The most well know Bible verse for Christians is John 3:16. The most well know Bible verse for non-Christians is, “Do not judge.” The reason is not complicated. It is what our modern world has been saying for fifty years. If a mantra of the modern world is, “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”, the other side of this mantra is, “Get off my back and don’t judge me!” You have no right to speak any negatives into my life. And if you do, it is an abuse of power. It is a form of bullying. It is hate speech. How dare you tell me that I am wrong! How dare you tell anyone that they are wrong! In fact, there is no right or wrong, except for the fact that you can’t judge me. I must be true to myself. Your judgment stands in the way of my happiness.” And all these statements, by the way, feel like a whole lot of judgments.
Christians mimic the same mindset. Instead of being a light to the nations, we are more like a mirror. We reflect the trends in the modern world. So “Do not judge” is the ‘go-to’ verse for Christians who know they are sinning against God’s word and don’t want to repent. But it is also the ‘go-to’ verse for anyone feeling condemned by judgmental Christians.
Unlike the other mantras of the modern world that we have been looking at, this one actually is a Bible truth. Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. It’s meaning seems clear, and it comes with a warning. It is from Jesus himself.
But the situation is not as simple as it first seems. The command “Do not judge” is itself a judgment. And the Bible also says in 1 Corinthians 6:3, “Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” So can we—should we—judge others?
The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When Satan quotes the Bible to Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus responded by saying, “But the Bible also says …” Good Bible readers always want to know what else the Bible has to say on a topic. When we look at the whole Bible, we find that there is a right and a wrong way of judging others.
Here is the best explanation of “Do not judge others” that I can come up with: this judgment of others that Jesus warns us to avoid is a negative assessment of another person which is not based on truth, love, and humility.
We are commanded to discriminate. We must discern truth from lies. We must determine what is right and distinguish it from what is wrong. We must name sin, confess it, and correct and rebuke one another. We even must exercise church discipline.
The judging that is pleasing to God needs to meet three criteria: it must be based on truth, love, and humility.
(1) We must judge with truth
We can start here with the truth of the gospel. When we say, “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus”, we may be accused of being judgmental. But this is Jesus’ judgment, not ours. When we say this, we side with him. It is a judgment based on the truth of God’s word.
So when my niece said to me, “Uncle Ray, are you saying that I can’t go to heaven unless I believe in the Jesus of the Bible?”, I said to her, “That is right darling, but only because that is what Jesus is saying.” That may seem judgmental, but not according to God.
Equally, we judge wrongly if we say that something is a sin when it is not a sin. Religious cultures can create condemning communities by imposing man-made rules on people. For example, Matthew 15:6-9 gives us Jesus’ judgment on a judgmental culture that is based on something other than the truth of God’s word.
Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (NIV)
The church was very legalistic in the 1950s. Then people in the 1960s and 1970s reacted to the legalism of the 1950s. They said that Christians don’t have to read their Bibles every day. So by the time the 1990s, Christians were spiritually dying because they were not reading their bibles and praying at all. Now we are at the beginning of a new century, and we just find new ways to judge people inside the church. There is a Pharisee in each of us, looking to condemn others, especially in areas where the Bible is silent.
The context of the sermon on the mount has the religious Pharisees in the background. They took God’s good Old Testament law with its 613 commands, and then they built a thousand extra laws around each one. No one knows the experience of being judged more than Jesus. Think of Luke 6:1-2:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (NIV)
Jesus was condemned by the Pharisees, but it was a condemnation not based on the law of God, but upon the law of man. A true judgment that pleases God must be based on the truth of God’s word and not the tradition of men.
For another example, take fasting. I remember my sister being angry with me for eating an apple on Good Friday. In the Old Testament, God declared that there would be one day of fasting a year. Then at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees have come along and said that if you are truly spiritual, you would fast twice a week like us, on Mondays and Thursdays. They were laying down this law as a must for faithful Jews. And sadly the early church was not much better. In the first Christian manual for discipleship called ‘The Didache’, it laid down, “Don’t be like the hypocrites, who fast on Monday and Thursday. We will fast on Wednesday and Friday!”
Don’t misunderstand me: fasting is a wise practice. Whether it is food or social media, we should create space to focus on prayer to God. But I can’t lay down on you any law except what is found in God’s word. And fasting is not required by God.
Here is another two-sided example: some people require that all Christians must speak in tongues, but others forbid Christians from speaking in tongues. Both groups are judging without truth. We are to judge based on the truth of God’s word. Every experience, revelation, tradition, and thought is to be surrendered to God’s written word. Everyone has access to this truth. No one has the inside-run.
Growing up, I was told lots of stories about people, often children, experiencing visions of Mary, in places such as Fatima in Portugal, or Lourdes in France. When I became a follower of Christ, I had to make a judgment about these experiences. 1 John 4:1 tells us to test the spirits: “Dear friends, 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” (NIV). Not everyone who comes bringing a vision, dream, word, or experience is to be trusted just because they claim it is from the Lord. So this is what I did. The first question I asked myself is “Did the visions of Mary happen?” I read the original testimonies. They seemed to me like real experiences. So I said, “Yes, these things happened”. Then I asked myself a second question: “Did these experiences come from God or not?” I must test every spirit. As I read the accounts, the content of these revelations clearly focused on Mary and not on Jesus. I was encouraged to pray to Mary for her intercession for the world. So I concluded that these messages are not from God. This led to a third question: “If these experiences were not from God, then from where have they come? The answer is Satan, for Satan comes like an angel of light. The fruit of these visions was to steal glory from Jesus. I learnt that I am to be jealous for Jesus and his glory. What I couldn’t do was to sit on the fence.
Judgment by truth requires that we judge on facts and not on the basis of rumour. We can’t judge a person unless we have the relevant facts. Possessing only third-hand information should hold us back from making a judgment based on rumour or on incomplete information.
This is why we can’t judge other people’s hearts or motives, because these things are not known by us. Another person’s motives are off limits unless we are told them by the person—and even then we don’t know for sure. Think of 1 Corinthians 4:5:
Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (NIV)
God alone is the judge of the heart. He alone has access to our motives. We can judge words because God has spoken about them. We can judge actions because God has spoken about them. We can judge ideas and test them against scripture. But we can’t judge other people’s hearts.
It is lazy to judge the heart. We need to stick to specific behaviors, words, and actions. A person’s motives are off limits to us. We too easily look down on someone else and deem them less spiritual. We judge other people’s zeal based on externals, but we shouldn’t.
Think of hand-raising during singing in church. They are show-offs if they raise their hands. They are luke-warm if they don’t raise their hands. They are cowards if they don’t raise their hands high enough in praise to God. Apart from being profoundly superficial, Jesus’ word to us is “Don’t judge by externals.” Resist the urge to think that you are more spiritual than others based on externals. It is for Jesus to bring to light what is really going on in a person’s life.
(2) We must judge with love
This point is related to the first one, because love sides with the truth. So it is loving to judge only on the basis of truth. But our judgements must not only be true, but also must be based on love. There are two cases studies in the Bible for judgment in the church. They are found in 1 Corinthians 5 and Romans 14.
The first is in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. There, a man is sleeping with his stepmother. Instead of calling it out as sin and dealing with the matter, the Corinthian church was wrongly celebrating this man’s sexual ‘freedom’ in Christ. Paul wastes no time to say in verse 3: “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present” (NIV). Paul says the same thing in five different ways in 1 Corinthians 5:
- Verse 2: “Put out of your fellowship the man who did this”;
- Verse 5: “Hand this man over to Satan”;
- Verse 9: “[You are] not to associate with sexually immoral people”;
- Verse 11: “You must not associate with [such a person]”;
- Verse 13: “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
This is what is called the neglected grace of church discipline. In short, it is this: after teaching, warning, pleading, and urging someone about sin, if the person continues to justify sinful behavior by refusing to repent and call it sin, and if that same person persists in calling themselves a Christian, and if that same person also wants to experience normal fellowship, then something needs to give. They either must stop calling themselves a Christian, stop justifying their sin, or stop fellowshipping with us. For us at MBM, we make our ‘Growth Groups’ the place where we break fellowship and ask a person to leave. But notice that the reason for breaking fellowship is the key to understanding the whole process, 1 Corinthians 5:5:
[H]and this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (NIV)
The goal is to save the person. It may be tough love, but it is love. We are not a biker gang that breaks the legs of those who break the club rules. We are not the extended family where the uncles and aunts voted the man out of the family because he broke the family code. This action is done with grief and tears, and not out of revenge as a payback. It is about repentance and eternal salvation. The moment repentance happens, he is quickly welcomed back. So Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians about a person who appears to have sinned, and has been disciplined by the church, and has then repented, 2 Corinthians 2:7-8:
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. (NIV)
This judgment of church discipline is always driven by love. You can tell this by the way it is done, the tone in which it is done, and the goal for which it is done. But it must be done. We have ten marks of membership at MBM and this is one of them: a willingness to submit to church discipline.
The second case study, found in Romans chapter 14, is different to the one in 1 Corinthians 5. The issue in Romans 14 is, “How do we treat those at church with sensitive consciences who think something is wrong when its not?” There are Christians in that church who think that eating meat is a sin. It is easy for others who think differently to look down on them. Romans 14:2-3 sets the scene and tells us how to respond:
One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.
It is so important that we know where we are free and where we are not free. I’m free to eat meat. I’m free to not eat meat. But I’m not free to steal meat. And I’m not free to condemn another Christian whose conscience binds them to a man-made command to not eat meat. I’m free to teach that all food is clean. I’m free to speak out and say that the command to not eat meat is man-made, and it is not God’s command. But I’m not free to judge another Christian and condemn them because they feel that eating meat is a sin, although they are mistaken about this. For them it is sin, until they come to see that it is actually not a sin. Paul speaks to the conscience of the weak brother or sister, speaking the truth about the freedom we have to eat or not eat meat, but he won’t urge them to eat meat until they have been persuaded by God’s word, so that they can eat meat willingly and freely, and not offend against their weak consciences. Yet Paul still refuses to think that he is more spiritual than them. He refuses to use his freedom to trample over the consciences of others, because love is ruling over his words and actions. He and we must refuse to be the judge of the brother or sister with a weak conscience, Romans 14 verses 4 and 10:
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. […] You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. (NIV)
So we judge according to the truth, we judge according to love, and we also judge with humility.
(3) We must judge with humility
There is a time to teach and warn, to correct and rebuke, to confront and discipline. But our true posture is one of humility. We come to these tasks reluctantly. We come to them as sinners saved by grace. So how do we rebuke each other and not fall into this sin of looking down on others. We can only speak as those who know that their sin is bigger than the sin that is in others, Matthew 7:3-5:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (NIV)
The warning here is about having a judgmental spirit. The person who judges wrongly tends to overestimate the sins of others and underestimate their own sin. As a rule, whenever you speak to someone, always assume that you are the greater sinner. It has to be this way, because you live with you 24/7. You know what you think 24/7. You know what you say 24/7. You know what you do 24/7. You know the motives behind what you say and do. You must be aware that you see more of your sin than the sin of anyone else. It has to be that way. So when ever you speak to another, always assume you are the greater sinner. So it will always be a speck in your neighbour’s eye, and a plank in yours.
If we believed this, wouldn’t we all get along with each other so much better? Wouldn’t our relationships at work be different? Wouldn’t our marriages be better? Take that truth into your marriage and you will have a good marriage. We talk of my pain and their sin. It is rare to hear people taking about their sin and the other person’s pain.
I read a book on the humour of Jesus. It showed how funny Jesus can be. Imagine seeing two people approach each other: one has a telegraph pole sticking out of their eye and the other has an eyelash. Excuse me, but let me take out that disgusting eyelash out of your eye!
Its not that we don’t rebuke, but we do so as ones who know our sin more than anyone elses. We approach humbly. Remember, the principle is that the measure you use on others is the measure that will be used against you. Let’s end as we began, with Matthew 7:1-2:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (NIV)
This is a very serious matter. If it doesn’t expel you from heaven, it will cancel out what good works you have done. For God will judge your good works with the same criteria that you judge others. Are you sure you want him to do that? Make sure that it is right judgment on others, for your sake and theirs. Make sure your judgment is always based on love, truth, and humility.