Q: I read in my Bible that God has many moral laws for humanity, but in Matthew 7:1, Jesus says, “Do not judge , lest you be judged.” How can these two things be reconciled?
In recent years, this verse has become one of the most well-known in the entire Bible among Americans, perhaps even surpassing John 3:16 in familiarity. In our present culture, the making of moral or theological judgments is strictly frowned-upon, and anything that could be interpreted as judging is firmly denounced. This, however, is not the position of the Bible or of Jesus.
To begin, it is necessary to look, not just at verse 1 of Matthew 7, but at the entire five verses of the chapter where Jesus makes this statement. Jesus immediately follows by saying in verse 2, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” These words both assume that his hearers actually will judge in some way and reveal that it is not all judging that He warns against, but instead, hypocritical judgments which apply a different standard to another person than one follows himself.
This is further emphasized in the verses which follow. Jesus gives the example of a man attempting to remove a piece of sawdust from another man’s eye. Ironically, the first man actually has a large log in his own eye, which makes the task impossible. Jesus closes by saying, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus first points out the absurdity of a person making hypocritical judgments, but with His final words, He also instructs that the person who has first gotten his own affairs in order will then assist his neighbor in doing the same. This would be impossible if all judging were unconditionally prohibited.
In addition, we never read one portion of the Bible in exclusion of the others. Instead, we look at the entire history of what God has said through its authors. When we do this, we find Jesus’ Apostles, such as Peter, James, and Paul, making frequent judgments about both doctrine and morality throughout their letters that have been recorded in the New Testament.
We also see numerous instances where the Bible actually commands, requires, or even praises certain types of judging:
- To discipline public sins in the church (Mt. 18, 1 Cor. 5)
- To settle disputes between people in the church (1 Cor. 6)
- To test doctrinal teaching (Mt. 7:15-20, Acts 17:11, 1 Cor. 14:29, 1 Jn. 4:1)
- To test qualifications for church leadership (1 Tim. 3, Titus 2)
These are merely a few of the most obvious examples where Jesus, Luke, and Paul speak favorably regarding instances of judging.
The teaching of Jesus and the testimony of the Bible as a whole are not that judging is unconditionally prohibited, but that the judgments made by Christians are to live up to certain standards. First, they are to be honest rather than hypocritical (Mt. 7, Rom. 2:1). Secondly, the standard for all valid judgments is the teachings and laws of the Bible, and not any cultural or individual opinion. Additionally, not all judgments are to be openly declared for all to hear. Depending on a person’s position of authority and the nature of the issue at hand, there are criteria which determine whether one should warn another person privately or announce a judgment publicly (Mt. 18).
There are certainly situations where the most caring and compassionate thing a person can do would actually be to judge another, for example when family and friends participate in an intervention for a loved one experiencing addictive or harmful behaviors or when police arrest those who are endangering others.
Jesus certainly did not intend that Christians are to approve of all beliefs and actions without discernment. Instead, He is warning those listening at the time and those reading today not to make judgments about others out of self-righteousness rather than compassion or out of hypocritical pride rather than sincere defense of the truth.