It is a weary battle to be criticized as being judgmental every time a statement about some sort of moral issue is made. More and more, it seems that the greatest sin in the world is to take part in the ill-defined activity of “being judgmental.” What is unique about this accusation is that the accusers are under the impression that they are quoting the Bible by throwing up this meaningless phrase as a defense. My purpose here is two-fold: I want to both provide a better understanding of the Biblical teachings regarding “judgements” and also to help offer some ideas of how to answer quickly and effectively.
The verse which reads “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1, ESV) is a favorite among those who would prefer to live their lives in whatever manner they please and, to put it frankly, not feel bad about it. Recent cultural issues that have arisen include the heated debates of homosexuality and related issues. In fact, sexual immorality of all types is a heavy topic of our culture wars. But the so-called “gay issue” is recently trendy. Let’s give an easy example. Over at the leftist “Christian” website Sojourners, Joe Kay recently wrote:
One of my favorite quotes of 2013 comes from Pope Francis. Asked what he would say about a member of the Catholic clergy who is gay, he responded with a question of his own.
“Who am I to judge?” Francis replied.
A good question for all of us, no?
We will come back to some good responses to that question, as it is a popular way of challenging those of us who want to speak truth about God’s standards of morality. For now, we immediately note the ease with which “judging” is connected to questions of sin. Notice that these folks on the liberal end of “Christianity” never say that homosexuality is not a sin. Many liberals do believe that it is not a sin, but it is interesting that their immediate response is one of moral relativism. They find it easier to take a position of non-commitment than to take a stand on either side. Generally, the mast majority of people today are afraid to take a “black or white,” “yes or no,” “true or false” viewpoint on anything. Well, not anything, as we will see below.
At any rate, the question is whether or not judging should be used in this way and whether or not the Christian should judge at all. First of all, it is fascinating that there are just as many non-Christians than Christians (I want to stress how loosely I am using the label “Christian” here) who use Matthew 7:1, or a version of it, to defend their position. I mean, why in the world would they use a statement out of a book that has zero authority to them? They do not consider themselves believers and yet they run to such a verse because it is locked and loaded in their brains whenever they have a need to justify their actions. God’s Words mean nothing to them and yet, for the sake of self-justification, they scream out a phrase that they are sure is there, somewhere. But could they even find this verse in the Bible? Are they sure it is there?
Moreover, we ought to ask them what sort of exegesis led them to interpret this verse in such a broad way. Could they even answer that? What does “judging” mean in this verse and are there any other uses of the word judge? My point is not merely to make them look like fools, but we need to be aware of the circumstances of their own logic if we are to provide some answers. And if they aren’t really sure or have never considered it, we surely need to be ready on our end to give a response. What does judging mean and what was Jesus really saying here?
Any basic overview of the New Testament will reveal that we are to be able to determine right from wrong and we are commanded to “test every spirit.” This requires good judgement. If judging means to form an opinion or make a decision, not only is it utterly impossible to not judge, it is wrong. It is impossible not to judge because it is the way our minds function when we consider everything we see. We are approving or disapproving activities every day, wherever we go. It is wrong not to judge because to suppress these ethical considerations is to implicitly approve of all actions –evil or otherwise. If you deny the necessity of determining right from wrong, you are denying that there is something worth disapproving. Thus, murder, rape, and all sorts of other atrocities are at the same moral level as eating a sandwich if there is no judgements made. And do not those who point out that we are judging also judge in saying this? To hold the opinion that someone is judging, or that judging is wrong, is self-contradictory.
But pragmatism aside, the Bible also has some things to say about “right judgements.” John 7:24 is clear that there are good judgements and bad judgements. John encourages us to steer clear of focusing on the wrong issues and rather exercise “right judgement.” Proverbs 31:9 tells us that we ought to “judge righteously” and the whole plethora of verses in the New Testament telling us to recognize evil doings insinuates that we should be familiar with the appropriate standards of right and wrong. How can we “withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly” (2 Thess 3:6) if we cannot tell what constitutes as disorderly? Clearly, some sort of judgement is needed. If Ephesians 4:15 commands us to speak the truth in love, then we should realize that we have the means by which to know truth. That means, as we discuss often on this site, is the Bible. The Bible is Truth because it is the Word of God. It is by this truth that we can know right and wrong. This truth is the foundation for the responsibility in 1 Thess 5:21 to “test everything and hold fast to what is good.” We can use judgement to recognize this right and wrong in our life.
What then should we say of Matthew 7:1? Immediately, we should point out that no verse exists in a vacuum. Every sentence, statement, and phrase has a context. The attempt to draw a lesson from a popular verse without an awareness as to its context is misguided. To quote Matthew 7:1 without reading at least the next four verses will surely get us into trouble. Upon reading through verse five however, we learn that Jesus is warning us against judging hypocritically. If we are guilty of the same sin and have not taken any measures to deal with this sin, how dare we take it upon ourselves to focus on another? How dare we overlook our own failures in this area for the sake of condemning our neighbors?
Moreover, the type of judgement here meant is different. Why should we assume that the use of the word judgement here nullifies commands against sinning elsewhere in the Scripture? A command against “judging thy neighbor” cannot possibly mean that there is no such thing as sin. The type of judgement here mentioned is one of condemnation of a person, not determination of the rightfulness or wrongfulness of a deed. Thus, if it is said that homosexuality is a sin, or those practicing homosexual behavior are sinning, these are very different claims than stating that the person himself must be condemned. It is interesting that that the Greek word for judge here in Matthew 7:1 is κρίνω (krinō) while the word used for “discern” in Matthew 16:3 is διακρίνω (diakrinō). Krinō has the immediate meaning of separating and choosing and approving of the person, which, quite clearly, is God’s role as the one true Judge. Thus, it is obvious why Jesus chose this word to tell his disciples not to judge! But we must never impute the meaning of diakrino into this text because diakrino has an entirely different meaning: to make a distinction or to discern. It is this word that would best describe what is going on when we determine and recognize right and wrong actions in the world. It is this word which describes what we are doing when we say: those practicing homosexuality are sinning. And then we might add: But God will judge (krinō) the soul.
So then, how should we respond to those who flee toward the misuse of Bible verses as catch phrases? What is our immediate reaction to the Pope? It would have been far easier if he had made the claim: homosexuality is not a sin. But instead, he, and so many others, opt for the appearance of pietism by stating that they have no right to judge. As it so happens however, our inability to condemn a person has little to do with our responsibility to call out sin and recognize it for what it is. When we point out that anything is a sin, not just homosexuality although this happens to be the most pressing issue today, we should expect to hear the Pope’s words shot toward us: “who are you to judge?” Or perhaps: “who made you king?”
The brilliance of the Protestant and Reformed understanding of the Bible and its relation to the Christian life is that none of us are judges and none of us are kings. And yet, we have the very Word of the true Judge Himself. The reason why I mentioned our protestantism is to differentiate between the authority on which we rest and the authority on which all other religions rest –specifically the Roman Catholics. Every single Christian is allowed to –no, supposed to –use the Bible as His standard for all things. In it are the Judge’s very words! His very will! His very standard! We are not the Judge and it is not on our own authority that we speak or discern right from wrong. We are merely communicators and presenters of the truth. When we cite 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as an example of a list of sins which God abhors, we are not resting on our own testimony in the least. The wrongfulness of an action or mindset (for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin) does not depend on us being judge. Rather, it depends on God being Judge. He is our authority. We as believers are all priests and we have His word which we use as a sword to determine right and wrong. We as believers all have the Word of God and we may profit from it individually. Such a doctrine is foreign in the Roman Catholic Church which maintains that it alone can interpret the Bible.
When we hear the words shot back in our face: “who are you to judge,” we must answer in love and in truth. Our response must never be heated, but full of patience and understanding. Did not God gracefully save us as well? But we must point out that: “I am not condemning the sinner, but am affirming the standard that God has provided in the Bible. He is the Judge, I am simply communicating what His word says.” It is interesting that the next line of argumentation usually used in response to this is: “well how do you know what God says?” The reason that this is interesting is that their entire mindset that no one is allowed to judge is based on Bible too. The only difference is that we have taken the time to exegete the Scriptures.
Who am I to judge? I am a child of God and I speak not on my own authority as judge, but on behalf of my Father, who not only wrote the law, but is also the Judge. Perhaps RC Sproul Jr. said it best in reference to the claim that Christians are always so judgmental: “Could it be that Christians are so judgmental because we are called to warn people of the judgment to come?”
We live in an era where no one wants to feel bad about their actions. They want to live their lives as they please and their deepest desire is to get away with it and feel no shame. They actively seek the approval of others and are irritated by those who do not approve of their lifestyles. The fact that they work so hard to distance themselves from anyone who might disagree with their actions proves that their consciences testify against them. They know, deep down they know. They need the approval of others because those who do not approve drive them crazy. Their souls cannot be at rest when they live their lives so contrary to God’s purposes. The reader is perhaps aware of the “anti-shaming” movements. Nobody likes to be called out for dressing provocatively, struggling with obesity, being irresponsible with finances, watching bad movies, listening to bad music, spending time with bad company. Thus, they will cry out “stop shaming me!” This is a terrible development from a time when we could hold each other accountable in society without being told that we are “hating” on people. Brothers and sisters, let us not be so easily offended! Be humbled by God and fall prostrate on the floor below His holy presence. Submit yourself to His Word. Preach it to yourself and to all who would listen. And when the response from the world is one of animosity, pray for them.
They know not what they do.