do-not-judgeThere are few charges Americans dread more than “being judgmental.”  It ranks as one of the worst of the new “secular sins.”  But what exactly is judging?  The way it has come to be understood in common parlance is considering someone’s beliefs or behavior to be wrong.  Both Christians and non-Christians alike commonly quote Jesus saying “Do not judge lest you be judged” as their moral authority for their brand of non-judgmentalism, but did Jesus mean it’s wrong to tell others they are wrong?

If Jesus’ prohibition on judging means it’s wrong to tell others their beliefs or behavior is wrong, then Jesus Himself is both judgmental and hypocritical.  If it’s wrong to tell others that they are wrong, then Jesus was wrong to tell those people that what they are doing is wrong.  When our understanding of “judging” leads us to conclude that Jesus is a hypocrite, we ought to reconsider whether Jesus defined judging the way we do.

Even before we examine the context of Matthew 7:1, it should be obvious on its face that our definition of judging is flawed.

  1. Judging cannot be defined as mere disapproval or correction because it entails a self-contradictory claim.  The moment you tell someone you deem guilty of judging that they should not judge, you contradict yourself.  In essence you are saying “You are wrong to tell others they are wrong.”  And yet, you are telling others that they are wrong!  If you didn’t think they were wrong, you would not be trying to correct them by telling them not to judge.
  2. Furthermore, judgment involves both moral disapproval and moral approval.  Moral judgments are required when you say Q is bad, as well as when you say X is good.  Think about it.  To know Q is bad requires that you know X is good, and that Q is not X.  Likewise, to know X is good requires that you know what bad is, and that X is not that.
  3. Thirdly, if we don’t have the right to judge something as wrong, then neither do we have the right to judge other things right.  I always find it interesting when liberals react to our moral positions on things like abortion or same-sex marriage by saying, “Who are you to judge?”  Apparently it’s wrong to judge abortion or same-sex marriage as wrong, but it’s not wrong to judge them to be right.  Both positions require moral judgments.  The only way to avoid making judgments is to make no moral assessments about anything whatsoever, which is impossible.
  4. Lastly, Jesus could not have possibly meant that we should not make moral assessments or tell others that their beliefs/behaviors are wrong since Jesus’ ministry is characterized by such assessments.  Jesus’ call to repent requires that they first be judged as having committed moral wrongs.  And Jesus had his fair share of correcting people’s beliefs as well.

With that, let’s turn our attention to the context of Matthew 7:1.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 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. (Mt 7:1-5)

Jesus is warning against condemning others for their moral failure (speck) when you are guilty of the same moral failure to an even greater degree (log).  Jesus was not prohibiting moral judgments, but hypocritical moral judgments.  Indeed, Jesus gave the permission to make a moral judgment against the sinner so long as one ensures that they themselves are not guilty of the same.  Notice verse five: “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.”  Jesus didn’t have a problem with speck-spotting (i.e. telling someone else their behavior is immoral), but He wanted it to be done in the proper order: spot your own speck before you spot another’s.  Jesus’ call is not for the absence of moral judgments, but rather for a proper ordering of judgment: judging ourselves before judging others (self-examination before others-examination).

If one reads further into the chapter Jesus not only judged people to be immoral, but even called them names: “pigs,” “dogs,” (7:6) and “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (7:15)!

In other contexts, Jesus quite clearly commands us to judge: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). Paul does the same.  He asked, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? … Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:12-13)  According to Paul, it is the duty of Christians to judge the behavior of fellow-Christians.  Earlier in the same chapter Paul demanded that man who was having a sexual relationship with his step-mother be “turn[ed]…over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord,” (1 Cor 5:5) even declaring that he had judged him for this act (1 Cor 5:3).  The list could go on.

While hypocritical judgments are wrong, judgments themselves are inescapable, morally justified, necessary, and integral to the Christian worldview.  So the next time you are accused of violating Jesus’ command not to judge, let this person know they are taking Jesus’ words straight outta context!

Keep it in context….