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To Judge or Not to Judge?


Thomas R. Fletcher

The subject of judging the conduct or behavior of another person presents us with a difficult decision. Are we to judge? Doesn't Matthew 7:1 say, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged?" (All quotations from the NIV.) On the surface, it would seem this command means that we are to never make a judgment call.

To properly understand a passage of Scripture it must be examined and interpreted in its immediate context, which begins in Matthew 7:1 and runs through Matthew 7:12. So often we have seen these verses broken apart as if they stand alone. In reality, Jesus begins a thought in verse one, gives insight to his teaching in the intermediate verses and declares a summation in verse 12. This is indicated by the "so," (translated "therefore" in several other English translations) found in verse 12, indicating that what is to follow is a summation based upon what has gone before.

First of all let's discuss what the Greek word translated judge can mean. Depending upon context, the word may be used to mean: to separate; distinguish; decide between; think; approve; determine; give judgment; condemn or punish. If we were to assume, based upon Mt. 7:1, that Christians are to never make a judgment call, we would have a problem. We would have contradictions in the Bible--and there are no contradictions in the Bible. When there is an apparent contradiction it means we need to dig a little deeper to understand the passages in question. In Luke 12:57 Jesus says "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" In 1 Corinthians 5:3, the Apostle Paul says "I have already passed judgment..." Then in 1 Corinthians 5:12 he asks the church, "Are you not to judge those inside?" From these few examples we can see that we must go beyond the surface meaning of Matthew 7:1 if we are to understand Jesus' teaching. I believe Jesus is exhorting his disciples to stop judging to condemn. Human nature causes us to examine the faults of others much more closely than we are willing to examine our own.

"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged (verse 2)" is often taken to refer to God's judging us as we judge others. Can this be so? At times we make false judgments. We make decisions based upon outward appearance. We jump to wrong conclusions. Is that possible with God? Of course not. He is the only one in possession of all the facts. Only He can make a perfect judgment every time. If we are reckless, critical, and judgmental of others we can expect to be judged by the same misguided, misapplied standards by our fellow man.

"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 (Mt. 7:3)?" The "speck" refers to something insignificant, but the "plank" refers to a large beam of wood suitable for use in the foundation of a building. Did the Lord mean that the person with the plank had some gross moral sin? I don't think so--such a person isn't apt to be pointing out minor flaws in the lives of others. The "plank" refers to the endeavor to find the "speck." The plank is a critical spirit that seeks to find fault with another. The plank is a proud self-righteous attitude. The antithesis of Christian deportment is a false righteousness that seeks to find fault in others. A blindness to our own shortcomings leads to our criticism of others. Jesus doesn't mince words, "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 (Mt. 7:5)." Why the strong language? Because few things are as hypocritical as pointing out the faults of others while ignoring our own. Often the faults of others are pointed out to deflect attention from our own.

Jesus is making a progression here. He warns his disciples against judgmental criticism, warning that they will be subject to the same. He then exhorts them to deal with the plank of pride and self-righteousness, and here is the key: "then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye (verse 5)." He doesn't say, "then you will more clearly see the faults of others." When the elements of pride and self-righteousness are removed from our lives the focus is no longer on the minor faults of others. The focus becomes, "How may I help?" The desire to make ourselves look better is gone, our desire is to lovingly help people through their problems. As a consequence, we are no longer "hypocrites," willing to point out the sin of others while ignoring our own.

We "judge" not to condemn, but rather we analyze to see how we may help. We may offer assistance in "speck removing," only after we have dealt with our self-righteous attitudes. Notice that in Mt. 7:3 the focus was looking at the speck (beholding the fault, pointing it out to others), in Mt. 7:5 the focus is on removing the speck.

When our motivation is correct, we still must make judgment calls, but the element of criticism is gone. We see this by Jesus words in Mt. 7:6. We have to judge who are the "dogs" and "pigs," metaphorically speaking. We analyze situations so we do not throw pearls to pigs. We must know when to withhold the sacred from the dogs. There comes a point, when we have witnessed to individuals, shared scriptural principles and faced repeated rejection that I believe we are no longer to "give dogs what is sacred." How do we know when that point is reached? We are to depend upon God, by persistently seeking his face in prayer, as indicated by Mt. 7:7-11.

We are to ask, seek, and knock. What are we to ask for, seek, and knock that it will be opened to us? God's wisdom in making the judicious decisions we must make. When we have that revealed wisdom, we are to then wrap it in the summation point of verse 12, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you..." In making the judgment calls we must make, we are to treat people as we would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. Since I am not fond of being criticized, I shouldn't be critical of others. I should go to them in a loving manner.

The direction of not giving dogs what is sacred and not throwing pearls to pigs requires judgment. Our judgment requires God's direction, carefully sought through persistent prayer, all this depends upon our having the right motivation (to help, not to condemn). All this is to be wrapped in the principle of treating others the way we would like to be treated were the roles reversed.

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