I’ve been thinking lately of the differences and similarities between judgment, discernment, and criticism. I hope one day to get those “stray thoughts” out in black and white so as to examine them a little better. But over the past several years I have been distressed to see Christians regarding judgment in a way that I don’t think is entirely biblical. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) seems to be some people’s best known Bible verse. But what does it mean exactly? I can’t say I know 100%, but I do know a few things it doesn’t mean.
1. “Judge not” doesn’t mean we never say anything to someone about their sin.
How do I know that? Well, the rest of that passage in Matthew and the parallel in Luke 6:37 talk about taking the beam, or big log (or big obvious sin or fault) out of your own eye before taking the mote (or little speck or smaller fault or sin) out of your brother’s eye. But notice it doesn’t say to ignore the speck in your brother’s eye – it says to exercise judgment on yourself first. Then, it says in Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:5, you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Proverbs 25:12 says, “As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear.” Galatians 6:1 says, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” There are numerous other verses about confronting others with their sin. If someone comes to us about a problem they see in our lives, our first response should not be, “You’re not supposed to judge me!” We should take what they say before the Lord and examine ourselves in light of Scripture to see if what has been said has merit.
2. It doesn’t mean we never talk about anyone else’s sin.
How do I know that? In the inspired Scripture, the apostle Paul speaks of others’ sins and even calls those people by name. “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (II Timothy 4:10a). “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:19-20). “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: Of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words” (II Timothy 4:14-15). He speaks of rebuking Peter in Galatians 2. Other biblical writers speak of other people’s sin as well: see the Old Testament prophets, Jude, II Peter 2, II John 2:18-19, III John 1:9-10 (“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.”)
The Bible does warn against backbiting and gossip. So what is the difference between this kind of public pointing out of sin and gossiping? The main difference seems to be motive. Scriptural discussion of other people’s sin seems to be primarily for the purpose of warning others.
So then what does “judge not” mean? In context the passage seems to be saying to be careful because however you judge other people is how you will be judged.
Discernment is a must in the Christian life. Hebrews 5:14 speaks of “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” We need to be able to use our senses to look at doctrines and actions to determine whether they are biblically right or wrong. I hear “judge not” most commonly misapplied in the area of discussing movements or trends or popular preaching or teaching in Christendom, but I think that is an area where Paul and other New Testament writers may exercise the most discernment.
Some of the principles of exercising judgment that we can glean from the passages mentioned so far are: examine yourself and take care of your own sins before dealing with anyone else’s (Matt. 7:1, Luke 6:37); approach another person about their sin with a spirit of meekness and a desire to restore them to a right walk (Gal. 6:1); examine your motives: personal satisfaction in tearing down someone else, the perverted thrill of being “in the know” and wanting to share the knowledge of someone’s else’s sin, pride and self-righteousness are all wrong motives and are probably the wrong kind of judging that is being discussed or the dividing line between discernment and judgment. Other biblical principles are: don’t judge where there is room for differences of opinion (Romans 14); don’t judge someone else’s motives when you don’t know their heart (John 7:1-24, especially verse 24); don’t be a ” busybody in other men’s matters” (I Peter 4:15; see also II Thessalonians 3:11 and I Timothy 5:13); if someone has sinned against you personally, go to them privately before saying anything to anyone else about it (Matthew 18:15-20); don’t be hasty in your judgment (Proverbs 29:20, James 1:19-20).
I’d be interested in your thoughts about what “judge not” means – based on biblical interpretation rather than just “I think…” or “I feel…” statements.