I wonder how many times during the past week the average Christian heard this. Everybody knows the routine: a Christian points out clear biblical teaching on sin, and the first thing out of another’s mouth is Matthew 7:1, “Judge not!” To be quite honest, this is quite frustrating for Christians because, truth be told, this verse is rarely quoted because a person is truly interested in or concerned about biblical fidelity. No, this verse is almost universally quoted to silence all opposition, even if that opposition comes from the Bible itself, because the person quoting most likely realizes they have no other defense at hand. Isn’t it ironic that the secular culture—even many Christians—uses Jesus own words to silence his Word? Now, I am not saying that this verse should be dismissed or that it does not apply to Christians; it most certainly does. That will be addressed later. What I am saying is that we should know how to respond to the quotation of this verse.
Most of us have probably had that conversation this past week. I know I have. Someone posts a status on FaceBook, for example, trying to make it seem as if Scripture not only allows for something like homosexuality (let’s keep it relevant), but flat-out condones it. Not being able to resist the temptation, you step in and comment. You make a decent attempt at outlining Scripture’s stance on homosexuality. You hope for a well-thought-out push back or rebuttal, yet all you get is—you guessed it—a quotation of Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”1 Unfortunately, this is the common first resort for those who have no biblical grounds on which to stand. All they can do is throw out their opinions and a classic “Judge not” and expect their argument to look solid. Of course, many Christians see through this ruse, but the sad fact is that a great deal of Christians hear this and freeze. “What do I do? I don’t want to be judgmental, only Christ-like!” There are, in fact, a few problems with the way the verse is frequently used. As I said before, in my experience the majority of those who use it do not care about using Scripture properly or trying to find its actual meaning, but only wish to silence all opposition by preying on the Christian’s fear of God and genuine desire to be faithful to the Scriptures. Never once have I heard or seen it used as such.
For a start, it is certainly safe to say that most who quote this verse do not even attempt to find out what Christ is referring to here when he says “judge”. This is simply a result faulty interpretation skills (or, perhaps, laziness). Instead, what people have done is they have taken the 21st Century meaning of “judge” and anachronistically applied it directly onto the definition of what Jesus meant. Of course, we can not and should not do that. It’s simply bad exegesis, a great “no-no” not only for interpreting Scripture, but for any other historical field. That being said, our main concern is to try to find out what Jesus meant by what he said.
So, what did Jesus mean, and how do we know? Did he mean, “Don’t ever pronounce anything as being either good or bad, for in doing so you are taking my place.” Of course not! But, judging my most people’s (mis)interpretation of this passage, you would think that were the case. Of course, this is no new thing. Even John Calvin dealt with this issue:
Hence it is evident, that this passage is altogether misapplied by those persons who would desire to make that moderation, which Christ recommends, a pretense for setting aside all distinction between good and evil (emphasis added).2
So, what does this verse mean? The first thing we have to do is look at the context (which is hardly what is done when this verse alone is mentioned—most of the time only half of v. 1—”judge not”). If we look a little further, we notice that Jesus illustrates what he means. In vv. 3-5 Jesus says, “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? 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.” What is Jesus talking about here? He is speaking to the person, who, having judged himself in need of no correction, proceeds to “assist” others in “self-improvement”—again, not even noticing his own problems. Now, on the surface the popular interpretation seems to be correct. However, there is something vitally important that we frequently fail to notice, and it is seen when we look back at v. 1. By what standard is the person in vv. 3-5 judging? Himself—and a false impression of himself, at that! That is why Jesus calls the man a “hypocrite”, because he makes himself out to be perfect when in fact he is not. However, this is not what Christians are doing when they speak out against sin. When someone says, “The Bible says this and that about such-and-such and subject,” what is being done? Is that person using themselves as the standard? Certainly not; they are using the only standard by which we will all be judged.
If we read even further, we see that the popular interpretation—the prohibition of all discernment—is still inadequate. Look at what Jesus says in vv. 15-20:
15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
How can v. 1 possibly be applied in its popular interpretation in light of this passage? If we are told “[we] will recognize them by their fruits,” how is the popular interpretation even possible? This is where the anachronism fails tremendously. As Christians, we are not called to be naïve, but discerning, judging what is right and wrong based on the Scriptures in order to beware of false prophets. In the modern mind, discernment is seen as judging (in the unbiblical sense, of course) and thus unloving. However, in many cases, this simply isn’t true. It is my conviction (and Scripture’s, I believe) that telling someone the truth is the highest form of love. How do we know the truth? We study the Scriptures and use our knowledge of them to discern. Contrary to popular opinion, this is a Christian’s duty. Read again what Calvin rightly states:
We are not only permitted but are even bound, to condemn all sins; unless we choose to rebel against God himself,—nay, to repeal his laws, to reverse his decisions, and to overturn his judgement-seat.3
Aside from all of the discussion above about interpretation, the popular “judge not” dogma in and of itself falls apart upon the slightest ethical reflection, even apart from Scripture. When the blanket statement “judge not” is taken to its logical conclusion (a method also called reductio ad absurdum), it simply doesn’t work. What if slave traders had used this tactic? What about murderers? What about child abusers? What about sex slave traders? No, I am not comparing those with homosexual desires to any of those things, but the argument, when taken across all mediums, proves to be simply impractical and untenable. These criminals were most certainly judged for their lifestyle, because, beaded on Scrioture, their behavior was seen to be less than godly.
In the end, I say we all should drop this obsession with who is “judging” who and who is “condemning” who—for goodness’ sake, what do the Scriptures say? After all, that’s all that matters, for it is against it that we wrestle; its Author is our only judge. We should be concerned about what he says. Let it never be said, though, that Matthew 7:1 and following has no bearing on our lives and behavior as Christians, either; it most certainly does. We are never permitted to approach anyone from the basis of self-exaltation or hypocritical self-comparison. Those who would misapply Matthew 7:1 have one thing right: we all sin and none of us are perfect. While that is true, nowhere in Scripture are we called to cease from discernment. This discernment should never assume the position of self-righteous comparison, but from love for the truth of Scripture, love for neighbor, and repentance in our own hearts, for without repentance (which is the mark of a Christian, not moral perfection, as many who quote the verse at hand would have it), we are all most surely hypocrites.
- Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 7:1