One of the great misunderstandings that persists within Christianity concerns the matter of judging others. Jesus’ words are often appealed to as the basis for a non-judgmental posture toward others: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). Along with John 8:7 and we might rightly conclude that it is wrong to judge others: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her [the woman caught in adultery].”
What did Jesus mean by the word “judge.” Is Jesus commanding his followers not to make moral judgments of others? I don’t believe so. First of all, there are Scriptures that command the people of God to judge others:
- “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).
- “I charged your judges at that time: ‘Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.” (Deut 1:16-17).
- “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?” (1 Cor 5:12).
Jesus himself said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). Even in Matthew 7 he commands his followers to make sure that they have examined themselves thoroughly before they attempt to point out the flaws of others: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5).
Here’s the point. Jesus is telling his followers not to be severely critical, or to find fault too readily with others. The evaluations we make of others while “right” (John 7:24) must be seasoned with love, mercy, and forgiveness, virtues he stressed earlier in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:7; 6:12, 14-15). Without these virtues in place in our judging, we too will find ourselves on the receiving end of harsh judgment. Maybe it would not go too far to say, “Judge others as you would have them judge you” (cf. Matt. 7:12).
Some Christians seem to get a lot of energy from fault-finding, by claiming either prophetic discernment, or that Scripture commands them to “contend for the faith,” meaning taking issue with everyone with whom they disagree. Other Christians do not judge others at all and choose to be graciously and lovingly blind to the faults of others. I think that there is a middle position we should take between these two extremes.
I tend to be a critical person by nature. It is very easy for me to find fault with others. While I may not verbalize my critical spirit, I find myself thinking in critical, non-productive ways. But thankfully God is patient with me; I am a work in process with a long way to go.
I am not an opinionated person by nature. I choose to make moral judgments of others when I believe something of real importance is hanging in the balance, particularly if I am living in community with a person. If a person I know is making choices that I believe is hurting others, I will be moved to make a moral judgment of their actions. In other words, I will tell that person that I believe their choices or way of relating is not good. If a person believes or teaches something I believe to be harmful, I will “judge” their beliefs, but in such a way that attempts to be helpful. I make it my aim to avoid making moral judgments of others unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I will find myself in a self-righteous, severely critical mode of viewing others.
I do believe that prophetic voices are needed to speak out against the evils of our fallen culture. This is a necessary form of judging others. This is not the call that God has put on my life, but I want be prepared to speak prophetically with courage as the need arises.
After we have searched our own hearts, Jesus does call us to judge others, but in a way that is truthful, gentle, merciful, and helpful. These times of judgment will occur within our faith communities when lifestyle choice and doctrinal matters are hanging in the balance. And, as occasion demands, we must speak to the injustices of culture that run counter to the kingdom of God.