Can We Judge?

by Jefferson David Tant

One of the most well-known and most abused passages in the entire Bible is Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” So many times, if any criticism is offered concerning any religious practice that does not measure up to what the Bible says, the retort comes, “The Bible says ‘judge not,’ and you’re judging.” I would be more financially secure if I had a dollar for every time I have heard that phrase.

Well, the Bible does say that, but the passage doesn’t stop there. It is always helpful when discussing a Bible topic to consider at least two matters.

  1. What is included in the context? and
  2.  Are there other passages that help put the matter in perspective?

Let us give some attention to these questions.

First, what is included in the context?

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,' and behold, the log is 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” (Matthew 7:1-5).

Photo by Nathan Shively on Unsplash

Christ is telling us to be sure that we look at ourselves before looking at our brother with a critical eye. For example, what right do I have to criticize or judge another for his use of alcohol while I have a bottle of whiskey in my hand? Christ said that first I need to clean up my own practices by removing the “log” that is in my own eye, and then I can have better eyesight so that I can help my brother. Too many times when we condemn others, we may be practicing the same thing, or something even worse.

Romans 2:1 expresses the same idea; “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.

Clearly, our Lord is not telling us that we cannot criticize or judge others, but that we must do it in the right way. Could it be sometimes that those who proclaim that we should not judge do not want their own practices examined? Perhaps so.

Now, let us look at some other passages that may shed some light on the subject.

Our Lord spoke again concerning judgment in John 7:24: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." Here he is clearly telling us that we have a right to judge, but it must be the right kind of judgment. We have a saying that we should not judge a book by its cover. We cannot judge a man’s heart or his motives unless by some means that is revealed. But we can judge sinful behavior.

Consider Paul’s charge to the church at Corinth. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Corinthians 5:1-5).

There are two significant things in this passage that deal with a matter of adultery that even non-believers would not sanction.

  1. Paul criticized the Corinthian Christians in that they had an arrogant attitude. Did he thus “judge” them? Obviously. Who can deny it?
  2. Paul then said he had “already judged” the man committing the sin. Did Paul violate Christ’s commandment? Who would so argue?

He was not judging the man’s heart or motives but was clearly judging the man’s sinful conduct, which was contrary to God’s teaching on morality.

This man was not the only one who received a judgment from Paul, for he wrote to young Timothy concerning Hymenaeus and Alexander. “This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:18-20).

We are not told what these men had done, but it is clear that Paul had made a judgment concerning them. It may have been some personal sins, or it may have had something to do with false teaching.
That raises the question, “Can we bring judgment against false teaching?” The answer is “Yes.”
Christ often spoke against the false religions of his day, excoriating the Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees time and time again. And notice John’s strong words in Matthew 3:7: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I would say that calling them the sons of snakes is pretty strong language. These sects claimed they were Jews, but they had their own set of rules in addition to what God had given, and thus we have these three “denominations” that had the Law of Moses, but their own doctrines in addition. Would that be similar today to the various denominations that have the Bible, but who also have their own creeds, manuals, and catechisms in addition, which sometimes say things that contradict the Bible?

Christ went so far as to point out their error in Matthew 15:9: “But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Could we substitute “creeds, manuals, and catechisms” in the place of “precepts of men?” If not, why not?

When Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he had some pretty strong words of judgment against certain ones. “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:6-8).

Paul said he didn’t care if an apostle or even if an angel came down from heaven flapping his wings and told them something different than the “faith once delivered” (Jude 3), he was to be “accursed.” The actual word for accursed in the original Greek is “anathema.” That is about the strongest pronouncement of judgment that can be stated. In fact, the translators of the American Standard Version (1901) couldn’t come up with a word in English that they thought really conveyed the seriousness of the judgment, so they just transliterized the Greek letters into English and used “anathema.”

Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth dealt with some serious issues. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

Now, do I have the right to “judge” a drunkard, a homosexual, or a thief? The Bible tells me so! This does not mean that we treat those named in an unkind way, but that we try to help them come to Christ and change their lives. In fact, those mentioned had changed their lives, for Paul says “such were some of you.” (As a side note, that suggests that homosexuals can and did change by the power of the gospel, contrary to what the so-called experts say today.)

But when I try to call attention to sin in someone’s life, the response sometimes is, “You’re not supposed to judge!”

Another situation comes to mind when false teachings or practices are spoken against in denominations. Some get really upset when some church’s false teaching or practice is criticized. If they had been members of the church in Pergamum, they probably would have been mightily offended at the words John wrote. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:14-16).

In this passage

  1. a false teacher is named,
  2. sinful acts are named, and
  3. some members are referred to as following the way of the Nicolaitans.

We don’t know what that false teaching was, but the saints at Pergamum certainly knew. It seems to me that some judgment was rendered here.

Paul charged Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (II Timothy 4:2-4).

It should quite obvious that in order for “sound doctrine” to prevail, false teachers and false practices would have to be revealed, rebuked, and “judged.”

The apostle John enjoins Christians in these words of warning: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1). Question: How can we “test the spirits” without exercising some judgment? “Test” in the original Greek is from “dokimadzo,” and carries the idea of “to discern, examine.” How could we ever do that without making some judgments?

In a criminal court case, the jury hears the evidence, deliberates on the matter, and then makes a judgment. Would this not be similar to the advice John gives?

Consider a rather extreme situation. I read that some years ago in a Dallas church, the main attraction for the Sunday service was a striptease act. Yes, you read that right. Some young woman stated that God had given her a beautiful body, and she wanted to share her gift with the audience. I understand they had an overflow crowd that Sunday. Now, by the thinking of some, we could not call that sinful, because that would be “judging,” and we are not supposed to judge!

Now, while other things may not be that egregious, if a church/denomination is practicing or teaching things that are not authorized in the Bible, then that is sin, and we have a right to point that out. Consider the words of our Lord in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'

Notice that these people believed in Christ and called him Lord. They were teaching and practicing things that they must have believed were good. But they were not doing the will of God. And how do we know the will of God? By reading and following just what the Bible says — nothing more, nothing less!

“Lawlessness” is an interesting word. It is from the Greek “nomos,” which is translated “law.” In English, we take the word “lawful,” and put “un” in front of it to make the word “unlawful.” The same is done in Greek, where what is called “the alpha privative” is put before the word to change the meaning from “lawful” to “unlawful.” Christ said these people were practicing things that were “unlawful,” that is, things that were “without authority” from the will of the Father. And they were “judged” for doing this.

This is why we need to pay attention to what the Scriptures teach. We are warned not to add to, or take from what God has revealed to us. The only way we know we can be pleasing to God is by following the revelation given to us by inspiration from the Holy Spirit. “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).

Dear reader, let us not twist the Scriptures, but let us learn to judge in a right and discerning way. One final thought — when someone tells me “You’re judging!” have they not “judged” me?

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