To Judge or Not to Judge

In the spring of 1968, a small group of French college students began a protest that quickly grew into the largest national strike in French history. Riots, protests and strikes brought the French government to the edge of collapse. Although protestors failed to achieve their immediate demands, they set the stage for a new age of liberalism and moral lawlessness that now dominates French culture. During the riots, the French landscape was littered with graffiti touting the anarchist and anti-religious motives behind the rebellion. While many quotes from that time would make most people blush, one battle cry of the rioters has unfortunately become the mindset of people everywhere, including those who consider themselves to be religious. Sadly, Il est interdit d’interdire (“It is forbidden to forbid”), in one form or another, is the rallying cry of so many today in the religious world, even among the churches of Christ.

Of all the teachings and sayings of Christ, one of the most well-known is, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Mt. 7:1). Often, when sin is rebuked, there will follow an accusation of being judgmental and a quotation of Matthew 7:1 by the one being rebuked. Many people have not read this passage in its proper context, and they use it (as well as other passages) entirely inappropriately. I used to think this was an argument employed by worldly people and denominations, but I have heard individuals and groups within the Lord’s Church also resort to this tactic in recent years. So we have some important questions before us: When is it appropriate to judge someone else? When is it appropriate to judge a group of people, such as a congregation or a religious body? Is it ever allowed for humans to judge humans? As with all important questions, we should turn to the Word of God to find our answers and our guidance.

As we begin to examine what Scripture says about judging, we need to begin by defining “judge.” Among several Greek words translated “judge,” the Greek word krino is by far the most common. It is employed by New Testament writers well over 100 times. Vine’s briefly defines all the actions of the word krino as follows: “Primarily denotes to separate, select, choose; hence to determine, and so to judge, pronounce judgment” (432).

According to the Louw & Nida Greek-English Lexicon, the word can have multiple meanings, including: “to decide, prefer, evaluate, hold a view, make a legal decision, condemn, or rule.” Perhaps Louw & Nida have the simplest and most succinct definition of the word: “To come to a conclusion in the process of thinking and thus to be in a position to make a decision—to come to a conclusion, to decide, to make up one’s mind”(30.75, 359).

We can see from these definitions that judgment is first of all a decision of what is right. Peter and John challenged the Jewish leaders to make a decision, or a judgment, in Acts 4:19 when they said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.” We also see from the definition of krino that judging is not just a decision, but a decision that can lead to a separation. When we determine what is right, we implicitly determine what is wrong and thus separate right from wrong. On the great Day of Judgment, Christ will determine who has followed the will of God and who has not. Afterwards, He will separate the righteous from the wicked for all eternity (Mt. 25:33-46).

Along with understanding what it means to judge, we should also realize that judgment and judging are not inherently evil. Some people speak of judging as though it was sinful in and of itself, much like lying. Such is clearly not the case, since we see both God and Christ pass judgment (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:8; Heb. 12:23; 13:4). In truth, the Scriptures reveal to us there are times when judging is not only allowed and appropriate, but required! We must be careful though, because there are certainly situations in which we could easily sin by judging inappropriately. One needs to think of judging much like anger. The Bible instructs us to “Be angry, and do no sin” (Eph. 4:26), teaching us there is a time and place to be angry, but we can also commit sin in our anger if we are not careful. Judging is very similar. There are times and situations that necessitate judgment, but we should be careful followers of God’s Holy Word, always ensuring our judgment is done appropriately and at the right time.

To Judge

Let us consider when it is appropriate to judge. We know such times exist because Jesus instructed us to, “judge with righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24). First of all, we must practice judging when another Christian sins against us. Jesus sets forth the procedures for dealing with a sinning brother in Matthew 18:5-7. Jesus made it very clear—when a brother sins against us we go to that brother and tell him his sin. If the brother repents, all is well. If not, then we take two or three witnesses with us, rebuke the brother again, and if he still does not repent, then the matter should go before the church. The act of judgment is implicitly taught throughout this passage. To determine whether a brother or sister has sinned against us, we must judge. In fact, if a sinning brother refuses to repent, throughout the process we will judge them guilty of sin, we and a few witnesses will judge them guilty of sin, and the whole congregation will judge them guilty of sin. If it is always wrong to judge another person, then Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 was a waste of time! His commands cannot be followed without judging. But we must remember the purpose of the judging is to win the lost brother. We do not pass judgment to hurt them, to get back at them, or to feel justified. We judge they are guilty of sin, we rebuke them, and we hope they will see their error and repent.

We also see Paul instructed the Corinthians to judge immoral members of the congregation. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebuked the congregation for how they were handling an immoral brother. They were tolerating a brother’s immorality and sin–they were not judging him! Paul rebuked their tolerance, and demanded that they deliver the sinner to Satan, or in other words withdraw fellowship from him. Paul even asked the rhetorical question in verse 12, “Do you not judge those who are inside?” The purpose of judging the sinner was two-fold: 1) to show the sinner his error that he might repent, and 2) to protect the rest of the congregation from the sinner’s evil influence. Many people today balk at the idea of church discipline, accusing leaders of being judgmental. The reality is that Christians and congregational leaders must judge those living in sin to protect the flock and hopefully save the sinner.

In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul commanded the brethren to withdrawal from those that walked disorderly, or those who were not willing to labor for their food. Paul rebuked such slothful brethren and encouraged them to change their ways. He made it clear, however, until such individuals changed their ways they were to be withdrawn from and they were not to be supported or encouraged in their sin. Paul’s instructions seem harsh and would likely be labeled as judgmental today, but in truth his instruction was given so that disorderly brethren might be taught to act and live appropriately as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 15).

New Testament writers also instructed multiple audiences to judge divisive brethren and false teachers. Paul told the Romans to mark and avoid individuals that caused division and taught things which contradicted what the Romans had already heard (Rom. 16:17). Paul instructed Timothy to withdrawal from those who “taught otherwise” (1 Tim. 6:5), and to turn away from those who “resisted the truth” (2 Tim. 3:5). Titus was exhorted to take steps to “stop the mouths” of insubordinate deceivers (Tit. 1:10-11), and to “reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition” (Tit. 3:10). John commanded Christians to not greet or receive into one’s house an individual who did not bring the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 1:10-11). All the commands of the New Testament writers (mark and avoid, reject, stop the mouths of, turn away from, withdraw from, do not receive) require judgment on the part of faithful Christians. The truth of God’s Word rings very clear—when someone teaches things concerning salvation, worship, morality, and righteousness that differ from God’s Word, they are to be rejected, which requires judgment.

Let us consider an example from the life of our Lord to teach us about judging. In the opening verses of John 8, we find a beautiful little story about the mercy of Christ concerning an adulterous woman. A woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus by the Scribes and Pharisees. They asked Jesus if the woman should be stoned as the Law commanded. The truth was the leaders were not concerned with justice; they were trying to trap Jesus. As always, Jesus handled the situation expertly, and defeated the erroneous and pompous rulers. Jesus told the people that whoever was without sin should throw the first stone. Guilt stricken, the leaders sheepishly slipped away one by one, realizing they had been called on the carpet for their own misdeeds. When Jesus looked up, seeing her accusers gone, he asked the woman, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” When the woman confirmed no one had condemned her, Jesus stated, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Many people point to this story and say, “See, Jesus was not judgmental. He was merciful to this woman!” Jesus was most definitely merciful to the woman, but the truth is He also judged her. When Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more He implied that she had sinned by committing adultery. He did not gloss over her sin or justify her sin. He judged that she had sinned, issued a rebuke, and instructed her to change and do better. That is exactly what Christian judgment is to be like. It is a rebuke of sin and an exhortation to change.

Not to Judge

There are times when judgment can be wrong and sinful, and the New Testament teaches us about such occasions. Unfortunately, many people look to these condemned forms of judgment and erroneously apply their banishment to all forms of judging. We should study these sinful forms of judging within their proper context and make sure we avoid such error.

First, the New Testament clearly condemns hypocritical judging. Hypocritical judgment is what Jesus taught against in Matthew 7. While many people want to stop after Mt. 7:1, we must read the next several verses to fully understand the scope of Christ’s teaching. Jesus was teaching against people that busied themselves with finding all the minor flaws of others, while they themselves had major spiritual problems. To exemplify His point, Jesus painted the picture of a man with a beam, or a board, protruding from his eye trying to pick out a speck of dust in another man’s eye. Obviously, such a scene is absurd! There are a couple of important things to notice within this teaching of our Lord. First of all, we see that God is angered when we judge others for sins that we are also committing. Paul discussed this idea in Romans 2:1-3. What if a man who judged and harshly rebuked another man for watching an inappropriate movie was actually guilty of adultery himself? Well the man would be a hypocrite, and he would be guilty not only of adultery, but of hypocritical judgment. We should always be careful to make sure we are doing our very best to lead the righteous lives God requires before we go rebuking and judging others. On the other hand, it is important to note Christ never said that the hypocrite’s judgment was untrue. The fact that the man with the beam in his eye was not qualified to remove the speck from his brother’s eye did not mean the speck did not exist. Many people try to justify their sin by pointing out that others who rebuke them are guilty of sin themselves. Whether or not our accusers are hypocrites, if what they rebuke us for is true we should take that chastisement to heart. With regard to our previous example, an adulterous man might be hypocritical to judge a man who watches inappropriate movies, but the man who watches those movies is still guilty. Notice in Jesus’ illustration the speck still needed to be removed. Later, Jesus would even teach the multitudes to observe what the Pharisees taught for it was the truth, but to avoid following their examples for they were hypocrites (Mt. 23:1-3)

Secondly, we find that superficial and partial judgment is condemned. Jesus instructed, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24). James taught against showing preference or judging people based upon their status or wealth (Jam. 2). We should never judge based upon a person’s wealth, gender, status, or physical attributes. We should never be lenient with friends and family, and then take a hard line with others over the same issues. We must realize sin is sin, and false doctrine is false doctrine. If our children, siblings, parents, or friends partake in evil or begin teaching error, we must judge them the same as we would any other Christian.

Finally, we find that the New Testament banned judgment in the case of liberties. Paul wrote extensively to the Roman and Corinthian congregations about liberties. Confusion and strife over liberties was apparently as much a problem then as it is now. Liberties are things in life that do not bring an individual closer to God, and they do not move a person further away from God. Paul referred frequently to the example of meats to illustrate his point. The eating of meats does absolutely nothing to or for an individual, spiritually speaking. Eating meats could however bring about doubt and a troubled conscience for certain individuals, such as a Jew that had grown up eating only “clean” animals, or a gentile who had formerly eaten meats as a part of their idolatrous rituals. Others might be able to eat any kind of meat, understanding that doing so had no spiritual significance. What the Holy Spirit calls for in these instances is for both sides to be understanding. The brother with the weaker conscience should not judge the brother that eats meat, and the brother that eats meat should not judge the one who does not (Rom. 14:3). In addition, the “stronger” brother should decide (or judge) to not act in a way that causes his “weaker” brother to stumble (Rom. 14:13). Paul wrote similar instructions to the Colossians in Colossians 2:16.

It is vitally important for us to realize matters of liberty are not matters of doctrine. So many people run to Romans 14 to prove that others have no right to judge them. They bring up verses ten and thirteen saying, “Why do you judge your brother? Don’t you know we should stop judging one another?” But Paul was not speaking about doctrinal matters in Romans 14. Paul was not saying we cannot judge one another in matters of doctrinal error. Paul was not prohibiting us from judging one another when someone corrupts the worship of God. Paul was not banning the judgment of immoral individuals, false teachers, or divisive people. Paul was rebuking judgment in matters of liberty. As Paul and the other New Testament writers made abundantly clear through the rest of the Scriptures, we are not only allowed to judge others when they are guilty of sin and false doctrine, we are required to do so.

Nobody enjoys being wrong and no one likes being judged. As Christians, though, we must get over this philosophy that no one has the right to judge us. We cannot reject every admonition and rebuke sent our way because we feel our chastiser is too judgmental. When there is error in our life, we need to be rebuked, and when we see sin and error in the life of others we need to rebuke them. Christians must be able to decide, or judge, what is truth and what is error. Once that judgment is made, Christians have a duty to rebuke and admonish those that might be partaking in sin or false doctrine. Hopefully, if the admonition is given in love and a proper spirit, the sinning brother or sister will understand their error and repent.


Article by: Nate Bibens