One of the most frequent rebukes that we receive from irate readers is this: “Oh, you are judging!” 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 text means, but they know that it is there!
It is an unfortunate thing that those who so flaunt 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”; then to “come to a conclusion, make a determination” — sometimes with the added idea of relating that conclusion to 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.
That “judging” is not intrinsically evil 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 observation, though, is this: “Yes, God and Christ have the right to judge; but we, who are but mere mortals, do not.” While that may sound noble, it is not 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 of 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.
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 upon another, 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? It does not. Paul was not sinless (Rom. 7:14ff; 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil. 3:12ff), yet he did not 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). [Note: For the fuller context of this admonition, see below.] 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 does not do that (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7), and 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 do not 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 to 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.
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). On account 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), and 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), and thus 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: “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; indeed, we are forced to every day. But those judgments should be rendered compassionately and in conformity with the facts.
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”,“Church Discipline”).
Judging by Example
Everyone “judges” — if he lives noble standards — regardless of how conscientiously he may claim otherwise. When one holds his conduct to a certain, divinely-prescribed standard, by his example, he judges those who refuse to yield to that standard. Note these points.
A strengthened form of the verb krino is 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 of the Queen of the South. In both instances, the example of these people “condemned” the Jews of Jesus’ day, i.e., cast them in a 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 standing in vivid contrast to their disobedience!
There is a sense in which we 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 (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 “judge” his own conduct, i.e., evaluate it in the light of Scripture, draw proper conclusions relative to any misdeeds, and thus alter his actions, 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 also are right ways to judge, and these must not be neglected due to a misconception of what judging actually is.