Judge Not?


In the midst of debates over moral issues it’s common to hear someone say, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Ironically, the people most frequently proclaiming this verse are non-Christians, angrily using Jesus’ words to silence Christians who disagree with their lifestyle or agenda. Because we do not want to unnecessarily hurt other people, we might wonder: is Jesus really telling us to never judge anything or anyone?

As we look beyond the first verse we see that the problem is not with judgment itself: it’s why and how we judge. First, we must avoid becoming what Martin Luther sarcastically calls “Mr. Self-conceit, who is not liked either by God or the world, and yet is to be found everywhere.” Such a person can be found, he says, wherever “every one is satisfied only with what he does himself, and whatever others do must stink.” When we engage in such judgmentalism we are inflating our self-esteem and pride, about which Evagrius of Pontus (fourth-century Christian) says, “Self-esteem gives rise in turn to pride, which cast down from heaven to earth the highest of the angels.”

Secondly, the judgments we make must not be contaminated with our own hypocrisy. We are hypocrites when we focus on the mere”speck” of another person’s sin, while ignoring the gigantic, log-sized sin in our own lives (Matthew 7:3-5). John Chrysostom asks this, “So then, you who are so spiteful as to see even the little faulty details in others, how have you become so careless with your own affairs that you avoid your own major faults… So if you are really motivated by genuine concern, I urge you to show this concern for yourself first, because your own sin is both more certain and greater.”

We should always keep in mind that true judgment looks not only at sinfulness, but also at the good others do. Basil the Great, one of the most notable Christians of the fourth century, gives this advice for accurately judging others, “If you see your neighbor sinning, take care not to dwell exclusively on his faults. Try to think of the many good things he has done and continues to do. Many times when we do this, we come to the conclusion that our neighbor is a far better person than we are.”

At the same time, while we should look at others with love, this does not mean we accept or affirm all thoughts and actions. Matthew clearly demonstrates that Jesus is not forbidding judgment of any kind with verse six, where our Lord warns against giving holy things or pearls to dogs and swine, who will attempt to harm you and destroy the holy pearls. Augustine says, “We may rightly understand these words (dogs and swine) are now used to designate respectively those who assail the truth and those who resist it.” When encountering such people, Luther adds, we should “separate ourselves from him as we do from these factious spirits, and to have no fellowship with them, and administer no sacrament to them, impart no gospel consolation to them, but show them that they are not to enjoy anything of Christ: our treasure.” This is in keeping with other biblical passages, such as 1 Corinthians 5:11, 13, which make it clear that we are both to judge and to act in accordance with that judgment (and 1 John 4:1-6 even extends this to judging spirits).