It was election season and I worked with a Christian woman who was also a staunch Democrat. We often enjoyed spirited conversation on politics and the presidential candidates. One day I decided to explore her ideas on a hot-button topic, same-sex marriage, one her camp supports. “It’s not for me,” she said, “but I can’t judge them. I can’t judge what they do because I don’t have a heaven or hell to put them in.”
I was disappointed with her response, tinged with relativist notions and biblically questionable. She finished: “The Bible says, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’”
Who Gets to Judge?
I think society and many Christians get what it means to judge wrong. My friend cited God giving us free will to do as we please. This was meant to suggest that we all possess the right to act on our own terms and that, in the end, judgment belongs to God. Who are we to speak out against another’s action when God has given that person the freedom to do it?
So I countered: Is the preacher wrongly passing judgment every Sunday when he cries out against sin and evil? Is the parent being unduly judgmental when he or she cracks down on a teen’s misbehavior? Her response was that her opinion doesn’t matter. Whatever she could say would indeed be to wrongly judge another; however, if she added that it was wrong because God said so, then it held weight and was a worthy judgment.
Semantics? Confusion about to judge? A cop-out? Or nonsense? I can accept that being a follower of Christ may give me little room for personal opinion, but how could this bar me from judging, or forming opinions about others and issues? If anything, it should mean that I am more resolute in my beliefs.
Judging: A Natural Thing
I argued that each day I act, reason, and make decisions based on my convictions, amongst people and apart from them. But I don’t necessarily have to add that God approves or disapproves the what-why-and-how of my actions or any other’s. It also brought me to a major point in our discussion: Everyone judges.
Judging others is a very natural thing we humans do. Even animals judge. Humans are highly rational creatures and, with complex minds, live each day assessing things, ideas, and other people. Further, we make decisions based on those assessments, which are informed by many factors, including spiritual and moral beliefs. We naturally judge (or analyze), need to judge (or scrutinize) for survival, and will judge (or inspect) daily.
The Best Way We Judge
The scriptures do not refute this. The New Testament speaks about judging in several places; however, the inclination is never about whether we judge, but how we judge.
We get it wrong for a simple reason: We don’t know what the Bible says. So let’s start where my interlocutor did, in Matthew 7:1 and Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount. The verse does say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”—but what does this mean?
Jesus is advising against harsh, condemnatory, and unjust moral assessments about another person. The next five verses do more to explain. Verse 2 warns that cruel judgments have a way of finding their way back to us, not from God but our fellow man. It is in verses 3-6, however, that the first verse is best clarified.
In a humorous stroke Jesus questions the people about looking into the eyes of their brethren and pointing out “specks,” or personal flaws but doing so with 2×4 beams sticking out of their heads! His illustration suggests that a person is unable to properly assess another’s flaw because he himself is not seeing clearly to do so being blinded by his own greater flaw.
The point is that one of the best ways we judge is by taking careful inventory of ourselves before we chance to rule on others. Thus, making private, weighty character assessments about people, whether we wish to call it Christian or not, is a moral matter and should never be done hastily, with cruelty, or in an unforgiving manner.
The Moral Guard Within
Paul adds a notable thought in 1 Cor. 2:15 where he says, “But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one” (NKJV). Paul had been contrasting natural wisdom and spiritual wisdom, indicating that the two are incompatible and that the natural, or carnal, man is incapable of attaining Spirit-derived concepts.
Then (v. 15), he says that a person born of God is capable of analyzing all things because he does it by the Spirit and according to God’s moral self-disclosure, although this person himself is not easily understood by others.
It is a startling equivalence to Jesus’s own words to Nicodemus in John 3:6, 8 where he says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit;” then, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (NKJV).
The importance of both Jesus’s and Paul’s words is not merely the contrast between spiritual and earthly knowledge. They also draw attention to the moral front that God has placed in the earth in his people and, by common grace, in the hearts of all who endeavor to do right.
It is why the world doesn’t fly apart in chaos and evil. It is why we have public defenders, police, judges, prosecutors, and policy advocates—to bolster truth and justice and eliminate wrongdoing. Paul calls these people the “ministers” of God (Rom. 13:4, NKJV).
Further, to claim that judgment solely belongs to God, as my friend did, would be to risk forsaking what God has to say (or has said) explicitly about a matter. Christians should always be taking their cues from the Spirit of God, just as Jesus did (cf. John 5:30), for such is what permits us to preach in pulpits and move beyond there to protest in the public square and pound the pavement against social evils.
How We Judge Others
Now, how do we judge? There are a few biblical insights to learn here that are difficult to deal with independently because they operate together in scripture. So I will list them all and then present them in biblical scenario.
Christians are to judge: 1) lovingly, 2) considering the state of the other person, 3) restoratively, and 4) with pure motives.
There are a few places in the New Testament where we find these lessons. In both Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8, the apostle Paul discusses issues Christians were having concerning certain foods and meat. In Romans, the issue concerned converts that were hesitant about foods their personal faith outlawed; in Corinthians, the concern was whether Christians should purchase and eat meat that had been used in idol worship. What Paul has to say regarding each scenario is very interesting and worthy of study.
For here, however, the scenarios serve to backdrop a Christian civil duty, and it is Paul’s response that needs a thorough examination.
Paul’s position is best summed up in Rom. 14:21: “It is better not to eat meat nor drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” What is more important to see, however, is how Paul deals with the fact that many people had begun to make judgments about others based on their decisions to participate or not in certain foods.
For instance, in 1 Cor. 8:1, he begins by quoting the people, then turning their argument back on them. I will paraphrase here since most translations don’t showcase what’s happening: “Now concerning things offered to idols: You say, ‘We have full knowledge that idols are nothing’—and you’re right. But it is not knowledge that matters here. What we know often gives us a big head and leads us astray! It is love, however, that builds folk up, and love is what matters regarding your weaker brother.”
It merges into the point the apostle makes in Romans 14 that any judging we do of others must be done fully considerate of a person’s state of need. People act based on their maturity level. Those who are more advanced should not be critical of those that are immature or whose faith they know little about (and vice versa, but Paul places more responsibility on the stronger brother.)
Paul makes the case that we are not to judge our brethren unfairly because we all belong to the Lord, and we are not to judge all others unfairly because, ultimately, all judgment does indeed belong to God and we are stewards of his righteousness and not lords of our own opinion.
Judging and Restoring
Moreover, to act with love and consideration means that judging others will be restorative. It will give light whereby a person may see their shortcomings or wrong. (One cannot repent from sin he cannot see.)
Galatians 6:1 is the hallmark scripture here: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you may also be tempted.” It is the exact message of Matthew 7:1, John 3:6, 8, and 1 Cor. 2:15 with the extra note that we have the same capacity to harbor the very sin we may wish to condemn in others.
The Sin of Moral Disrespect
Finally, our judging others must be done with pure motives. In Colossians 2, Paul warns Christians to avoid those that would seek to deceive them through philosophies and a reversion to works religion. These people, taking advantage of the apostle’s absence, hassled the fledgling church with the many requirements of the Law of Moses, plus added their own stipulations as a means of controlling the people.
A sound study of this chapter produces a real distinction between God’s law, which was good, and human legalism. The legalistic injunctions these people used to sway the church represent not only impure motive, but also a lack of moral respect.
False and censorious judgment is a moral trespass and the kind of disrespect often highlighted in the Prophets as drawing the indignation of God. What we cannot miss in scripture is that God is a God of love, but he is also a God who loves justice. He desires justice in the earth because he is righteous and cares about civil order and fairness.
It is difficult to believe that a Christian stranded of conviction and confused about his or her role in stemming the tide of darkness brings God much glory. That person will collapse beneath the weight of a small inquisition.