For a lot of Christians, the topic of judging is an oft-avoided subject. Some believe we have no right to judge another at all and ignore moral wrongdoing. But is that what Jesus is really advocating?
I’ve seen quite a bit of debate from fellow believers, especially on social media, and although discussion can be healthy and even fruitful, I’ve also seen Matthew 7:1 being used far too carelessly. Whether it’s a moral judgement, a character judgement, or a judgement of appearance, more often than not it seems Christ’s command ends all forms of human discernment.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
What does this mean for us? Is it a prohibition against all forms of judgement? Since Jesus doesn’t give a specific example we can apply this to a broad range of applications. The Holman’s apologetic commentary notes that,
“The verb “judge” (krinō) has several nuances, ranging from ordinary discernment or evaluation (cf. Luke 7: 43) to judicial litigation (Matt 5: 40), bestowal of reward (Matt 19: 28), pronouncement of guilt (John 7: 51), and absolute determination of a person’s fate (John 5: 22; 8: 16). The latter two senses are in view here. Jesus warns his disciples against setting themselves over others and making a pronouncement of their guilt before God.”
Wilkins, Michael; Evans, Craig A.; Bock, Darrell L.; Köstenberger, Andreas J.. The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 1722-1725). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In this context, to judge means to place oneself over another, or in other words, to give oneself the moral high ground in order to make a final judgement. Jesus condemns this type of thinking in the following verses,
“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5)
It’s this hypocritical judging that Jesus is speaking against, proclaiming someone as guilty for their own wrongdoing when you yourself are committing the same thing. An absolute judgement isn’t a mere recognition of sin and correction but a final word of condemnation. As we see elsewhere, judging in the sense of recognizing sin and correcting it is upheld as a righteous practice,
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24)
In the fifth beatitude, Jesus says,
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
The very act of mercy presupposes a person in the wrong to show mercy to. In the Lord’s prayer, Christ urges us to remember our own failings as we forgive others theirs.
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
A disciple of Christ will always show mercy to a brother who has wronged him or has done wrong because he knows he too isn’t perfect. It is only this way we help our brothers and sisters grow, learn, and become stronger. We must recognize that only Christ has the right to make a final, absolute judgement, but we can help each other overcome and change by pointing to what is wrong and what is right.