One of the most common rebukes that we receive from irate readers is this: “Oh, you are judging!” Even more frequently is this charge levied from those seeking to justify aberrant and ungodly behaviors.
And if there is one passage in the Bible with which the critics are familiar, surely it is this one: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt. 7:1).
They have no clue as to what the biblical text means, but they know it’s there!
It is unfortunate that those who so flout this passage in such a careless fashion have not studied the broader biblical theme diligently. The truth is, this quibble, more often than not, is a mere defense mechanism that judges the alleged judge!
The most common word for “judge” in the Greek Testament is the verb
krino, found 114 times. It is rendered into English by a variety of terms (e.g., judge, determine, condemn, call in question, etc.). The word means to “select” and then to “come to a conclusion, make a determination.” Sometimes the idea relates to a conclusion about a specific act or a certain person.
The basic term is neutral in its character. Only the context can suggest either a positive or negative connotation.
Judging is not intrinsically evil. This is demonstrated by the fact that God judges (Heb. 12:23) and so does Christ (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:8).
The common retort to this, though, is this: “Yes, God and Christ have the right to judge. But we, who are but mere mortals, do not.”
That may sound noble, but it isn’t under-girded with scriptural evidence.
The truth of the matter is, judging is both condemned and commended in the Bible. It is prohibited and commanded.
But how can this be, if, as Christians commonly claim, the Scriptures are inspired by God, and thus do not contradict one another?
The answer is a very simple one. The concept of judging is employed in different senses in sacred literature.
When Is Judging Condemned?
There are several New Testament passages in which judging is cast into a sinister light. Let us consider but three of these for illustrative purposes. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ spoke thusly:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you use, it shall be measured unto you. And why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck from your eye; when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye; and then you will see clearly how to take the speck from your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:1-5).
Appropriate judging must be done sincerely and for the welfare of the individual. Obviously, the individual who pronounces judgment on another person, when he is personally guilty of equal (or even greater) transgressions, is not genuine in his censures.
Many of the Jews were of this hypocritical nature. While they condemned the gross wickedness of the pagans, they practiced identical breaches of fidelity (see Rom. 2:1-3).
Does this imply that one must be sinless before he can declare a judgment concerning another’s conduct?
No, it does not. Paul wasn’t sinless (Rom. 7:14ff; 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil. 3:12ff), but he didn’t hesitate to judge the flagrant fornicator who was disgracing the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:3).
The person who presumes to judge, however, must be a truly spiritual person (cf. 1 Jn. 1:7) with the good of others genuinely in view (cf. Gal. 6:1).
On another occasion, the Lord warned the Jews: “Judge not according to appearance?” (Jn. 7:24). Superficial judging is condemned. To judge someone, strictly on the basis of race, cultural background, unsubstantiated rumor, appearance, financial standing, etc., is wrong (cf. Lk. 10:25ff; 15:1ff; Gal. 2:11ff; Jas. 2:1ff).
In his sermon at Caesarea, Peter declared that God is no “respecter of persons.” The Greek term denotes an opinion formed on the basis of the face (i.e., appearance). The Lord doesn’t do that (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7). Neither should we.
Finally, James cautions:
“Speak not one against another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law: but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge. One only is the lawgiver and judge, even he who is able to save and to destroy: but who are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas. 4:11-12).
Here the inspired writer places judging within the framework of harsh, wounding language. The expression “speak against” renders the Greek
katalaleo, which means to slander, degrade, or insult. Some scholars suggest that it hints of being critical of the person in his absence (cf. William Barclay, The Letter of James, p. 13).
Certainly, there are back-stabbers who don’t have the courage to confront an adversary face-to-face (unlike Paul — Gal. 2:11). The malady rebuked in this context reflects an attempt to tear down rather than help.
Let it be made clear. The type of judging that is condemned in the New Testament is not the righteous exposure of error or wickedness or even the rebuke of a particular false teacher (see 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Rather, it consists of that which is done hypocritically, superficially and in hostility.
When Is Judging Commanded?
Earlier we cited John 7:24, where Christ cautioned: “Judge not according to appearance....” The balance of the verse (on the opposite side of an adversative particle) is seen in this command: “...but judge righteous judgment.”
The context has to do with an earlier miracle wherein Jesus had healed a lame man on the Sabbath day, and subsequently commissioned him to take up his bed and walk (Jn. 5:8). Because of this alleged violation of the Sabbath, and because the Lord claimed divine authority in the miraculous healing, the Jews sought to kill him (v. 18).
While it might have appeared that Christ initiated a violation of the Sabbath on that occasion, actually he did not. Jesus was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8). He had the perfect right to heal this man on that occasion.
And a higher goal was to be achieved by his command to the healed man. The Jews, however, saw only the superficial (the man carrying his pallet). They did not make a correct judgment regarding the significance of the event.
And so Christ admonished, “...but judge the righteous judgment.” The verb
krinete is present tense (sustained activity), imperative mood (command), thus, the sense is this. Practice judging of the righteous sort.
There is a principle here set forth. Judging (drawing correct conclusions) is not merely an option. It is an obligation. “Righteous” depicts both the character and the manner of the one who does the judging.
All of us make judgments regarding others. We are forced to every day. But those judgments should be rendered compassionately, in conformity with facts, and according to biblical truth.
Here is another example.
With reference to church disciplinary matters, Christians are to judge erring members. In a case relating to a brother who needed to be disfellowshipped, Paul asked: “Don’t you practice judging those who are within [the church]?” (1 Cor. 5:12).
The question is rhetorical, demanding a positive answer. The church is under obligation to judge its wayward members (1 Cor. 5:13b; Rom. 16:17; 2 Thes. 3:6ff). Elsewhere see our article on Church Discipline — A Tragic Neglect.
Judging by Our Example
Everyone judges — if he lives noble standards — regardless of how conscientiously he may claim otherwise.
For example, when we hold our conduct to a certain, divinely-prescribed standard, by the contrast of our example we judge those who refuse to yield to that standard. Note these points.
A strengthened form of the verb
katakrino, which signifies “to pronounce a sentence after a determination of guilt.” In Matthew 12:41-42, the term is used twice.
First, it is applied to the people of Nineveh. Then it is used regarding the Queen of the South. In both instances, the example of these people condemned the Jews of Jesus’ day, because in contrast, it cast them in an unfavorable light.
In a sense, these ancient citizens stood as judges of the rebellious Hebrews who crucified their own Messiah (see Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon, 2000, p. 519).
When Noah obeyed God by preparing the ark as he was commanded (cf. Gen. 6:22), he condemned (
katakrino) the generation with whom he was contemporary (Heb. 11:7). He judged them by obeying God — in vivid contrast to their disobedience!
There is a sense in which we should even judge ourselves.
In a letter to the Corinthian saints, Paul addressed some of the disorders associated with their observance of the Lord’s supper. For one thing, some were not focusing upon the meaning of this sacred event. They were not “discerning” (
diakrino; i.e., making proper judgments about the significance of the elements of bread and fruit of the vine). Thus, they were partaking in an unworthy fashion.
Those who acted in this irresponsible way brought divine “judgment” (
krima) upon themselves (see: 1 Cor. 11:27-29).
It is out of this background that the apostle exhorts: “But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged” (v. 31).
The meaning is this. If the Christian would evaluate his own conduct in the light of Scripture, draw proper conclusions relative to any misdeeds, and thus alter his behavior, he would not be subject to the disciplinary judgment that could issue from Christ.
An evaluation of the collected biblical evidence clearly demonstrates that the knowledgeable student of the Scriptures will not make such foolish statements such as: “It is wrong to judge.”
There is a wrong way to judge and surely the best of people err in this manner on occasion. But there are also right ways to judge, and these must not be neglected due to a misconception of what judging actually is.