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What the Bible Says About Judging

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What the Bible Says About Judging
By Ben Rast
Contender Ministries

Posted January 18, 2009

It seems that no matter how ignorant of the Bible people are, there is one verse that everyone knows.  No, it’s not John 3:16. Some people still don’t know that one.  However, everyone seems to know Matthew 7:1, wherein Jesus says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (KJV). In fact, the less of the Bible people know, the more they’re prone to know and repeat this verse.  If we had a nickel for every time someone accused us of “intolerantly” violating this verse, we could pay our server costs and possibly quit our day jobs.  But are these people right? When we cover false religions and beliefs – when we even label a belief as false – are we guilty of violating Jesus’ directive in this verse?  Or is there a greater context that is missing?

If we’re going to speak of context, it’s important to look at the entire passage from which the verse is lifted.  This is the way to perform proper exegesis (getting out of a passage what the writer intended) instead of engaging in eisegesis (forcing one’s own preconceived notions into the text).  My Bible lists the first six verses of Matthew 7 together as part of a common theme.  Here is this fuller excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

1Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3"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? 4How 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? 5You 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. 6"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”  (Matthew 7:1-6, NIV)

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Two important points can be gleaned from this text.  First, it is clear that Jesus is addressing hypocrites – those who refuse to take responsibility for their own faults before judging the faults of others.  This is not an all-encompassing command to never judge.  Rather, it is a command against hypocrisy.  It is a directive to make sure our own house is in order before we judge others.  Not only is this clear by the explicit text in verses 3 through 5, but it is supported by the second noteworthy point – verse six calls on us to make judgments!  How are we to know whether we are giving dogs what is sacred, or throwing pearls before pigs unless we’ve judged a) what constitutes something sacred, and b) what constitutes the dogs and pigs described by this verse?  This verse is clearly symbolic.  It is not about literal dogs or pigs.  This metaphorical language refers to those who will not respect things that are sacred.  In order to know who fits this bill, we must make a judgment.  The context of this passage clearly indicates that we are not forbidden from passing judgment.  Indeed, we are required in this passage to make judgments.  We simply must not do so if we’re hiding from our own sins. 

While simply putting this passage in context puts the lie to the assertion that we are not to judge, I don’t want to stop here.  I want to look at the rest of the New Testament.  After all, if Jesus opposed people making judgments, then He and His Apostles who wrote the New Testament would certainly not suggest otherwise.  The message of Scripture is cohesive.  It is complementary rather than contradictory.  If Jesus did not think people should judge, then this message should never be contradicted in the New Testament. 

In John 7:24, we find Jesus talking again when he says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”  Notice that Jesus didn’t stop speaking after his first two words.  If He had, that would have bolstered the contention that we shouldn’t judge.  But Jesus continues, and his entire sentence actually gives us some guidelines for judging.  He wouldn’t instruct us on how to judge if He didn’t want us to judge!  Jesus tells us something that we’ve often heard in other forms – don’t judge by appearances.  Growing up I remember hearing, “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “appearances can be deceiving.”  Well, Jesus said it first.  He tells us to not judge by mere appearances, and make our judgments right.  Some other translations read “righteous judgment.”  In other words, we should exercise caution when judging that we pierce the cover of what things appear to be, to make sure we’re judging what really is. 

Some people are convinced that Jesus never judged others.  These are usually the same people that know nothing from the Bible beyond the words “judge not”.  Yet Jesus did not only tell us how to judge, He also gave us a plethora of examples.  Jesus’ first recorded words of His ministry are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).  How intolerant (by today’s standards) for Jesus to presume that his audience was sinful and needed to repent!  By this presumption, He judged them as sinful and in need of repentance.  In Matthew 5:22 (part of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.”  It doesn’t get much more judgmental than bringing up H-E-double hockey sticks! If you continue in the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll find several more instances of Jesus discussing sinful thoughts and behaviors, proposing amputation as a preferable alternative to sin, and then more references to hell.  As we near the end of Jesus’ sermon, we find some boldly judgmental statements that call for us to make judgments:  “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. 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? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.  Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:13-23).  To those who don’t think judging is the right thing to do, imagine if the words in this passage were ours instead of Jesus’.  I’d bet you’d be writing us a nasty-gram as fast as you can type.  Also, when Jesus warns us about false prophets, He is indicating to us that we will need to judge whether someone is a false prophet or whether they truly represent God.  We can’t simply take someone’s word for it.  We must judge. The gospels are replete with examples of Jesus being very judgmental.  He calls people names, kicks over tables, calls out evil and demands that we recognize it for what it is.  Read through from the beginning of Matthew to the end of John.  You’ll find these four books can be quite judgmental. 

Moving beyond the gospels, we find the epistles to be just as judgmental.  1 Corinthians 5 is a good example.  In this letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul excoriates the church members for tolerating an immoral church member. Paul says that he has already passed judgment (v. 3) and instructs the congregation to do the same.  In fact, he tells them to expel the immoral man and to stop associating with him!  In his next letter to the Corinthian church, Paul says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).  Definitely judgmental!

One of our favorite passages defining why Contender Ministries exists is Galatians 1:6-10 wherein Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  Paul not only judges those who spread a false gospel, but he also makes it clear that we are to judge religious teachings to determine if they are in line with the truth of Scripture or not.  Paul goes so far as to call the Galatians “foolish” (Galatians 3:1) for not exercising sound judgment in matters of doctrine. 

The Bible is our guide – our rulebook.  It gives us warnings to avoid false doctrines and be wary of false prophets.  In order to do so, we must make judgments. There’s no other way to know right from wrong if we resist judging.  Indeed, Paul makes it clear that judging is part of the believer’s job description: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). The cohesive message of the New Testament is that we are to make judgments, but we do so with love and wisdom, and not hypocritically.  Now that you’ve finished reading this article, some of you will disagree and others will agree.  And all of you will have made a judgment in the process.
What are your thoughts on this article?