The biblical phrase “Judge not, that you be not judged” and its more direct rendition, “Do not judge” has achieved a unique level of popularity within Western culture (Matt 7:1). These words seemingly validate modern self-expression. Perhaps more importantly, these words invalidate the mandates of our self-righteous friends. The moment, they whip out their judgmental ticket book, we can piously respond, “Don’t judge me.” Then, we go on, “Jesus calls you to love and accept me for who I am.”
Though Jesus’s words have taken up residence in our culture, they have often done so under false pretenses. The biblical context and the logical implications of these words, reveal that Jesus never intended for us to suspend all judgment. More importantly, he is also not condemning judgment within the context of interpersonal relationships. Rather Jesus’s words condemn hypercritical judgment. To “judge not” means we are to refrain from delighting in the needless and unscriptural criticism of others. But we can and must compare people’s actions to Scripture. Allow me to explain.
We know Jesus cannot stand in opposition to all judgement, for human life is predicated upon judgement. If Hank suspended all judgement when driving, eating, walking, and working, he would not live long. The person who eats moldy bread and fresh bread with the same gusto will be spending some quality time in the bathroom. Similarly, if Sally decides not to exercise judgment when choosing which side of the road to drive on, she will not make it work alive. And if Phil suspends judgement and plays video games instead of completing the prestation for work, his income will take a hit. We must make judgements to have full lives. We also know Jesus did not want us to live every day as if it were a “Yes Day” for he too exercised judgment when picking disciples, choosing locations for ministry, and even when eating. Matthew 7:1 cannot mean that all judgment is bad.
Can I Judge You?
But the words also should not by universally applied to interpersonal relationship. Jesus has not given us license to live life as we choose within the bounds of community. In verse 6 of Matthew 7, Jesus tells his followers to exercise judgement within the interpersonal context of evangelism. If a soul proves especially belligerent to the gospel, Jesus told his disciples to end the conversation with the wild dogs and disgusting pigs of the spiritual realm and move on. Then in verse 15, Jesus tells his listeners to beware of “false prophets,” noting “you will recognize them by their fruits (20).” Jesus calls his followers to examine their interpersonal relationship with pastors in light of God’s Word. Such evaluations undoubtedly produce judgements. In other words, Christian should respond very differently when encountering a pastor who faithfully preaches the Word and loving affirms the hurting teenager and a pastor who sleeps with his secretary and regularly defrauds his members. We are to praise the one and warn and condemn the other.
Though Westerners find the idea of interpersonal judgement distasteful at one level, they all implicitly affirm the need for it. Even the most secular among us condemns people who abuse children, rape women, and murder the elderly. I believe such judgements are good and just. But their existence again raises two question: “What do we mean when we say, “Do not judge?” and does it line up with what Jesus meant?
What We Mean
I suspect many of us appeal to the phrase “Do not judge me” not because we oppose judgment in a philosophical sense but because we oppose people judging us. In short, we use “Don’t Judge me” as an ethical get-out-of-jail free card the moment someone challenges a live decision. We could also say that we use the phrase as a simple defense of self-expression: namely, “what I like is right.”
What Jesus Means
Jesus never intended his words in Matthew 7:1 to be an uncritical defense of our self-expression, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather when Jesus tells the disciples not to judge he warns them to avoid hypercriticism, judgement that makes personal preference divine law. For example, the hypercritical person condemns his fellow church members because they have tattoos, own a T.V. or joined the wrong political party. Similarly, the person is quick to suspect that her pastor has abandoned the gospel because he changed the drapes from green to red. She knows that poor design choices reflect a poor walk with Jesus. The hypercritical spirit quickly condemns all who fail to achieve its standard with some whispered words and a haughty look. If the hypercritical person is honest, he or she often enjoys the failures of others because they give the hypercritical soul something to talk about that confirms their self-righteous impluses. This is the attitude that Jesus condemns in Matthew 7:1. When this person gets his engines revved up, we should quickly play the “Do Not Judge Me” card. But in so doing, we are not calling for the abolishment of all judgement but rather for biblical judgment.
Jesus wants our interpersonal judgment to be fused with his understanding of truth and applied with mercy and forgiveness. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful for the shall receive mercy.” The context of Scripture clearly indicates that these statements are not conditional but revelatory. In other words, we don’t show mercy to get mercy. But if we have experienced the mercy and forgiveness of God, we will extend that mercy and forgiveness to others. If we perpetually refuse to extend mercy and forgiveness to the kids running in the hall and mercy to the lady with the tattoos, we show ourselves never to have experienced the mercy of God. One day very soon, God will judge us with the judgement with which we have judged others. While we can only see in-part, God sees in the whole. He knows each time the hypercritical person broke his own rules running through church in his younger years or watching T.V. while at his favorite restaurant. The merciless judgement with which we condemn others with will be applied to us a million-fold. “Judge not, that you not be judged.”
Jesus’s command to “Do not judge” should not be seen as a divine call to suspend all judgement. The believer should exercise discernment when eating, when talking with her parents, and when attending church. The believer should choose not to walk with the ungodly and should avoid the seat of scoffers. But she must do so graciously and lovingly. As Jesus notes in Matthew 7:5, the Christian is to deal with her own sins before straining at the imperfections in another. But still she must help her brother caught in sin once she has dealt with her own sin. Godly criticism should lead to restoration. But when her criticism expands beyond the pages of Scripture and makes her preferences about food, dating, entertainment, organization, and church polity matters of salvation, she becomes guilty of hypocritical judgement. She has created laws where mercy and grace should abound.
Good judgement depends upon mercy and forgiveness. To display such judgement requires great wisdom which requires much prayer. May God help us all to not be hypercritical.