy to understand), and if I’m even close to being correct about what they mean or require, and if Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, then Matthew 7 and Luke 6 cannot mean never to point out others’ sin, inconsistency, hypocrisy, or falsehood. But this all invites the question: What do Matthew 7 and Luke 6 mean when they tell us not to judge? Answer: There seem to be at least two broad types of judging in Scripture. First, there is judgment reserved exclusively for God to mete out. Second, there is judgment in which humans (especially believers) can and should be involved. Matthew 7 and Luke 6 seem to be condemning the former. I cannot tell the state of a person’s heart. I cannot say whether he truly has repented, whether he is a true Christian, whether he has (in Kant’s terminology) a “good will,” and I certainly cannot stand in judgment over him as if I am, on my own, an inherently better person than he. Only God can do these things.
So yes, we should not be mean and unnecessarily contentious (Lord, help me with this!), but neither should we “live and let live.” Rather, believers should speak the truth in love. This of course requires that we judge whether something is true, and that we judge what it means to be loving. Again, Lord help us.
Acknowledgement: D. A. Carson’s commentary on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary was helpful for this post.