If an unbeliever is to quote a verse from the Bible, the most likely candidate is Matthew 7:1. “Judge not lest you be judged,” quoted typically in language reminiscent of the King James Version, has become a regular refrain in response to Christian ethical claims. The “judge not” command is understood by the society at large to mean “let people live and do as they please.” Any claim that an action is sinful or wrong is taken to be a violation of Jesus’s command. In fact, given the current political and cultural environment, to “judge” someone is the height of folly and arrogance.
Is this what Jesus had in mind? This reading seems unlikely. The New Testament in general and Matthew in particular has a number of examples where the biblical authors advocate for some sort of judgment of another individual, most of the time involving an ethical judgment of someone else’s sin. A few verses after Jesus’s command to not judge, he tells his followers to “beware of false prophets” (Matthew 7:15). These wolves in sheep’s clothing will be recognizable by their fruits (Matthew 7:15–16). In other words, you can tell someone’s true nature by paying attention to their actions. This inevitably requires judgment. Later in Matthew Jesus teaches his disciples to confront fellow believers when they sin (Matthew 18:15–20).
We see something similar when we move beyond the book of Matthew. In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). Paul teaches that believers are to judge those inside, not outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). His point seems to be that Spirit-indwelt believers should be expected to behave differently than those outside the church, who cannot be expected to act like Christians. This short survey shows that, at the very least, Jesus’s command in Matthew 7:1 needs nuancing and further explanation. And this is precisely what we get in the verses that follow.
Following the initial command not to judge, Jesus gives two qualifiers. First, he says that “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged” (v. 2). This sobering reality should cause self- reflection. If we are going to be held to the same standard that we hold others to then we are more likely to extend grace rather than condemnation. Second, Jesus uses a metaphor of someone trying to remove a speck from the eye of his brother while not noticing the log that is in his own eye (vv. 3–5). “Judge not,” therefore, seems not to preclude any evaluations of others, but is instead a call to right and fair evaluation. In the metaphor of the speck in the eye, the one with the log still helps to remove the speck but only after dealing with their own larger issues (v. 5).
Based on the passages we have considered, we can identify a few principles related to a biblical view of judging. These are in no way comprehensive or the last word on a complex subject, but hopefully they can provide some boundaries and suggestions about how to take seriously the full biblical picture of judging others.
- Any and all judgments and evaluations of another’s actions should come from a place of humility and care for that person rather than a place of haughty condemnation.
Someone who recognizes that they are a sinner saved by grace—in other words, they have had the log in their eye removed so that they can see clearly—should approach a fellow sinner with the humility of one who did not save themselves. In contrast, the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23–35 had an enormous debt forgiven, but rather than extend a mere fraction of the mercy he had received to his fellow servant, whose debt was miniscule in comparison, he chose to wickedly attack the one who owed him money. In the end, the King applied the same harsh measure to the wicked servant as the wicked servant applied to his fellow servant. When we judge another’s actions, we should do so knowing that our own hearts are capable of all kinds of evil.
- Fellow Christians are to be judged by a different standard than non-Christians.
This seems to be Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 5:12. Believers should not expect non- Christians to behave like they are Spirit-indwelt followers of Jesus. Indeed, they cannot (Hebrews 11:6). This does not mean that Christians can never claim that an unbeliever’s actions are sinful. Christians can still call a sin a sin, but we shouldn’t be surprised when an unbeliever acts like an unbeliever. The goal is to call them to repentance and faith in Christ. Christians, however, are to be held to the standard outlined in the New Testament. Still, when we need to correct a fellow believer, it should be done in humility and love. The goal is repentance and reconciliation not condemnation.
- Let the basis for our judgments be God and his revealed will in Scripture, not our own preferences and whims.
Scripture is to be our guide on what is and is not sin. God decides what is acceptable, not man. Some situations are not as clearly or specifically addressed in Scripture, so we should allow for latitude in such situations (Romans 14:2–4).
- The Golden Rule, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt 7:12), should be the ultimate guiding principle in our judgments.
A twisted reading of the Golden Rule could be used to say, “I never want someone to judge me, therefore I will never judge anyone,” but a more honest assessment of our own desires, at least as believers, should be that we do in fact want accountability when we stray. We want a humble brother or sister in Christ to gently and lovingly show us our sin and call us to repentance. Following the Golden Rule in our judgments safeguards us from haughty or aggressive condemnation.
Christians need not fear any and all evaluations, but we should take Jesus’s command, considered in context, seriously. “Judge not, that you be not judged.”