(This is the first part of my two part series on judging and discernment. Click here to read part 2 entitled, “Wolves Are On the Prowl and the Sheep’s Clothes Are Missing…)
I recently read a story of woman standing on a street corner holding a sign extolling the virtues of traditional marriage that read, “Thank your mom today for not being gay.” While, as a devout Christian, I do not feel as though this method of evangelism is all that effective, the woman was peacefully standing with a sign, nothing more.
Throughout the day, a number of people voiced their opinions both in the positive and the negative positions (including a “tolerant” teenage girl throwing a red slushy in the woman’s face). Inevitably, at some point during the day, a man stood next to the woman holding a sign that read, “Thank your mom if you’re not a bigot! ‘Judge not…’“
And there it is, the old “Judge not” routine (nevermind the fact that he’s actually judging the woman by calling her a bigot…). Regardless of the issue at hand, Christians are often chastised for “judging” others when attempting to uphold the Truth of the Bible, even by other Christians; more examples of this are found here, here, here, here, and here.
So, why are Christians so often told by secularists to “judge not”? The issue comes down to having a “judgmental” attitude versus simply making a right judgment based on scripture. We are called by God to judge according to his Word, not our own feeble rules. God’s people are to exercise fairness and impartiality when called upon to exercise judgment in legal or church matters, and are commended for exercising a discerning attitude on issues of Biblical Truth.
In this article, I’ll begin by defining the word “judge” before moving into what the Bible has to say about judgment in a legal application. I’ll then address the Bible verses that are often contextually twisted to condemn Christians for judging, lay out what the Bible actually has to say about judging, then illustrate the difference between making a right judgment and being judgmental (having a critical spirit). Finally, I’ll briefly touch upon Biblical discernment and next week’s article will address that concept in-depth. Without further ado, let’s get to it!
Before diving into scripture, let’s define the word “judge” from a worldly perspective and a biblical perspective. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to judge is to “to form an opinion about (something or someone) after careful thought”. According to the LOGOS Bible Sense Lexicon, the word “judge” is a verb which means, “to form and often express a negative, critical opinion of something” and its relationship in the Bible traces from “to think (reason) –> to evaluate –> judge”. So the biblical meaning of the word “judge” is to think, evaluate, then make a right judgment.
I’d like to begin with the less controversial aspect of judgment in the Bible which is that of a legal nature. Considering that most, if not all, civilized countries have some sort of judicial system in place it’s no surprise that this was a biblical mandate from very early on. In fact, the speech of Moses to Israel in the plains of Moab at the end of the 40-year wilderness period and immediately preceding the conquest under Joshua is recorded in Deuteronomy 16:18-20 saying, “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” The book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that its laws, including this one, are not a new law but rather the preaching of the original law given to Israel at Sinai. This scripture deals with the responsibilities of the officials who were to maintain pure worship within the Land and to administer justice impartially.
The bottom line is that justice derives from the Character of God and our legal judges should not be partial in judgment.
In fact, Deuteronomy 10:17 makes it clear that impartiality is a prerequisite for good judgment as well as a characteristic of God himself. (See also Ex 23:6-7, Le 19:15, Dt 1:16-17, Pr 24:23, and Eze 18:5-8) Therefore, it makes sense that judges are appointed by God. Nowhere in the Bible is this greater exemplified than in the story of Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 3:16-28.
So, it’s easy to see that God had a lot to say about legal judgment and righteousness. With that biblical Truth established, let’s have a look at what the Bible has to say about judging others in a non-legal environment.
For those who are not familiar with the Bible, the phrase mentioned in the title of this piece and in the story with which I began stems from what Jesus said in the book of Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.” That seems pretty cut and dry doesn’t it? Jesus went on to say in verses 2-4, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 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 out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?”
It’s easy to see why secularists and even some Christians use these verses to rebuke those who make judgments according to the Bible. In fact, as postmodernism in the church continues to swell, Bible-defending Christians are going to continue to be beaten over the head with these first four verses of Matthew 7. It sure feels like a losing battle, doesn’t it?
I’d like to direct you back to an article I posted a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Where Do I Begin?! How to Effectively Study the Bible” to remind you of Chris Rosebrough‘s three principles for sound Biblical exegesis which are “context, context, and context”. As I mentioned in that article, “… always be sure to read at least four verses before and four verses after the verse you’re studying. This tactic is especially helpful when testing a Pastor’s scriptural references in a sermon to ensure they are treating the text properly and not removing the verse from its context in order to further the point they’re wanting to make.” Or, in this case, when testing a secularist’s or fellow Christian’s use of Matthew 7 to condemn your rightful judgment.
Let’s do just that. The two verses that those folks abstain from mentioning provide context to what Jesus was saying in such a way that completely undermines their admonishment of the Christian attempting to judge or discern Truth from error. Matthew 7:5-6 reads, “(5) You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (6) Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Jesus isn’t telling us not to judge, He’s telling us how to judge!
Jesus in verse 5 completely debunks the entire spirit in which critics cite Matthew 7. The ESV Study Bible says it best that, “Jesus does not forbid all evaluation or even judgment of others, for ultimately the one who feels grieved and humbled over his own sin can help remove the “speck” from others. What Jesus does rule out is pride that views oneself as better than others (Gal 6:1).” Dr. MacArthur astutely adds, “As the context reveals, “judge not” does not prohibit all types of judging (v. 16). There is a righteous kind of judgment we are supposed to exercise with careful discernment (John 7:24). Censorious, hypocritical, self-righteous, or other kinds of unfair judgments are forbidden; but in order to fulfill the commandments that follow, it is necessary to discern dogs and swine (v. 6) from one’s own brethren (vv. 3–5).“
Believers are to be loving, merciful, forgiving, and slow to judge, but at the same time we are called to wisely discern a person’s true character. In verse 6 Jesus specifically tells us that to continue to proclaim the Gospel to folks who doggedly reject it is folly as it does not allow us to move on and proclaim the Good News to others who need to hear it. We need to do this out of respect and reverence for what is holy, not simply to be contemptuous. Further, verse 6 is not in conflict with the principle addressed in Matthew 5:24. As Dr. MacArthur states, “That verse governs personal dealings with one’s enemies; this principle governs how one handles the Gospel in the face of those who hate the Truth.“
So you see, we are called by God to judge but we are not to have a spirit of carping criticism and constantly seeking fault in others. Eugene Hessel once said that a legend is told of how Moses once heard a shepherd praying, “O God, show me where you are that I may become your servant. I will clean your shoes, and comb your hair, and sew your clothes, and bring you food.” Moses rebuked him with the words: “God is Spirit and needs not such ministrations.” Thereupon the shepherd rent his clothes in dismay and fled to the desert. Then Moses was rebuked by God, saying: “You have driven away my servant! I regard not the words that are spoken but the heart that offers them.”
The issue here is that Moses had a critical spirit. He was looking for fault in others rather than simply discerning truth from error. Judgment is tricky, but fear of “getting it wrong” should not keep us quiet in the midst of misdeeds and misconduct. Instead, we must speak up—let’s just be sure that we first pray and examine our thoughts in light of the Bible.
I must admit, I have not always been so merciful and loving in judgment. As I’ve grown in my walk with the Lord in recent years, I’ve taken a keen interest in defending the hope that is in me as directed in 1 Peter 3:15-16 especially in light of the attacks on the Christian faith both outside and inside the church. However, we are specifically instructed to speak the Truth in love and it was that which I was severely lacking.
As I mentioned previously, however, we cannot fear getting it wrong.
I’ve been thumped on the head more times than I can count and I have plenty of bruises (and apologies) to show for putting myself out there to proclaim God’s Truth and make right judgments for Him. But through those trials and missteps, I learned how to be merciful, forgiving, loving, and slow to judge in order to be an effective witness for Christ and not compromise His message. Like Moses, I had to rid myself of a critical spirit such that I could spread the Gospel in a way that was pleasing to Him. I am still learning this tact, but the more one puts themselves out there on the battlefield, the more battle tested one becomes.
So how should a Christian respond to the man who held up the “Judge not” sign that I mentioned at the beginning of the article? The woman who was the traditional marriage advocate simply ignored him, which is much better than sparking an argument with him. However, I think that woman missed out on a golden opportunity to evangelize to that man. If you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, engage the man in evangelism and share the Gospel with him. You might be surprised how receptive a person is to listening when they are engaged in a civil manner. If you are unsure how to evangelize, please have a look at the Living Waters website and YouTube channel for great examples of how to preach the Gospel using God’s law.
That brings me to my final topic in this article, Biblical discernment. In my opinion, this idea differs from “judging” ever so slightly in that I see it as more aptly applied to those preaching the Word (pastors or otherwise) and testing what they’re saying in the name of God to the Word of God. We must be a discerning people in order to prevent “wolves” from leading our flock astray. Even a small twisting of scripture can have devastating effects to the souls of those listening. The problem is that all too often, myself included, we tend to gleefully lap up everything the comes from the pulpit, or radio, or television in the name of Christ. We ought not so readily accept the accuracy of those providing these teachings. Richard Hooker once said, “Men will not bend their wits to examine whether things to which they have been accustomed be good or evil.” In many of today’s churches, this could not be more true.
Next week, I will lay out how we are to apply Biblical discernment to those claiming to preach the Word of God and what to do if we come across someone preaching erroneously.