Our government has set standards for what is acceptable for food consumption in our country. In fact, they have established an entire department called the Food and Drug Administration which creates the rules that food suppliers must follow. To make sure that companies and farmers are obeying the law, the FDA sends out inspectors to walk through factories and farms making sure that the food being produced follows the law. Take, for example, a fruit inspector. He comes to the apple orchard to inspect the harvest before it is shipped to the market. He looks at the apples to make sure they are not rotting or filled with bugs and worms. If an apple passes the laws that the FDA has made, then the fruit is sent on down the line. If an apple fails, then it is thrown away. This simple example shows us how Christians are to judge as well.
However, I have noticed in real life, on Facebook statuses, all over the Internet, and in the media that when someone is criticized by a Christian, the return attack is swift and consistent: “Jesus said not to judge so you can’t say anything to me.” It usually causes Christians to clam up and drop the subject. As a follower of Christ, you never want to violate the Teacher’s commands. But is this command not to judge the whole story? What, exactly, does the New Testament say about judging? The misinformation about judging and the Christian life has led me to call Matthew 7:1-5 the most misused verses in the Bible. The truth about judging is that Jesus commanded Christians not to judge (Matthew 7:1-5), but He also commanded us to judge (John 7:24). It sounds contradictory, but with closer examination, we’ll understand better. There are four guidelines for both commands are found in the New Testament to help us be biblical in our judgments.
Know the Standard
Just like a food inspector has to know the laws of the FDA, Christians have to know the laws of God. This very first step is where most people get it wrong, even the Jewish leaders and teachers of Jesus’ day. Matthew 7:1-2 is actually discussing this very issue. The first two verses of that passage say, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” The Jewish leaders were using their own personal standard and binding it on the people as part of God’s Law. Not only had they developed their own additions to the Law, but they were judging or condemning those who did not follow them correctly.
God has given us a standard in His word. There are plenty of passages throughout the Bible that tell us what kind of lives we need to live to be pleasing to Him. In John 7:24, Jesus commands the people to “judge with right judgment.” A fruit inspector can’t decide that the government’s standards are too strict and let a rotten apple slide by every so often. He can’t decide that the government’s standards are too lenient and discard fruit that has a speck of dirt on it. Neither can Christians change God’s standard to fit how we think it should be. In fact, Jesus warned those who judge outside of God’s standard what the result will be: “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matt. 7:2b).” Righteous judgment is upholding the standard that God has established.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Let’s read John 7:24 again, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” As Christians, we must be very careful not to look at people and judge their faithfulness to God based upon appearances and assumptions. To understand this passage in John, we need to back up a bit to John 7:22-23,
Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath, a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?
Jesus is referring to the miracle He performed in John 5:1-18 where He heals a man on the Sabbath, and the Jewish leaders decide that He needs to be killed for calling Himself God’s Son. What does all of that have to do with judging by appearances? Jesus did not fit their idea of what the Messiah should be. They thought they knew what the Messiah would look like. The Messiah would never have broken the Sabbath by healing someone (remember above where we talked about having your own standard!). The Messiah would have been more educated (John 7:15). The Messiah would have been like the Jewish leaders. But He wasn’t. The way He appeared to the people was not the way many Jews thought He should, so they judged Him based on that appearance.
The inverse of this idea is found in Matthew 7:15-20. Jesus describes false teachers that will appear as sheep, but are really wolves. In other words, they will fit all of the outward things we think a teacher, preacher, or Christian should be. They will have a degree from a prestigious university; they will be perfectly dressed, very friendly, and a great public speaker. But their appearance is deceiving. They fit the ideal, but are actually far from it. How does Jesus expect us to know the difference? By their fruits: the way they live, what their life produces. While we do not know someone’s heart the way Jesus did, we can observe their behavior. None of us are perfect and we all stumble and fall. What Jesus is talking about here is not a quick snap judgment, but a prolonged exposure to someone’s actions. In other words, if someone tells you they are not racist, but every time you are around them they use racial slurs and tell at least one racist joke, then their “fruit” is not showing their words to be true. Righteous judgment is looking at the fruit in people’s lives and applying God’s established standard to it.
Perfect People Not Necessary
Along with the crime of judging is the charge of being a hypocrite if I judge while I still have sin in my life. Considering that none of us will be perfect until we get to Heaven, this argument is another effective way of trying to silence Christians with Jesus’ words, again using Matthew 7:3-5. Remember Jesus is talking to the spiritual superheroes of His day, the rabbis and teachers. The Jewish people looked up to them as examples of what God wanted them to be like. Unfortunately, the rabbis and teachers believed the hype. They felt that they kept the Law perfectly, that God was pleased with them. In these verses, Jesus is telling them they are wrong. They need to stop going around and telling everybody else what their sins are and instead work on their own first. Imagine the surprise of the leaders and rabbis to be told that they are sinful!
In fact, God tells us through the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:31 to “judge ourselves truly.” While this specific passage is talking about judging ourselves when partaking of the Lord’s Supper, this principle is valid in all aspects of our life. Every song, every movie, every book, every thought, every action, and every relationship should all be examined in the light of God’s standard. This includes protecting your home, children, and spouse from these less than godly influences. Drawing a line in the sand about who or what you allow into your home, around your children, or in your life is not a sinful judgment. It is trying to live by God’s standard. God expects us and commands us to judge, but only if we judge ourselves and work to correct the areas where we fall short. Righteous judgment is looking at the fruit in our own lives as well as other people’s lives and applying God’s established standard to it.
Grace and Love Required, But Protect Your Pearls
The most important part of judgment is our motivation and our presentation. The Jewish leaders judged out of pride and power. Our motivation must be love for others and their souls. It should season our judgment with tenderness and humility. Jesus was harshest when judging those who knew better, the men learned in the law. He had such compassion for the ordinary people that even when judging their choices (John 8:2-11) or spiritual standing (John 4:19-24), His judgment was full of love and grace. We should follow in His example. Do not assume that the world knows better, they do not. Do not assume your brother or sister in Christ is as mature in their Christian walk as you, they may not be. We do not judge with the expectation people will become like us but so they become like Jesus.
Extending grace and love through judgment is a delicate balance, but there are some guidelines that will make your words more palatable.
- Pray. We should always pray, but definitely pray before presenting God’s standard to someone. This is the most important step if for no other reason than it will help you keep a level head. Many times the people that we most want to help are the people we are closest to. Watching them make poor choices and live lives that are contrary to God’s word can make us want to thrust the word of God in their face with vigor! But this passion can lead to hurt feelings. Praying can help control that passion instead of reacting in a way that might be perceived as harsh, and judgmental instead of loving.
Wait for true seekers and softened hearts. Just because Jesus gave you the command to judge, does not mean you are the appointed morality police for your neighborhood. If anything, it will turn more people away from the Lord than to Him. I have found in my own life that people are more receptive to being “judged” when they are truly seeking or life has thrown them a loop leading to a softening of their heart. For example, when I was in college I was good friends with a girl who liked to party and go to clubs. She was always complaining how she could never find any good men to date. I basically just listened and commiserated. Then one day, she came to me crying and upset. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and out of frustration she asked me, “Why do I always pick the bad guys?” I could tell that she was sincerely curious, so I remarked, “It might have to do with where you are trying to find them: at parties or at clubs.” I would love to tell you that she immediately turned her life around, but that did not happen. However, for one brief moment, she heard me and listened to me relate God’s standard to her. I waited for her to truly seek out godly counsel and have a softened heart.
In general, it is a bad idea to take it upon yourself to point out someone’s ungodly behavior if they have not asked for your opinion or are not convicted. You will basically wind up cornering someone while you tell them, even in your most loving and graceful way, that they are falling far short of God’s standard. The end result will probably be someone who comes out of their corner swinging. The only people I would dream of confronting would be friends or family with whom I had a very close relationship. Jesus never sought out people to rebuke. Either they attacked His integrity and mission (the Pharisees) or He came in contact with people who were seeking with softened hearts.
- Keep your judgments private. I cannot stress the importance of this enough in today’s media and social network world. Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc. are not the kind of place to comment on ungodly behavior of people in your acquaintance. I’m not talking about general comments about sinful behaviors, but specific behaviors of specific people. Typing things into a screen has made us a people who do not censor our words as much as we would if we were looking at someone face to face, but there is still someone on the other side of that screen reading it. For example, very recently a friend of mine on Facebook who is a member of the church had a status that read, “Nothing sounds so good as popping open an ice cold beer on a hot day.” What followed was ugly to say the least. People from her church family proceeded to comment on her status calling her a sinner, not a true Christian, quoting Bible verses to her about alcohol, etc. While I understand their motivation, broadcasting it on Facebook was not the best way to deal with this issue. A private conversation would have been much better. The result was that she left the church the following week because of all the “judgmental” people. Being called out in public never results in good feelings for anybody involved. Even if people are not members of the church, go to them privately. It’s much more loving and grace-filled.
- Guard your pearls. In Matthew 7:6 Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Notice that this verse follows immediately after the verses we’ve studied about judging. This is not a coincidence. When you share what the Bible says with people, there are going to be those who will call you judgmental, intolerant, narrow-minded, etc. These people are not interested. They do not want a standard to live by. As our country becomes more and more humanist and post-modern in its thinking, this will be encountered more frequently. As Christians, we need to share the truth and leave it. If the ground is fertile, they will be back with more sincere questions. If they are not interested, then do not continue to throw more pearls to them.
When dealing with the Christian command to judge, we need to keep in mind Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Speak words at the right time in the right manner and both you and the hearer will be blessed. Righteous judgment is looking at the fruit in our own lives and other people’s lives and applying God’s established standard to it through a lens of grace and love.
As Christians we do have a command to judge. Please do not be intimidated when people–Christians or non-Christians–try to flaunt their sin, and then ask you to remain silent because you are a Christian. God’s word has given us the ability to execute a righteous judgment. We need to use it for His glory and bring others to Him.
*All scripture quoted in this article are from the English Standard Version.
By Chelli Guthrie
Chelli and her husband, Luke, work with the Abell St. church of Christ in Wharton, Texas, where Luke is the pulpit minister. Chelli teaches the Jr. High class on Sunday mornings and leads the Children’s Bible Hour program on Sunday nights. She is a full-time mom who homeschools their three children: Grace (8), Sophia (4), and Levi (2). Her blog is www.theplantedtrees.blogspot.com.