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To judge or not to judge
The rights and wrongs of biblical discernment

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by G. Richard Fisher

It seems clear, since Jesus Himself said, "Judge not," (Matthew 7:1), that we cannot "judge." At first glance it appears that Jesus not only forbids judging others, but that He catches Himself in a glaring contradiction.

Verse 1 seems obvious, "Judge not," yet in verses 6, 15-16, we are to judge "swine," "dogs," and the "fruit" of false apostles. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

Do we judge or not?

Churches have split along lines of those who wish to make judgments and those who say we cannot. One side accuses the other of being legalistic and loveless while the other side is called liberal and spineless.

Rooting out the truth on this subject is essential and a thorough search will reveal that there are different kinds of judgment taught in Scripture. One form we are commanded to do; the other we are forbidden to do. Both sides could be right and wrong depending on what they are talking about. One could not read Matthew 18:16-18 seriously and conclude that we never judge anything. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul takes the people of God to task for not judging the right things the right way.

One of the biggest issues in the Church is how we arrive at truth. We have churches that think frenzied laughter is a way to worship God, while other churches conduct services that sound like a barnyard. Our land is dotted with Word-Faith proponents that see God as the great vending machine in the sky. All of the groups in this confusing mix say they are preaching the truth and being led by the Spirit.

It is also obvious that some arrive at truth in the same fashion as the poem, "Why Are Fire Engines Red?"

They have four wheels and eight men
four plus eight is twelve
twelve inches make a ruler
a ruler is Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth sails the seven seas
the seven seas have fish
the fish have fins
The Finns hate the Russians
the Russians are red
Fire engines are always rushin'
So they're red.

Some groups handle the Bible in much the same way.

Let's consider four major points to help us unravel the question: When to judge and when not to judge?

The lack of discernment

Discernment is largely missing from the Church, partly for the following reasons:

A. We have become man-centered and experience-driven. Some think Christianity has to emulate Disney World to capture and hold larger audiences. Entertainment becomes more man-centered than God-centered. Postmodernism and the death of reason permeate not only secular culture but many of our churches.

B. We have lost the knowledge of proper hermeneutics. Televangelists make up their own subjective meanings of Scripture as they go along saying only that they have "revelation knowledge" or "God told them." In that way they hope to put themselves beyond scrutiny or evaluation.

C. The Church largely accepts the philosophy that truth is relative. Books are published today that try to stem the tide and argue for moral absolutes. Fifty years ago that would not have been necessary.

Jay Adams in almost prophetic fashion sounded an alarm 10 years ago that few listened to. In his book, A Call to Discernment, he noted the departure from antithetical thinking. For thousands of years, both with the Hebrew prophets and the Christian Church people believed that there was right and wrong, black and white.

Adams observes:

"According to continuum thinking, the mode of thinking taught outside the church (and largely within), every idea is a shade of gray. There is no right and wrong or true and false, but only shades of right and wrong or true and false spread along a continuum. The poles of this continuum are extended so far out toward the wings that for all practical purposes they are unattainable and therefore worthless. Nothing, then, is wholly right or wrong. All is relative; most of it is subjective."

Continuing he says:

"That is one reason why biblical preaching, with its sharp antithesis, rubs many people the wrong way: It is hard for modern minds to accept. For a long time now educational institutions, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, etc. have inculcated continuum thinking. Antithetical thinking is dismissed as fanatical or worse. Consequently, when Christians (all of whom have been affected by this environment) hear antithetical views expressed, they sound discordant. And indeed they are! Because anything goes, discernment is not placed at a premium" (pg. 30).

Adams points out that the clean-unclean distinctions in the Old Testament were given by God to create a totally antithetical view of life.

The Daily Bread devotional for Nov. 13, 1995, notes that false teachers worm their way in by zeroing in on our emotions:

"A false teacher knows what appeals to our desires (2 Pet. 2). He doesn't wear a lapel pin to warn of his lies, but he comes disguised as a representative of the truth. He claims he will enrich lives, but those who follow him learn at a high cost that they have been deceived."

The lack of discernment in the Church today is costing dearly. The Church is like a tree with every kind of bird (clean, unclean, wild, mild) nesting in it.

The liberty of discernment

Judge don't judge what do we do? Matthew 7:15 is clear that we can judge the message and fruit of false apostles. However, Jesus is saying in Matthew 7:1 that we should be careful in nitpicking and judging people's motives or eternal destiny. Ultimately only God is the judge of those things. We can, after all, be too hard on people in minor matters.

The mystery clears up when we realize that the word "judge" can be used in different ways in different contexts. Understanding the context is the key to interpreting what kind of judging we are speaking about.

Ralph Walter in his small book, Tortured Texts, notes the differences:

"Consider first the Greek word Krino, translated judge in our text. If you look at a concordance of the King James Version, you will find the word has been translated: conclude, condemn, damn, decree, determine, esteem, ordain, think and then judge 87 times. Other Greek scholars say that Krino means to call in question, conclude, decree, esteem, determine, think and sentence. From all of this I think it would be safe to say that the word our Lord used means to condemn or to pass judgment upon someone maliciously; while the context shows that we have the responsibility to properly evaluate a thing or an act" (pp. 28-30).

An illustration might be a house in poor maintenance. We can see the paint peeling and the broken windows but would we condemn the owner as lazy? Suppose that the owner was an invalid or just too poor to have it fixed? We must be careful about judging without facts or beyond the obvious. Such judgments are condemnations and these are what Jesus condemned in Matthew 7:1. The Pharisees were notorious for judging based on silly rules and traditions and not the Scriptures.

Peter, Paul and John did a lot of judging the right way. Every second epistle is a judgment on apostasy. In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul judges and warns about a man named Demas. In the same epistle (2:17) he warns of the heresies of two others by name. Paul did a lot of judging and evaluating when it came to false teachers. We are mandated to judge false doctrine.

Jesus in John 7:24 says: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment." Jesus is saying "judge without maliciousness and by all means have the facts." To find a balance between legalism and mysticism we must judge righteous judgment.

First Corinthians 6:3-5 demands that we judge certain matters. We can judge the overt and gross sins mentioned later in verse 9. However our judgment must always be tempered with a desire to restore, not punish. The goal is restoration.

On a larger note, we can judge qualifications for ministry. We are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 a number of qualifications for eldership. Qualifications are external and we can judge certain externals. Is an elder hospitable, a good teacher, the husband of one wife and so on? Negatively, is he argumentative, or does he have a bad reputation or is he easily angered? These things are easy to see and evaluate.

We can judge qualifications, however we cannot judge qualities. Qualities are internal motivations known only by God Himself.

In John 21:16-17, Jesus said, "Peter, feed my sheep." The feeding of sheep has to do with external qualifications. We can evaluate a man's sermons, appraise if he has studied and researched. Lack of preparation will become obvious in time. Poor doctrine or overtly false doctrine is obvious.

But Jesus also said in John 21:15-17, "Peter, do you love me?" This has to do with qualities and internal motivation. Does a man feed the sheep for power? For prestige? For money? Only God knows the motivation. Or is he doing it out of love for Christ? Again, only God knows. If the person is living an ostentatious and lavish lifestyle, those externals all say something and may be an obvious outworking of the inner motivation.

The book of Titus deals with external qualifications for ministry while 1 Timothy 4:16 tells the pastor to judge himself, to take heed to himself, that is, be aware of his inner motivation, his inner qualities.

It does help us to see and understand the difference between the unseen inner qualities and motivations and the external qualifications which can be judged.

Krino, as pointed out by Campbell Morgan, changes according to the context. Sometimes you judge, sometimes you do not. We must not be censorious but we cannot give up our right to a careful discrimination when that is required. As Morgan puts it: "The first five verses forbid censoriousness; and the sixth verse insists upon a careful discrimination" (The Gospel According to Matthew, pg. 71).

So it is always right to judge false teachers and false teaching using the Word of God as the standard. Nitpicking is one thing. Removing rotten fruit is another. We must be discerning in our discernment and always proceed on the basis of truth and facts leaving the unknown areas of motivation to God.

The labor of discernment


It seems that people have forgotten the word "discernment" and forgotten that encouragements to do the same are found in the Bible (see Young's Analytical Concordance to The Bible, pg. 257). There are two main Greek words translated as "discernment." One is anakrino, meaning to examine or judge closely; the other diakrino, to separate out, to investigate, to examine.


This is work. We must put in the work of discernment. We must study to show ourselves approved workmen (2 Timothy 3:16).

D.A. Carson rightly observes:

"We will not go far astray if we approach the Bible with a humble mind and then resolve to focus on central truths. Gradually we will build up our exegetical skills by evenhanded study and a reverent prayerful determination to become like the workman 'who correctly handles the word of truth'" (Exegetical Fallacies, pg. 144).

We must know the rules. We must dust off the hermeneutics textbooks. We must insist on one of the basic rules and that is the rule of context.

The following quotes from Edwin Hartill's Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics show us the extreme importance of the context rule:

"Torrey 'Too much importance cannot be laid upon a close study of the context.'"

"Todd 'Consideration of the context in examining any verse or passage is of utmost importance. Failure to do this is one of the causes of misinterpretation of scripture.'"

"Moyer 'Too many preachers prepare a message and then hunt a text to fit it. That is not a text, it is a pretext.'"

"Lockhart 'The context is the key to the meaning.'" (pg. 80).

Hartill himself says:

"The Bible can be made to prove anything, but NOT when studied in the light of the context" (ibid., pg. 79).

In his classic, Biblical Hermeneutics, M.S. Terry insists:

"Many a passage of Scripture will not be understood at all without the help afforded by the context; for many a sentence derives all its point and force from the connexion [sic] in which it stands" (pg. 219).

Benny Hinn can stand up in front of a national audience via television and tell them that the Egyptians were not drowned in the Red Sea but rather were crushed by falling ice (Praise The Lord Show 7/14/94). Flying by the seat of his pants he ignores the context of Exodus 14 that talks of the waters coming back over the Egyptians (verse 26) and the waters covering the chariots (verse 28). His followers "ooh" and "aah" over this "new truth."

By ripping verses out of context, the Word-Faith teachers have created a "Daddy Warbucks" God who is false. All cults trick their followers by wresting verses from their context. In doing so, they twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).

Another rule is Contextual Proximity, which broadens the context rule. Thomas Schmidt writes:

"The further distant from the immediate context we travel in search of meaning, the more variables enter in and the more complicated the process becomes. For example, an Old Testament book might illuminate Paul's meaning, even though it is written in another language and hundreds of years earlier, because we can be confident that Paul knew it and considered it authoritative. On the other hand, a moral philosopher writing in Greek near the time of Paul might use similar words in entirely different ways" (Straight and Narrow, pg. 70).

It is also important that we try to understand the biblical world. Background studies in Edershiems' works are helpful in this. How were the words being used and understood by the people in their world and in their culture?

In Dr. Edwin W. Rice's book, Orientalisms in Bible Lands he lays out the disparities in Eastern and Western mind sets:

"For Western people reverse, upset, and completely turn around the customs and habits of Oriental nations. How different must be the thought and expression of the East, growing necessarily out of these opposite ways of life and manners. ... No study of the Bible, therefore, can be satisfactory that does not include some knowledge of life and thought in the East" (pp. 11-12).

A good exegesis will interpret the text and draw out the meaning. Knowing the rules aids us in being good exegetes.

Those that handle the Word of God need to know something about metaphors and similes. They need to be acquainted with Hebrew poetry and parallelisms. Good hermeneutics may be hard work but is an absolute must for anyone who wants to handle the Scriptures with integrity.

Living in discernment


Paul spoke of having transformed minds (Romans 12:1). We can best read and understand Scripture when our minds are in the right place and we are in tune with the Savior. Living in discernment is more than just knowing the rules as important as that is. However without the last two considerations we can become, arrogant, and harsh, with a know-it-all attitude. Peter tells us (1 Peter 3:15) that we are to defend our faith with meekness and fear. This indicates a humble attitude in reliance on God. Earlier in that same verse Peter says, "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts." Two things make that possible:


A. Love the Savior. Walk with Christ, commune often with Christ, obey Him, keep your eyes on Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). Fellowship with the author of the Book is vital.


B. Live with the end in view. Holding eternity as a present reality gives us God's perspective of life and the Scriptures.


Proper discernment is our privilege and right. The work is worth the effort and the reward will be not only the favor and blessing of God but our ability to truly enrich the lives of others.


1996 Personal Freedom Outreach.        What are your thoughts on this article?