Taking any Bible verse in isolation should always be done cautiously and will often lead to a distorted view of Scripture. The context and co-texts around any Bible passage are crucial when seeking an accurate interpretation. It is not unusual to be confronted with a barrage of isolated verses that are used to attack or silence someone, usually within the church environment. The ‘Do Not Judge’ phrase used by Jesus Christ is one of the classic examples and may well be the most misused verse in the Bible.
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ (Matthew 7:1 NIV)
This verse is often used as though it is the final authority whenever a believer highlights the need for biblical standards, moral purity or theological accuracy – as though Jesus advocated a universal acceptance for any lifestyle or teaching. In fact, as Gregory Koukl (from ‘Stand to Reason’) points out, the phrase ‘Do Not Judge’ is self-refuting as it requires (by definition) a form of judging. Therefore, the statement needs qualification as Jesus provided.
So, what was the context in which Jesus used this phrase? Does it really mean that we have to live in a state of moral relativism where we have no right to call out immoral behaviour for what it is? Does it mean that all theological positions have equal validity? Taken in isolation, the three words ‘Do Not Judge’ can be framed to say that.
Whether people like to admit it or not, everyone acts as a judge in some capacity. For example, no-one would dispute that murder is wrong – everyone would happily act as a ‘judge’ to condemn murder and ‘pass judgment’ on this. And this gets extended by us all to include other things such as theft, dishonesty, and cruelty. In fact, the intolerance of many who attack the church is arguably the most potent form of ‘judging’ we have in our culture at the moment. If you express support for a biblical stance on moral issues such as the family or abortion, you will quickly be ‘judged’ and marginalized or de-platformed. Everyone ‘judges’. So when Jesus says ‘Do Not Judge’, what is he getting at?
Well, we could start by identifying what Jesus could not mean.
For example, a few verses before the statement above, Jesus warns about ‘false prophets’:
‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?’ (Matthew 7:15-16 NIV)
Whatever Jesus meant when saying ‘Do Not Judge’, he could not have meant that discernment should not be exercised within the church environment, as this involves making judgment calls. There are many Bible passages that instruct us all to determine whether or not our church leaders are being faithful shepherds. We are to be careful of what teaching and leadership we expose ourselves (and others) to.
Furthermore, the NT is replete with commands to practice or abstain from certain forms of behavior. In fact, elsewhere Jesus say we should judge, but he includes a caveat:
‘Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.’ (John 7:24 NIV)
So, we are to ‘judge’ but we must do it ‘correctly’ – but what is correct judging? Well, this is a good link which highlights a number of points including the following:
Avoid self-righteous judging
The tone used when attempting when outlining a biblical stance is crucial and should always remain humble and apologetic. This should never be done in a way that is designed to elevate someone in a ‘you should be more like me’ kind of way. This is condescending, patronizing, and rarely has a positive effect. Jesus was the only person who could have legitimately chosen this line of argument, but he never did.
Avoid hypocritical judging
Probably the worst form of judging is done when stating something is wrong while doing it yourself. Jesus strongly rebuked the religious leaders of his day for this:
‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ (Matthew 7:3-5 NIV)
The implication is not that it is wrong to point out an error in others – just be sure that you are not making the same or worse errors!
Avoid corrupt judgement
Consistency is crucial in the pursuit of integrity and using double standards is a blatant form of corruption. It is wrong to say tell one person a particular form of behavior is wrong while telling someone else that it is fine. It is true that context is important with any judgment call and no two situations are completely alike. However, partiality and favoritism are a perversion of justice.
Avoid harsh judgement
The believer should always lean on the side of forgiveness and compassion. This does not need to result in compromise but the tone used should demonstrate a motivation of care. There are many examples where Jesus did not condone behavior while never alienating the person concerned. One the areas the church has made huge mistakes on in our culture is framing the LGBTQ+ issue within the biblical framework. It is painful to watch some of the aggressive activism against the LGBTQ+ community when often remaining completely silent on other forms of sexual sin.
It is a cliche in Christian circles, but we are to judge the ‘sin’, not the ‘sinner’. We are to show unconditional love rather than unconditional approval. Jesus was able to do this in a way that invited a response of repentance to God and our motive should be the same.
To provide a practical summary, we found these bullet points which we have adapted from the study notes of David Guzik to be useful:
Ultimately, our job is to guide others to the knowledge that, like ourselves, the only hope for reconciliation with our Creator is through the door of Jesus Christ. In fact, the context for any ‘judgment’ should be within the prism of promoting and nurturing a healthy spiritual relationship with God. We are to avoid political activism for the purpose of imposing a particular moral on everyone else. Jesus did not engage with the secular political powers of his day like this. Having said that, we must be ready to provide a defense for our own faith:
‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.’ (1 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)
The Real Judge
In summary, we must also recognize that while we are instructed to lovingly promote biblical standards within the church environment, we do not act as a final ‘judge’. Our motive is to draw people to recognise their need of Jesus Christ – a process every genuine Christian will have gone through on the journey to salvation.
One day we will all stand before the Lord Jesus Christ on a coming day of judgment – believers and unbelievers alike. Here, every action and motive, both visible and hidden, will be judged fairly according to God’s standards, not ours. We will either face this having already accepted Jesus’ payment for our sins or we will be left having to face judgment ourselves. Our prayer is that, like us, you will have come to recognize that your only hope rests in the risen Saviour, Jesus Christ.