Who am I to Judge?
“Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
In a day and age where the Bible is increasingly dismissed, it is strange to hear so many appealing to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is one of the most quoted texts in the whole of the Bible. It is often quoted and misunderstood from within the Church. Likewise, it is frequently cited and misused by those out with the Church.
There are many who have misinterpreted the meaning of these words. For instance, Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, grossly misapplied the verse by stating that Christ is forbidding judgement by law courts, “take no part whatever in the administration of the law.” The common usage within the church today tends to be, “I’m not judging,” or “who am I to judge?” Similarly, out with the church, we are likely to hear “don’t judge me,” or “is that not you judging?” Effectively, when framed as such, the implication is a prohibition against asserting that any specific course of action is wrong, whatever it may be, as that would be “judging someone.” We should never judge, we should never condemn any action, as tolerance is one of the highest of virtues. Is that the correct understanding of these words?
The Importance of Context
Nowadays with social media we are constantly exposed to excerpts of political speeches or brief videos covering controversial incidents. If we are relying on short clips, taken out of context, it is often difficult to get the full feeling of a speech or to understand the circumstances surrounding a particular incident. It is not uncommon for social media or the mainstream media to highlight a brief portion of a speech, which gives an entirely different meaning to the actual message when received in its entirety. Similarly, particularly with the current social justice movement, we regularly see brief videos of incidents, which portray aggressors as victims. If we take the time to investigate a little further, it is usually not difficult to find a fuller account, which may completely change our perspective of the incident.
In the same vein, each verse of the Bible ought to be understood in its context. The fundamental rule in Biblical interpretation is the analogy of faith: let Scripture interpret Scripture. Every Biblical text has a Biblical context. We ought to consider how the verse in question relates to the immediate context of the chapter, along with the wider context of the book. Furthermore, we ought to consider how the verse relates to other passages in Scripture, particularly clearer portions. If we pluck individual verses from their context, without even considering the immediate context of the verse, then we can’t expect to arrive at a sound understanding of that verse. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” has more than any other verse in recent times, been removed from its context and assigned an entirely different meaning than intended.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ dealt with all areas of the believer’s life, including how we ought to relate to others, in order to equip us to live a kingdom life in a fallen world. As in other areas in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ contrasts His teaching with the view of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. Their religion was based upon an external righteousness, whereas Christ taught a heart righteousness. The Pharisees were blind to their own faults and quick to see the faults of others. However, in response, Christ was not forbidding judging altogether, rather He was forbidding hypocritical and improper judging.
John Calvin said that, “these words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all.” We are naturally prone to see the failings of others and to minimise our own failings. We are quick to make hasty, unwarranted and unmerciful judgements, when we don’t have the full facts. We are quick to assume the worst about people and to judge someone’s motives, when we cannot see their heart. We are to avoid falling into the state of soul where we become critical, spiteful fault finders. This comes very naturally to us, and if we are honest with ourselves, probably all of us have allowed ourselves to fall into such a state at various times.
We ought not to apply standards to others that we do not apply to ourselves. This is why Jesus said, “why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4). Similarly we read in Romans: “you who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery?” (Romans 2:21-22). “Judge not, that you be not judged,” (Matthew 7:1), is not a prohibition against exercising judgement, but a warning against making judgements that are hypocritical and improper, as the word “hypocrite!” in the context of the passage makes clear (Matthew 7:5). When we pass such judgement on others, it invites a similar judgement to us in return, perhaps something we seldom think about. We must carefully heed these words of Christ: “for with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” (Matthew 7:2).
However, the idea which is so prevalent today, that we ought to suspend our critical faculties and exercise no judgement at all is not taught in this passage. In fact quite the opposite is true: “first remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). The very passage which is appealed to as a means of forbidding judging, in reality teaches us to exercise judgement, to those within the Church. On the one hand, we are to avoid hypocritical and improper judging, by removing the plank from our own eye in order to see clearly, and, on the other hand, we are to engage in judging, by removing the speck from our brothers eye. How are we expected to remove the speck from our brothers eye without exercising some form of judgement that there is a speck there in the first place?
Again, further on in the same passage, we are warned to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). If we do not exercise judgement then how can we beware of the presence of false prophets in the church? Furthermore -taking into account Christ’s teaching elsewhere -He said to the people, “do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). In other words, do not judge in a superficial manner, but actively exercise righteous judgement.
The Scripture teaches both that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and that we are to “judge with righteous judgement” (John 7:24). Therefore, the idea that we are not in a position to engage in judging because we ourselves are sinners cannot be sustained. That then raises the question: how do we judge righteously? No earthly judge is perfect, yet we can make judgements, without hypocrisy if we hold others to the same standard of God’s Word that we hold ourselves. We must seek to put to death our own sin and be more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Furthermore we can judge righteously if we, in all humility, are motivated by the good of the one whom we are judging, if we, in love, see clearly in order to remove the speck from their eye.
We have a responsibility to rebuke one another in love, and that can only occur in exercising a form of judgement. However, we ought to carefully consider our motive and attitude as we do so. John Chrysostom (347-407) stated that we are to, “correct him who has sinned, but not as a foe, nor as an adversary exacting a penalty, but as a high physician providing medicine.” It is not always a virtue to avoid judging someone else, as is so often asserted today. In fact, there are occasions when it can be very wrong not to judge someone, as we allow them to go on in sin. For instance, we exercise righteous judgement as we seek to bring back one who has erred from the faith: “he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). We ought not to divest ourselves of our responsibility to judge righteously – under the cloak of modesty.
As far as the unbelieving world is concerned, we cannot judge, chasten and bring remedial steps to correct them, as we would within the church. The responsibility of the church is to witness the Gospel to the ungodly and included in this is a declaration that all have sinned. This was the pattern the Apostle Paul followed in outlining his Gospel to the Romans. The universality of sin and the judgement and wrath of God preceded the outworking of justification and sanctification. There must be law and judgment before there can be any good news. By implication, the world’s insistence that we are to gloss over and affirm them in their sins as they assert “judge not, that you be not judged” is not a Biblical understanding of these words. There may come a time where our witness to certain individuals must stop for we are not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). That too is a judgement, on our part, on the unbelieving world, to be exercised with great wisdom.
Christ was not forbidding the exercise of discernment and judgement altogether. He was commanding us to exercise great caution in order to avoid improper and hypocritical judging and to engage in righteous judgement, both for the good of our fellow Christians and as we reach out to an unbelieving world. Great wisdom is required and only the Judge of all the earth can endow us with the understanding that is necessary. We will be judged by Christ for our judgements and equally we will be judged for our failures to judge. Who is sufficient for such things?
To subscribe to Hebridean Outpost and receive future content (Click Here)