by John W. Ritenbaugh
The subject of judging often seems very difficult to grasp. Some use the term "judge" in a generalized way, making assertions such as, "We shouldn't judge one another." Is this true? If we took this to an extreme, we could make no evaluation of whether a person's conduct is acceptable to God, society or ourselves. Such a totally non-judgmental atmosphere would generate such tolerance that it would be hazardous to life and limb. Nothing would be called into question. Nothing would be wrong.
God never intended any such thing when Jesus said, "Judge not that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). Again, if taken to an extreme, a person's example, whether good or bad, would have no power to influence behavior in others. Before determining whether we want to imitate or reject how another person acts, we must evaluate—judge—his conduct.
All the nuances of this sometimes complex subject cannot be addressed in a brief article. However, we can clear up some misunderstandings by comparing a few scriptures and defining certain words where appropriate.
Judgment is the noun form of the verb "to judge." According to Webster's New World Dictionary, it means "a legal decision, order, decree or sentence given by a judge or law court." This has a number of biblical applications and practical ramifications regarding our conduct. Another facet of judgment is "the ability to come to opinions about things; power of comparing and deciding." In this meaning, synonyms include "discernment," "sagacity" and "good sense."
In a circumstance for which no specific law exists, judgments are usually made on the basis of previously existing laws and/or principles. A clear example of this involved Zelophehad's daughters in Numbers 27:1-11. When Zelophehad died, he left five daughters but no sons. Israel had no specific inheritance laws covering such a circumstance, and Moses did not know what to do. He took it to God and received a judgment. From that point on, that judgment became the law of the land.
God used existing principles involving the closeness of blood relationships, establishing a progressive sequence to cover inheritance. His judgment became the law of the land. He also employed all of the above definitions. He understood the circumstance, compared the various existing principles with the new situation and wisely made a decree covering this specific instance. Undoubtedly, it became a precedent for subsequent cases.
Judging is the act—the process—of seeing, hearing, reading, sifting, calculating, reckoning, comparing and evaluating evidence for reaching or determining an opinion or decision. It is one of the most commonly occurring acts in life. In a wide variety of situations, we perform such a process many times a day. We do it so frequently and automatically that we rarely stop to consciously think of the numerous evaluations we make in comparing quality, cost, value, safety, danger, ethics or morality.
From the time we arise in the morning to begin the day, our minds are processing information to determine what we should do, in what order we do it, how well we do it and if we will complete it. The process of judging leads to personal judgments, which, in reality, are and become the beliefs, opinions, preferences and convictions underlying our choices.
How could we possibly not perform such a vital function of life? Taken to an extreme, not to do so would be to drop out of life itself! The very quality of life here and now largely depends upon the quality of our judgments. The better prepared we are to make quality judgments, the greater the probability of success. Is this not the underlying purpose of education?
Of course, learning to make quality judgments ties directly to God's purpose. He shows clearly in such places as Matthew 13:10-17 and I Corinthians 2:6-9 that mankind is blinded to vital elements of His purpose and plan. Thus, salvation is impossible until God reveals these things to us (I Corinthians 2:10-16). At the proper time in each person's life, God reveals the missing elements and then commands him to choose. To make right choices, a person must judge.
Why, then, do people say we should not judge? Why do some scriptures give the impression that we are sinning if we judge another person's conduct or attitude? It appears to produce a dichotomy that is impossible to resolve. We see that it is imperative to observe the examples of others, as well as our own conduct, compare them against the standards of God and choose what we will do on the basis of that process—but this is judging!
The Danger in Judging
Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:1, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ." He adds in Philippians 3:17, "Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern." These verses clearly invite the brethren to observe the apostle's conduct, judge if it conforms to the life Christ lived and taught, and choose to live that way as well.
To this point, it is clear that we cannot escape our responsibility to judge. Yet, in such verses as Matthew 7:1; Romans 14:3 and James 4:11-12, we are warned about judging one another. Where is the problem, or danger, in judging? The danger lies in the quality of our judgments, and consequently, any action we take on the basis of them.
In John 7:24, Jesus commands us to "judge with righteous judgment." Just a few verses earlier, the Jews who were watching and listening to Him had judged that Jesus had a demon! This is surely one of the most misguided judgments ever made. Why could they not make a better judgment than that? Because they were judging by wrong standards. They could not recognize and thus could not correctly relate to true godliness, even though in the person of Jesus it was lived in their presence and taught them truth.
The people of the time were greatly confused about Christ: "And there was much murmuring among the people concerning Him. Some said, ‘He is good'; others said, ‘No, on the contrary, He deceives the people'" (verse 12). On another occasion, Jesus asked His own disciples, "‘Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?' So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets'" (Matthew 16:13-14). The people's judgment of Him was so prejudiced by their carnality that "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11).
Could our judgment of people in whom Christ lives also be somewhat distorted because of carnality still active within us? This is part of the equation. We may be ill-equipped to make a sound judgment because we are unable to recognize godly qualities or to understand the factors involved in another's conduct.
But judging is still a necessary part of life in the church. Consider the apostle Paul's judgment of the man who was openly sinning while fellowshipping with the Corinthian congregation:
For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged, as though I were present, concerning him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (I Corinthians 5:3-5)
Paul not only judged, he judged on the basis of the testimony and judgment of others he trusted! He then disfellowshipped the man without hearing the man's own testimony! This is the same man who wrote in Romans 14, "Who are you to judge another's servant?" (verse 4) and "But why do you judge your brother?" (verse 10). He obviously strongly believed that when the spiritual and moral integrity of a congregation was threatened by blatant sin, judgment was necessary.
Called To Be Judges
There are numerous references to judging in the Old Testament. In fact, to be a judge in Israel was to hold a position of great responsibility. At times in Israel's history, judges functioned more like kings or governors than as court officers presiding over and mediating disputes and criminal cases.
In II Chronicles 19:5-9, Jehoshaphat made a series of reforms in Judah regarding judging that touch on New Testament applications. He charged the judges to fear God and to realize that their judgments were not for man but for the Lord. He furthermore charged the Levites that they were also to judge in the fear of the Lord and to do so faithfully with a perfect heart.
This is important considering our calling. Revelation 5:10 tells us we will become kings and priests. I Corinthians 6:2 clearly states, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?" The context involves settling disputes between church members. Christians, other than the ministry, must judge!
Kings and priests function in domains that differ considerably. A king normally presides over civil affairs and a priest over religious matters. But both judge within the framework of their service. Would God call us to judge in His Kingdom and then prohibit us from preparing to do so in our Christian lives? Thus, the answer to the seeming dichotomy lies in understanding the use of "judging" within its context.
Care in Judging
Matthew 7:1-5 covers many of the instances where a scripture commands us not to judge. It also contains some of the reasons why we should be very careful about what we allow ourselves to do in this regard.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck out of your eye', and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye.
We cannot avoid judging. As the stock in trade of the mind, appraisals are inevitable. If we were witnesses to a flagrant violation of law in which innocent people were harmed, could we keep quiet because we are not to judge?
Does not Jesus command us to judge in verse 6? "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces." Do we not have to judge who are "dogs" or "swine"? Considering verse 15 ("Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves"), do we not have to judge whether a man is a false minister? Do we not have to reject his teaching based on an appraisal of his fruits?
We must therefore take care to understand clearly what Jesus meant. He obviously did not mean we should not judge at all. Within the context of Luke 6:35-38, Jesus uses "Judge not, and you shall not be judged," to urge us to love our enemies, be merciful, forgiving and generous. This very greatly modifies Matthew's account, showing that "Judge not . . ." is a warning against self-righteous severity, sharp-tongued criticism and condemnation. Thus, it is not a command to be absolutely neutral and tolerant regarding moral issues, but a warning to be careful and loving when we judge. We can apply this admonishment to Romans 14:10-13 and James 4:11-12 as well.
Judging Another's Servant
There are practical reasons why Jesus would advise us about this. Of prime importance is that even though it is important that we judge rightly, it is even more important that we do not usurp the place of God! "Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4).
Paul begins this letter to the Romans calling himself a servant of Jesus Christ. He reminds us that we are all His servants (verses 7-8). A servant does not have the same rights and responsibilities as a master. Though we are permitted the right of making an appraisal of conduct, we are not permitted the right of passing judgment upon a fellow servant. A fellow servant does not stand or fall at the bar of our judgment. The only judgment that matters is the judgment of our mutual Master. If He is satisfied or displeased, He will act in His good time and in His way. To usurp His responsibility is an act of sheer presumption.
This in no way means we cannot approach a brother to inquire about and understand his conduct so that we might know whether our appraisal is correct. Assuming that our intent in questioning him is for his good, why would we even approach him? Would it not be because our evaluation of his conduct had led us to conclude—yes, to judge—that he was in serious moral or spiritual trouble?
God encourages us to do this. Notice James 5:19-20: "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." Galatians 6:1-2 is even more explicit: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
These verses complement and further refine our understanding of Matthew 7:1-5. We cannot help but judge, and we have a responsibility to be our brother's keeper. But we also have the responsibility to be keenly aware of our own weaknesses and flaws before we even begin to think about the depth, extent and intensity of the faults of the brethren.
Warnings About Making Judgments
Jesus warned us that we will receive the same kind of judgment that we make of others (Matthew 7:2). Brethren, do we really want that? That warning ought to sober any thinking person! Do we really believe God when He gives us such a stern warning?
Jesus adds another warning: Our judgment may be distorted because we may have a flaw of far greater magnitude in us than the flaw we observe so critically in our brother. The unspoken inference is that because the flaw is ours, and we love ourselves, we are willing to be lenient in our self-judgment. By focusing our criticism on another, it enables us to avoid scrutinizing ourselves carefully and critically. Some enjoy correcting others because it makes them feel virtuous, compensating for failures in themselves that they have no desire to face. But the judgment we make about others is in reality the judgment we will receive from God.
Is this not very similar to what Paul's teaching to the Corinthians about their careless and profane observance of Passover? He writes:
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. (I Corinthians 11:28-31)
If we would take the time, before being critical of a brother, to examine ourselves against the standard set by Christ, we would probably see so many flaws in ourselves that we would be shamed and humbled into approaching our brother in the right spirit.
Why might our judgment be out of proportion? One reason is that we can never know all of the facts or the whole person. Humanly, our experience, oversight and understanding are limited. We must learn to avoid making the kinds of judgments spectators make at sporting events. A fan may be a hundred yards from the playing field, but he will make a judgment as if he were in a perfect position to see every detail of a given play. He feels perfectly justified to criticize the umpire, referee or player who was right on the spot and involved in the heat of the action.
We never see the whole picture as God does. It is very difficult to know a person's intentions or his strengths and weaknesses. We may have a very unfavorable impression of a person because we saw him perform in his weakest area. Yet, this same person may have unseen strengths in other areas. Each of us is a "mixed bag," and only God has the oversight, insight, experience, wisdom and love to make a completely fair judgment.
A second and overlapping reason is that it is almost impossible for us to make an impartial judgment. As a result of our experiences, we have built-in biases that color our judgment. John 8:12-16 bears on this subject:
Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life." The Pharisees therefore said to Him, "You bear witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true." Jesus answered and said to them, "Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from and where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. And yet if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent Me."
The Pharisees misjudged Jesus because they had many of the same limitations we do. They judged "according to the flesh," that is, as others have translated this phrase, "by material standards" (Goodspeed), "by the outside" (Moffatt), "after your earthly fashion" (Knox). But even Jesus, though He was qualified to do so (verse 16), says that He was not judging anyone (verse 15). He imposed the same limitation on Himself that He imposes on His followers in Matthew 7:1!
Four Critical Factors
Jesus appraised situations and where it was necessary, He corrected others. But even He, qualified as He was, never stepped across the line to condemn. He never used His authority to "put someone down" or "lord it over" another. Nor should we.
Four factors are critical when we judge and correct:
1) We must take care not to step beyond our rights as a fellow servant. Our rights extend only as far as being a brother, not the Master.
2) We must correct for the right reasons. Our intent must be one of deep respect and love for the other.
3) We must have a godly attitude. We must be humble, considering our own weaknesses and limitations.
4) We must correct in kindness and gentleness, remembering that we are trying to heal a spiritual wound, not rub salt in it.
It takes a person of considerable spiritual growth to do this well.
Yes, we must judge! But we must learn to be loving, thoughtful and considerate, using the standards of God's Word and Family to judge righteous judgment.