Unwinding the “judge not” knot

“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” ~Jesus (Matthew 7:1)

“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” ~Jesus (John 7:24)

“Judge not.” ~Everyone else and their third cousin

There is perhaps no more oft used biblical verse–and nearly always used wrongly–than Matthew 7:1.

2 Chronicles 7:14? A contender, but no. Jeremiah 29:11? Nope. They are used wrongly by Christians often, but Matthew 7:1 is misused by believers and non-believers alike. Repeatedly. As in, all the time.

It is sometimes shortened to “Judge not,” as if that clears things up. It’s a meme for theological fragmentation. We have pieced together from theology garments so threadbare “judge not” leaves us shivering.

If “one verse in Leviticus” is used by believers to bludgeon unbelievers, “judge not” is the dagger used on the unwitting by unbelievers and believers alike.

judge not lest ye be judged

Domenico Fetti’s 16th century work, The Parable of the Mote and the Beam

Here are a few things to remember when confronted with this verse or a fragment thereof:

Identifying sin is not reserved for sinless people. If it was, Jesus would not have commanded us to judge; no, not ever. Jesus expects His followers to recognize sin, warn people to avoid it and avoid it ourselves.

This means the “Who am I to judge?” canard is without scriptural merit. Often followers of Jesus use this as an excuse to not deal with our own sin, but this will not wash. Yes, “I sin, too,” but that realization should lead to confession and repentance, rather than be a barrier to helping others.

Not judging can cut both ways. When a person says “judge not” they often are 1) making a judgment themselves, 2) concluding that you have judged wrongly, and 3) ignored the possibility their own admonition could be erroneous. Such judgments hold little weight. When “judge not” becomes an excuse to continue in sin the scripture is stripped of efficacy.

Jesus commands us to judge rightly. There is a biblical standard by which all motives and actions are judged. No human can infallibly determine the motives of another. Judging motives is dangerous business and should be left to God. Making a judgment that stealing, murder, adultery, taking God’s name in vain, lying, and the like are wrong, however, is rightly judging. Jesus commands rather than forbids righteous judgment.

Jay Sanders notes the context of “Judge not lest ye be judged”: Jesus is forbidding the self-righteous variety of judging. This is the real crux of the problem: duplicity. As often as revealing another’s sin, judging may reveal our own hypocrisy. When I attempt to point out the sin of another while committing sin myself (the mote and the beam), I am a hypocrite. It doesn’t mean the judgment is wrong in itself; it does mean I stand to be condemned for my own sin.

In John 5:30 Jesus explains a basis for judging rightly, “My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (NKJV, emphasis mine). My gut-check is whether my will aligns with the Father’s will.

“Fruit inspecting” is a form of judging. A less well-known New Testament verse is, “You will know them by their fruits.” In other words, you can determine whether a person is an authentic follower of Jesus by watching how they live. For Jesus, a person’s actions revealed truth more than their words. Judging is not commanded in this verse, but it is implied, and clearly so. Scripture as the basis of inspecting the fruit is also implied. Wisdom dictates fruit inspecting should be done with care so as not to bruise the apples.

Followers of Jesus should not be scared off by the crowd squawking “judge not” like a pandemonium of drunken parrots. Nor should we rush in where angels fear to tread, since our judgement is not infallible. Instead let us judge righteously, ever mindful the Judge of all the earth does right, and that He alone is the lawgiver who is able to save and destroy.

(Much more could be written about this subject. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 should be studied in depth.)

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Paul Scott Pruett

    Many who appeal to this verse do so as a cover for some particular behavior that is under dispute. But it seems to me that doing so concedes that there is indeed something wrong with the behavior, and one simply ought not judge it. Why appeal to this if you believe the thing in question to above reproach? Added to this is the half truth that we, as sinners ourselves, are not qualified to judge the behavior in question. This naturally leads to the question, “Would it be appropriate for Jesus to judge you in this?” To answer “yes” is to admit defeat. To answer “no” is to surrender either the verse or orthodoxy.

  • I would like to have seen a bit more about the nuance of the word judge and how it has not translated well in a culture that hears Christians talk about judging as in “condemnation.” Yes, everyone judges. But one way to describe how it gets translated in practice might be to talk about the way one NBA Championship Team is judged by another. Or, how LeBron James is judged by the standard of Michael Jordan. There are plenty of other illustrations. We could talk about how cuisine is judged. If you get to describe a plate of food as cuisine, generally judging is based on presentation and flavor. But, to choose one over the other does not imply condemnation. Too often, what those outside, and even those inside hear, is, “you are condemning me.” I think that is on us, Christians.

    If we stayed with that imagery, we could talk about judging as between ways that bring health and peace vs. those that do not. Here we would all fall under the sort of judgement that captures the aim of the text to challenge self-righteousness where condemnation is surely in view.

    Good post as always . . .

    • martyduren

      Yes, that nuance is important. Thx for bringing it into the conversation.

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