"Judge not, that you be not judged." Matthew 7:1
The above text is just one of at least half a dozen in the New Testament that explicitly forbid us to judge one another. There are numerous other scriptures that allude to the subject as well, giving examples of unsound judgment and criticism, and the evil fruit of them. Severe warnings are often attached to the exhortations--you yourself will be judged with the same insensitivity and mercilessness, etc.--yet somehow we manage to justify ourselves and ignore the injunctions of the Bible again and again in everyday life.
Of course, there is a time and place for making distinctions in the church. Matters of major doctrinal debate must be settled. Open sin in the local congregation must be investigated and dealt with. Prophecies and other utterance gifts should be carefully assessed in the light of Scripture. This is not what is being addressed in our text, and is not the subject of this article. Instead we want to confine ourselves to a discussion of unrighteous judgment, petty criticism, and gossip that is so destructive to the body of Christ.
John Wesley, in commenting on our text, said "Judge not any mar without full, clear, certain knowledge, without absolute necessity, without tender love." Rarely have I seen all three of those conditions met. Very rare is that occasion in which judgment is an absolute necessity at all, for that matter. No, most of the judging we see and hear is nothing more than carnal criticism, the "biting and devouring" that Paul warned the Galatians against.
Almost all of us are guilty, from the greatest to the least. We elders and leaders are sometimes worse than the rest, I fear, as we are tempted to feel that we have more insight, and that it is part of our job to have a firm opinion about everybody and everything. This attitude comes out in our preaching and is subconsciously picked up by those who hear us. Thus judging begets more judging.
The Lord is nevertheless very firm and unbending on the subject, no matter how many of His children are guilty. The command is just as imperative as the Ten Commandments, and the consequences are very severe. The forgiveness of your own sins is perhaps even at stake. At the very least, He will see to it that you receive back from others the same sort of treatment that you have dished out. You will certainly be judged according to the standards you have used in your judgment of others. Let's look at some of the criteria often used to unjustly measure our brethren, and try to be honest enough to admit to what degree we ourselves may be guilty, and earnestly repent and change our ways.
1. Judge Not, as our judgments are often based on very little knowledge of the subject involved. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as the old adage goes, and who should be more careful than the Christian who prides himself on being just and charitable? Get the facts, do a little investigation before forming opinions, if indeed it's your business to be judging at all.
It's unfortunate, and no doubt very grievous to the Holy Spirit, the way we sometimes assess a brother's entire walk with the Lord at a glance, though we know little or nothing of the circumstances that prompt his decisions. Don't you suppose that he's praying much more earnestly about his own life than you are? How is it then that you are more able to determine God's best for him than he himself is? If you'd just take the time to talk with him, and give him the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure that in most cases you'd have to agree that he's walking in God's will as best as he can--and that he knows more about what that will is than you do!
2. Judge Not, especially if you are basing your assessments on the reports and opinions of others. This is just another variation of the first point, but it's common enough to deserve special attention. How often our Christian fellowship deteriorates into a gossip-fest, and innocent people suffer as a result! Opinions are formed and reputations ruined in just a few minutes of conversation around the living room--and often on the basis of no more than a dominant brother or sister's opinion and presentation. "Oh, so that's what So-and-So is really like," we say as we listen, "yes, I can see it myself now..."
It's good to remember at such times that there are two sides to every story--and I seriously wonder if any of us can actually see clearly enough to present a truly unbiased account, especially if we have something personal at stake. I've learned hold off forming any opinions until a lot more information becomes available. And I've found that even the most mature and otherwise spiritual people--and my own friends (or myself for that matter)--can and do seriously err at times. So don't make judgments on the basis of personal loyalties, or even the respect you may have for someone; make them according to truth! Better yet, obey the commandment of the Lord Jesus and don't judge at all!
3. Judge Not, as we are prone to making blanket judgments about people based on just one or two areas of disagreement. That is, we discredit a man's entire character and ministry because of his stand on women preachers, Christian rock-and-roll, or John McArthur's latest book may not be the same as ours. We unjustly assume that if he has so little discerning in one area, that he's automatically suspect in just about everything else, as well. Who is right or wrong is not the point here, but rather our tendency to categorize people and dismiss them. We listen for catch-phrases and buzz words, and come to inaccurate conclusions on the basis of them. I was once accused of falling away from the faith and joining the new age movement because I declared that the church needed a "paradigm shift" in order to be more in tune to the God of the Bible--a shift away from secular materialistic thinking, and on to a more faith based view of the world around us. Seems that a certain popular author had decided that "paradigm shift" was a term only used by new-agers! Let's quit categorizing each other, and allow a each of us to stand or fall on the basis of his own merit.
4. Judge Not on the basis of group standards and personal convictions that are not necessarily scriptural. Our fellowships can gradually become ingrown and even a bit sectarian at times. We unconsciously adopt the same dress, patterns of speech, favorite teachers, and particular forms of worship. On a more conscious level we develop opinions about what constitutes worldliness, holiness, and acceptable Christian behavior... you must avoid doing this-and-such and make sure you conform to such-and-such. Most of these are centered around gray areas not strictly covered in the Word of God, so it all becomes very arbitrary and subjective: based on social and cultural factors, or perhaps handed down by a very opinionated leadership. Yet we judge ourselves and others according to our little group standards, though they may be unknown in the rest of the world.
How foolish it all appears when seen in perspective, this measuring ourselves by ourselves, comparing ourselves among ourselves, and commending ourselves (2 Cor 1O:12)!
Yet many a young lady is judged by her dress ("too stylish for a Christian") or a brother because of his haircut or the car he drives. Paul plainly declared that such behavior is simply not wise. He might easily have stated it much more strongly. Let's beware of it in our own lives.
5. Judge Not on the basis of personal taste or style. This again is very closely related to the previous point, but should be dealt with in particular because of how widespread it is in the church. When Samuel was looking to anoint a king from the sons of Jesse, he was automatically drawn to the eldest and biggest man. For this he was reproved by the Lord and reminded that "the Lord seeth not as man seeth, for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam 16:7). Incidentally, this is just one of many instances where an great man of God made a serious error in judgment. Samuel was judging according to his own preconceived ideas, and perhaps according to the precedent set in the selection of King Saul, who was of above average in height and physique. God didn't see the matter in that light at all; He was looking for something more important than looks or personality--He was looking for a good heart.
Let me point out that it doesn't matter how shrewd a judge of character you think you are. The Bible clearly states that you still judge after outward appearances, and that only God knows the hearts (see Jer 17:9, 1 Cor 2:11). In the natural, there are certain people that we might like or dislike more than others, based on how their personalities mix or clash with our own. Each of us is different--that's how God planned it. Even the snowflakes are all different, but that doesn't mean that some are better or worse than others! Every true Christian will not conform to your preconceived ideas of spirituality. Like the snowflakes, even when we are perfected we'll be different. In the meantime, we're to get the chips off our shoulders and receive one another, and learn to love one another and even appreciate the differences that exist. It's not even our option to choose to fellowship with those we like and ignore those we don't; this sort of attitude is totally contrary to the spirit of the New Testament. How much less are we to judge and criticize others on the basis of outward differences of personality and style?
6. Judge Not and don't play "Junior Psychologist." This is a very dangerous and deceptive kind of judging that involves analyzing a person's heart and motives, which we're strictly forbidden by Scripture to do. For example, you take a few impressions and determine that a certain brother or sister is paranoid, deeply insecure, manipulative, or bound by some other hang-up. You discuss it with friend or spouse and further develop your theory, which is now strengthened by the input of another. From that time on you see that person in the light of the conclusions you've already drawn, and everything he or she does only seems to further illustrate the truth of your original assessment. Your victim can never vindicate himself in your sight, because you judge even the good things he does by your preconceived ideas ("he only did that to try to make a good impression, or to get something he wanted," etc.). Often your own faults are attributed to the unfortunate individual in question, as well: if you have a tendency to be vengeful, you assume he or she does, too (see Psalm 50:21) -- and soon that person becomes a gross exaggeration of all your own shortcomings. It's possible to create a real monster with all of this amateur psychoanalysis, someone really nasty and ugly enough to be concerned about. There's only one problem: it's an imaginary character--a straw man that burns easily enough, but who bears little resemblance to the person you have in mind!.
This sort of tendency is why Paul put no value upon the opinions of the Corinthians, a church that was in serious danger because of carnal judging. "Judge nothing before the time," he told them, "until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God," (1 Cor 4:5). Paul was aware of the fact that there are very few real hypocrites in the body of Christ, just a lot of people trying to get by and walk in victory. Let's not make it harder for each other by subjecting ourselves to all kinds of little psychological assessments and character judgments. It reveals more about the person judging than about the object of his criticism anyway.
7. Judge Not, if all you have to go on is a "feeling," a "leading," or a "bad witness." It may be no more than a little indigestion, as one brother aptly pointed out--or to be more precise, a momentary bout of low blood sugar. Don't take out your own grumpiness and personal frustration on others who just happen to strike you wrong on a certain occasion. There is such a thing as discerning of spirits, but the Lord's discerning is not the critical, negative thing that is so often seen today--and all spiritual gifts and insights are to be judged in the cold hard light of the facts before being received.
Most of the people who've had bad witnesses about me were folks who got convicted by my last sermon, and found it easier to attack me than to repent themselves. Maybe I could have been a little more tactful, but that doesn't mean I'm a false prophet. This "witness in the spirit" thing that some Christians do all the time is the most subjective and arbitrary judgment of all. It's a combination of many of the points we've already discussed, and is as unreliable as can be. Again let me encourage you to get the facts, and having done that, refrain anyway from your brother for whom Christ died.
8. Judge Not, because your eagerness to criticize another bears witness to the fact that you've lost sight of the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, the love of 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen--the teachings of the entire New Testament, for that matter. Why do you suppose that all of passages are somehow suspended in your case? Why is it wrong when others judge you, but harmless, or even spiritual, when you and your circle do it? What makes you so superior and enlightened as to be able to make all these judgments of others in the first place? Do you fancy yourself to be "without sin" that you freely cast so many stones (John 8:7)? Do you have no slivers or beams in your own eyes? Can you stand the same sort of scrutiny that you have imposed upon others? Do you really have such an inflated idea of your own spirituality and importance that you're so bold as to ignore all the Scriptures and make pass judgment on others anyway?
The end result of carnal and unnecessary judgment is a hypercritical spirit, division in the church, self-righteousness, and legalism. It's exactly the opposite of everything Paul tried to get across in his epistles, or what Jesus attempted to impart to the multitudes that followed Him. It's what characterized the Pharisees of Jesus' day, and incurred His wrath and public denunciation.
"Judge Not" is not merely a pious platitude, a trite little religious saying that means next to nothing. It's a commandment of the Lord. And our obedience to it will save us and others from a whole lot of hurt and sorrow, and help keep the very foundations of the faith intact in our generation. Let's put away all our lame excuses and rationalizations and start doing what the Bible really says.
Copyright © 2000 Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.