“Well let me quote you a Bible verse, Bill,” George said with a glint in his eye, “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Do not judge’? Isn’t that what you’re doing by saying that it’s wrong for me to look at porn?” His expression shouted: “Checkmate!” Bill found himself suddenly at a loss for words.
I’ve been told (though I cannot prove it) that the Bible verse most commonly quoted by unbelievers is not John 3:16. It’s Matthew 7:1—“Do not judge or you too will be judged.” This verse is interpreted to mean: “Jesus commanded you not to criticize anyone else’s behavior. If you say that what I’m doing is wrong, then you’re violating Jesus’ command.” I’ve also heard some Christians interpret it similarly (“Hey, who am I to judge?”).
Is Jesusteaching us that we are never to criticize anyone else or call what they’re doing wrong? This can’t be true. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus says: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” “Show him his fault”. That sounds like criticism to me. Furthermore, all we have to do is to read the writings of Jesus’ apostles and we see that they didn’t hesitate to criticize their brothers and sisters if they thought it would be helpful to them (Paul: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Gal. 3:1)
In addition, the word “judge” is used in a positive sense in other places in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 Paul tells the Corinthians to stop going to public court against each other and appoint judges among themselves to resolve the lawsuits. He adds that believers will one day judge the world and angels. In 1 Cor. 11:29 Paul notes “but if we judged ourselves we would not come under judgment.” In 1 Cor. 5:3: Paul says “I have already passed judgment on the one who did this.” Jesus says, in John 7:24, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” In 1 Cor. 2:15Paul notes that: “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things. . .” I’ll stop there. It’s clear that believers are allowed to evaluate or judge themselves and even, to some extent, others. Sometimes they’re even called to criticize or rebuke another believer out of love and concern (2 Tim. 4:2). And part of preaching the gospel is telling unbelievers that they’re sinners who need a Savior (Acts 2:38). That’s certainly a criticism or judgment, isn’t it?
Yet Jesus says: “Do not judge.” And this sort of admonition is also given in James 4:11,12. What are we to make of these apparently conflicting commands? The problem occurs because of the flexibility of language. A single word often has not just one meaning but a number of them (for an extreme example, look up the word “spring” in an English dictionary). This is called the “semantic range”. The Greek word often translated “judge” in English is “krino”. “Krino” can mean: to decide (1 Cor. 2:2), to prefer (Rom. 14:5), to evaluate (1 Cor. 10:15), to hold a view (Gal. 5:10), to make a legal decision (Acts 23:3), to condemn (John 7:51), and to rule (Luke 22:30).1 The English word “judge” also has a range of meanings, some of which are neutral (“In my judgment, we should wait.”) and some of which imply negativity (“You have no right to judge!”). So the challenge in interpreting any biblical passage is to decide the proper semantic nuance that the author intended in this particular verse.
This brings us back to Matthew 7:1. What does Jesus mean here by “Do not judge”? Does He mean “you have no right to evaluate or criticize another person”? That’s clearly not true for the reasons already given. Furthermore, in the verses that follow Jesus does not criticize the disciples for pointing out the “speck” in their brother’s eye (some sort of fault or flaw). In fact He encourages them to help remove it (Matt. 7:5). The problem is their hypocrisy – they’re focused on a brother’s flaws while ignoring their own — the “plank in your own eye” (Matt. 7:3,4). He says “first take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).
So what does Jesus mean when He says “Do not judge”? I believe that He’s warning us against a toxic attitude. Jamieson puts it this way: “The context makes it clear that the thing here condemned is that disposition to look unfavorably on the character and actions of others, which leads invariably to the pronouncing of rash, unjust, and unlovely judgments upon them.”2
Jesus is speaking here of a judgmental or critical spirit. This spirit does not yield a loving, even-handed evaluation of others. It’s a perspective that’s colored negative from the git-go; a rigged point of view; a stacked deck. The critical spirit instinctively searches for something to criticize while blithely overlooking what could be praised. It turns even a positive into a negative (“He’s only being nice because he wants something!”). We’ve all encountered people like this (and been like this ourselves). You just can’t seem to win with judgmental folks. Jesus dealt with this critical spirit frequently. He cast out demons but, instead of cheering, his opponents said: Luke 11:15 . . .“By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” He healed a man with a withered hand but, instead of rejoicing, His opponents rejected Him for breaking the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).
“Do not judge. . .” We would do well to be sobered by this verse. It’s all too easy to be overly-critical or to make unwarranted negative assumptions about others. And yes, let’s first take the speck out of our own eyes. That has a way of humbling us. Criticism is a tool best used sparingly and with discernment. Yet, as light-bearers in a darkened world, we’re also called to speak the desperately needed truth. Sin is a problem, both in us and in our fellow human beings. To ignore this is not an act of love. How can sinners seek a Savior if they don’t understand what sinfulness is? Love will not allow us to stay silent.
So how can I know if I’ve slipped into this judgmental spirit? Tune in next week to hear this discussed in more depth.
1Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains
2Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 29). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.