Misreading the Bible: “Judge Not”

Out of all the Bible passages that are frequently victims of misinterpretation, “Judge not” may be the most troubling. Simply scroll down your Facebook newsfeed until you happen upon any sort of moral statement made on the basis of Scripture or Christian principle. It won’t be far into the comments that you read the obligatory, “Jesus said don’t judge,” or something of the sort. People love to remind one another of the “non-judgment clause.”

The first question we ought to ask ourselves about this topic is, “Does such a rule even make sense?” “Judge not” is used as a blanket statement, forbidding anyone from judging at any time whatsoever. But that also means that those who call out one another for judging are, in fact, violating their own commandment. Technically, they are judging the judgmental actions of another, which is the very thing they condemn. Such argumentation is self-defeating and hypocritical. Something has obviously gone haywire in this application of the biblical mandate, for Scripture never encourages us to be self-righteous hypocrites. Let’s actually look at the passage then!

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. (Matt 7:1-5)

The reader can see that Jesus’ full statement reveals a prohibition not of all judgment, but of the type that is unfair and hypocritical. He is coming against those who judge others in reference to a certain thing when they themselves have a much bigger problem with the matter. One might respond, “But we all have issues, which Jesus calls ‘logs in the eye,’ so he’s saying that we shouldn’t judge at all.” This is incorrect, because in the next sentence Jesus describes how one can rightly judge: by working to fix our issues first (taking the log out). It’s not that we are trying to live holy lives so that we gain the right to judge other; the matter is better described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Restoring someone includes calling out their sin. The end of this process is not condemnation, but redemption. So we see that the motive of the judgment is quite important. Looking to gossip? Bad! Looking to help? Good!

We further know that judgment is supposed to occur among believers because of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter he is responding to reports that someone in the church was committing heinous sexual immorality (sleeping with his stepmother). While discussing this matter, he states,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you (9-12).

We learn that the Lord expects judgment to occur within the Church, which necessitates that we more accurately define the word. It is obvious that people don’t like to be told they’re wrong. This is partially to blame for “judge not” being a mindless platitude. However, I think that another major reason why people appeal to this statement out-of-context is because they don’t know the correct definition of “to judge.” According to the BDAG Greek lexicon, the primary meaning of the New Testament word translated “judge” is “to set apart so as to distinguish, separate” (567). Jesus uses this term to denote a distinguishing between different things in a moral sense. In other words, the “judging” referred to in the above passages means to determine whether a set of actions are right or wrong. Therefore, humans, if they care at all about the morality of the things they do, have to judge constantly. This is a good thing. Further, when a brother or sister is engaged in some sort of questionable activity, the ability to judge, that is, to weigh what is being done against biblical teaching, is exceedingly helpful in determining whether that person needs spiritual intervention. Too often people confuse judging with condemning. These are not the same. Condemnation is a final pronouncement of sentencing on someone based on the course of his life. Condemnation of spiritual proportions is an action reserved for God alone.

To conclude, don’t be afraid of making moral distinctions. If the making of these distinctions happens to include the conduct of other believers, proceed with caution, but don’t think that Christ has forbidden you from doing so. On the contrary, with the other person’s welfare in mind, consider carefully how to bring up the subject; then, speak the truth in love. Being nice doesn’t equal love. Sometimes confrontation or rebuke doesn’t seem nice, but it can, at the same time, be done in love and result in the other person’s edification.

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