Judging Without Being Judgmental
By W.E. Nunnally, Ph.D.
Judging. We all do it, whether we admit it or not. We make judgments every day: what car to buy, whom to vote for, what clothes to wear, what food to eat, whom to marry, whom we will invite as a guest speaker, who our next youth pastor will be.
We also make religious judgments. For example, we who follow Jesus have rejected other world religions and pseudo-Christian cults. When it comes to in-house matters such as judging fellow Christians or teachings, red flags are raised, and everyone puts on the brakes.
What is the reason for this inconsistency? It seems to be rooted in a possible misunderstanding and misapplication of Jesus' teaching: "Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves" (Matthew 7:1, NASB). On the surface, this command appears to be straightforward: easy to understand and apply. It enjoys constant repetition by Christian and non-Christian alike. A real dilemma arises, however, when we encounter other sayings of Jesus such as: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24, NASB); and "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57, NIV). Jesus said: "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.... But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Revelation 2:2,6, NIV).
Thus, the way some have interpreted and applied Matthew 7:1, they have created an inconsistency and even a contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. However, when Scripture appears to contradict itself, the problem is always with the human interpreter, not the divine Author of Scripture. Therefore, a closer look at Matthew 7:1 is required, viewing it within its larger context.
JESUS' TEACHING ON JUDGMENT
When studying a passage of Scripture, it is important to read it in relation to its larger context. When working in the Synoptic Gospels, however, it is crucial to read passages which appear in two or more of the Gospels in tandem with one another. By using this method, we see that Luke actually provided an expanded commentary on the shorthand version in Matthew 7:1,
and do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned;
pardon, and you will be pardoned (Luke 6:37, NASB).
The form of speech we find in Luke's version is called Hebrew poetic parallelism. Generally in such a poetic structure, the B part of the verse amplifies and further clarifies the A part of the verse. In this passage, the parallel features of judgment, condemnation, and unforgiveness are so intimately connected as to become synonymous. Therefore, Luke helped clarify that the kind of judging Jesus forbade in Matthew was condemnatory, unforgiving judgmentalism. Such is the kind of judging that the Master prohibited.
Jesus continued: "For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you" (Matthew 7:2, NASB). The parallel passage reads: "The measure you give will be the measure you get" (Mark 4:24, RSV). The rabbis of Jesus' day applied this formula when punishing people whose false judgment and testimony were intended to cause harm to a fellow covenant member.1 Jesus' use of this legal formula was another indication that He was not requiring the suspension of all critical thinking (discernment). Rather, He was prohibiting judgment that was intentionally inaccurate and malicious.
He added: "And why do you look at the speck [chip of sawdust] in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log [structural timber] that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3,4, NASB). Here Jesus used carpenter shop language to further define the form of judging He was forbidding. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) uses these terms for the tiny olive sprig which the dove brought back to Noah and the roof beams Solomon used to build the temple. Such is the vivid contrast Jesus employed here.
The kind of persons Jesus described could not render evenhanded, constructive criticism because they had not dealt effectively with their own faults. They could not be just in judgment because they covered up their own shortcomings by nit-picking and pointing out minor flaws in others.
Jesus further defined the persons He had in mind in this passage: "You hypocrite" (Matthew 7:5, NASB). Jesus' prohibition against judging was aimed at hypocrites. The language used here is quite similar to Jesus describing hypocrites as those "who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24, NASB). The hypocrites were thus defined as those who focused on the minor and on the external.
Jesus did not forbid all use of critical thinking and spiritual discernment. His prohibition was directed toward hypocrites who judge with wrong motives. They did not seek to correct, forgive, restore, and reconcile brothers and sisters to God. Rather, they intentionally sought to injure others for personal gain. Even concerning hypocrites, Jesus' prohibition was not comprehensive. In concert with the rest of Scripture, Jesus commanded hypocritical judges to deal with the sin in their lives so that ultimately they could function in positive ways in the community. This was done by allowing the Holy Spirit to cleanse their lives of the sins that clouded their vision, not by complete suspension of judgment and discernment. Judges could then judge from God's perspective: in love, seeking the best interest of the person being judged. The goal of righteous judgment is to bring another person closer to God, not to exalt oneself at the expense of the person being judged.
This interpretation fits well with the message of the remainder of the section. For example, "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces" (Matthew 7:6, NASB). Jesus requires us to be able to make judgments about what is precious ("holy," "pearls") and what is not; who is worthy and who is not ("dogs," "swine"). Later He commands us: "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits [observable, objective criteria which can be compared to biblical standards]" (Matthew 7:15,16, NASB)." Jesus calls on us to make value judgments concerning such individuals. He requires us to judge in matters of substance.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the Matthew 7 prohibition is not a comprehensive prohibition; rather, it establishes when and how Christians should judge. Our judging must not nitpick--focusing on peripheral matters, gray areas, or personal opinion. Our judgment must be righteous--mirroring the way God seeks to strengthen and edify each individual and the church. Thus, we see that Jesus' teaching here is fully compatible with His teachings elsewhere (cf. Luke 12:57; John 7:24; Revelation 2:2,6).
PAUL'S TEACHING ON JUDGMENT
The New Testament places a high priority upon the gift of discernment. Like Jesus, Paul expects us to make judgments, giving guidelines for judging in his epistles. He informs us that: "The spiritual man makes judgments about all things" (1 Corinthians 2:15, NIV). He lists "the ability to distinguish between spirits" among the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10, NIV), placing this gift on equal par with tongues, healings, miracles, and prophecy. He even subjects the revelatory gifts to the spiritual judgment of the church: "And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment" (1 Corinthians 14:29, NASB).
Paul's teaching spells out what is inherent in the teaching of Jesus by requiring us to judge in two specific areas: morality and doctrine. For example, he called upon the Corinthians to pass judgment on a member of the church living in immorality (probably following the principles of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18:15â€š18). He announced, "IÃ¤have already judged him" and called for the church to "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:3,5, NASB). Paul's purpose in judging this man was to preserve the witness of the church and bring the man to repentance. Next, Paul reminded them of their responsibility to judge sin (see verses 9â€š11). He concluded by asking, "Do you not judge those who are within the church?" (verse 12, NASB).
Doctrine is the other area in which Paul requires judgments to be made. He told the Corinthians, "Judge what I say" (1 Corinthians 10:15, NASB). The pastoral model he preferred was to challenge his followers to grow in spiritual discernment rather than remain in spiritual infancy. If we are to grow spiritually mature congregations today, we must follow the same model: (1) Our disciples need to see their leaders standing firmly on the Word of God; (2) We need to enable our disciples to apply the dynamics of God's Word to the things that confront them; (3) We need to remind our disciples to exercise biblical discernment.
Paul did. He instructed the Galatians to reject any gospel contrary to the one they first received. Paul saw the havoc the false gospel was causing in the Galatian church. He reminded members of the true gospel to maintain the health of the Body by judging in matters of doctrine.
Paul made statements similar to those made by Jesus in Matthew 7, such as: "Accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment" (Romans 14:1, NASB). "Who are you to judge the servant of another?" (Romans 14:4, NASB); and "Why do you judge your brother?" (Romans 14:10, NASB). Just as in the case of Jesus in Matthew 7, a closer look reveals that Paul forbade judging on matters of "opinions" (cf. Romans 14:1). The areas of "opinion" are further described as matters of cuisine and calendar (cf. Romans 14:2,3,5,6), not matters of morality or doctrine. Both Jesus and Paul require us to judge in essential matters (morality and doctrine).
JUDGING IN THE EARLY CHURCH
How did the Early Church understand and apply their teachings on judging?
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is an excellent example of how the Early Church judged itself. Peter made a judgment about Ananias, saying he had lied to the Holy Spirit. He then prophesied that divine judgment would follow (cf. Acts 5:1â€š16).
In another incident, Peter encountered Simon the sorcerer who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 8:9â€š24). Peter responded: "You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God" (verse 21, NASB). By his words, Peter made an accurate judgment about the condition of Simon's heart.
Later, Paul was opposed by a false prophet who was attempting to hinder the gospel (cf. Acts 13:6â€š12). Paul immediately confronted him: "You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?" (verse 10, NASB). Then Paul foretold that the false prophet would go blind. The revival which resulted is similar to that of the Ananias and Sapphira episode.
Some may question the relevance of these last two examples since the persons being judged were not Christians. However, Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5) and the church member living in immorality (cf. 1 Corinthians 5) are examples already cited of believers being judged. Elsewhere, when Peter acted in such a way as to compromise on the way of salvation and the status of Gentiles coming directly into Christianity and bypassing Judaism, Paul responded in much the same way. He stated that he "opposed him [Peter] to his faceÃ¤in the presence of all." Paul noted that Peter "stood condemned," was acting in "hypocrisy," and was "not straightforward about the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:11â€š14, NASB).
Paul would win no awards for pastoral etiquette by today's standards. He even called moral and doctrinal deviants by name (cf. 1 Timothy 1:18â€š20; 2 Timothy 2:15â€š18). Based on the evidence of Scripture, it would appear that this was the rule and not the exception in the Early Church (cf. Matthew 23:13â€š33; 3 John 9â€š11; Revelation 2:6,20).
Judgment exclusively on matters of morality and doctrine continues throughout the New Testament. For example, Jude wrote: "For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality [morality] and deny Jesus Christ [doctrine] our only Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 4, NIV; cf. verses 12,13). Jesus chastised the church of Thyatira: "You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching [doctrine] she misleads my servants into sexual immorality [morality] and the eating of food sacrificed to idols [morality]" (Revelation 2:20, NIV; cf. Rev. 2:2).
Are we as leaders willing to denounce sin and prophesy God's judgment upon it? Are we willing to confront those who consistently bring injury to the integrity of the gospel and the witness of the church by their immoral lifestyle or their unscriptural teachings? If we are, God will reward our obedience in much the same way He rewarded the Early Church.
Today, we often think and act as though God doesn't require us to judge any more. Such ideas do not reflect biblical reality nor our Pentecostal heritage (cf. Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).
The passages of Scripture discussed herein underscore the important part judging plays in maintaining high moral and doctrinal standards within the church. Biblical judgment must be a part of the life of every Christian. To be proper role models, leaders need to judge scripturally--having pure motivations and dealing with the right things for the right reasons. Refusal to judge and unbiblical judgmentalism are both extremes that weaken the church. Biblical judgment, however, produces a morally and doctrinally healthy church--giving us the integrity to speak to the world and the standing with God to see mountains moved.
1. Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979), 372. Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16â€š21 for the biblical foundations of this practice.