To judge, or not to judge. That is the question.
Why is this even a question? Doesn’t Jesus tell us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1–2 “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged”? And doesn’t Paul write in Romans 14:10. “So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer?”
Answer: yes, and yes.
If that was all the Bible said about judging there wouldn’t be a question. But even in the same Sermon on the Mount—the next verse in fact—Jesus seems contradictory when He says, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (v.3) And further in verse 6, “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs!” And over in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Paul wrote, “… it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.”
So, what is the answer to the question? Do we judge or not judge? The answer is Scripture requires both of believers. Here’s why.
In the Bible, the word “judge” has a spectrum of meanings. It can mean to discern, to judge judicially, to be judgmental, and to condemn. Our natural ability to evaluate and assess people and things can be exercised in a right way or a sinful one.
Context always helps determine meaning. In this context the call to be poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) and to love our enemies (5:43–48) indicates that the verse means, “Do not be judgmental.” In other words, do not adopt a critical spirit—a condemning, unloving attitude. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults” (MSG).
The thing that determines whether the exercise of making judgments is sinful or not is the attitude that accompanies it. Is it done in a humble, loving way or a proud, critical, unloving way? The right way is to have a humble, loving attitude that ignores most of the faults of others. “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
But this does not mean believers are never to speak against any sin. Jesus does want us to judge in the sense of exercising discernment. The context of Matthew 7:3–5 indicates this. When Jesus talks about the speck in the other person’s eye, or wasting “what is holy on people who are unholy” His expectation is that some discernment and assessment should take place. There is an ability to assess that there is a sinful speck or that the attitude of those with whom I am sharing spiritual truth is persistently vicious, irresponsible, and unappreciative. Jesus is calling for us to be discriminating.
We are told elsewhere we also need to be able to assess a person’s character and behaviour in order to steer clear of people of bad character and morals because “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). We need to watch out for false teachers who are wolves disguised as harmless sheep. Through discernment we will know them by their fruit—their actions (Matthew 7:15–16). Paul commanded Timothy, “Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). This also implies some assessment that what the other person has done isn’t right and needs correction.
In addition, the question is not only whether I can discern someone’s behaviour is right or wrong. The question is also, “What is my attitude toward that behaviour?” We may be a discerning believer who can see that there is a speck of error in the other person’s eye needing removal. But the “speckectomy” shouldn’t be attempted by someone with a log of error in their own eye. The log must be removed first.
Even then the speck removal is to be done with humility. And in the case of dealing with another believer’s sin, it is precisely because we are sinners ourselves and are also not qualified to condemn that we should be humble. “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (Galatians 6:1).
The judging Jesus commands against is making judgments and assessments with a critical, condemning, and unloving attitude. And not judging in the sense of failing to discern error or discerning error with an attitude of superiority is just as wrong.
Either way, attitude affects everything.