No, I didn’t get it wrong: I did not mistakenly leave a word out of my title. While I certainly have Matt. 7:1 in mind, my thesis here is that believers are commanded to judge. When Jesus told us not to judge in the Matthew passage, he is clearly referring to hypocritical judgment. The immediate context (Matt. 7:1-5), and the whole context of Scripture makes this quite clear.
In the Bible there are numerous passages encouraging believers to judge, to test, to discern, to evaluate, to discriminate, and to differentiate. Unfortunately we live in a world which shies away from all of those activities, and is trying to convince us that we must never judge anyone or anything.
A warped view of tolerance has infected the world, but sadly much of the church has been contaminated by this nonsense as well. On a regular basis believers are going around telling other believers how unbiblical and unspiritual it is to judge. The really ironic thing here of course is in so doing, these believers are being quite judgmental. They are quite happy to chew out and censure other believers for what they consider to be wrong and un-Christlike behaviour. What they are in fact doing in the process is strongly judging others!
I have had a number of fellow Christians berate me in quite strong terms about judging. They feel quite compelled to tell me how wrong it is to be judgmental. But they just can’t seem to make the connection here: they are full of criticism and judgment about me as they rebuke me for being critical and judgmental. Indeed, they are quite intent on rebuking me as they lecture me about how wrong it is to rebuke others.
The truth is, in the real world no one can get away from judgment. Even when one argues that judgment is wrong, one is still making a judgment! Judgment simply has to do with discerning or evaluating. One dictionary definition of judgment is this: “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing”.
And the word judge simply means “to form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises … to determine or pronounce after inquiry and deliberation”. That all sounds like pretty good stuff to me. Indeed, it is. And Scripture everywhere orders us to do these very things.
Understanding Matt. 7:1
Before looking at some biblical passages which exhort us to judge, let me look in a bit more detail at one of the most misquoted and misunderstood texts in the Bible: Matt. 7:1. Here is how the whole pericope (vv. 1-5) reads:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 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? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 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.”
So what is Jesus getting at here? Jesus is warning about those who condemn others, who self-righteously and hypocritically denounce others and act in a censorious manner. He is not saying we should never engage in moral evaluation and discernment. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “In trying to avoid the tendency to condemn, people have swung right over to the other extreme, and so again they are in a false position.”
David Turner comments, “Discipleship inevitably requires discerning ‘judgements’ about individuals and their teachings (e.g., 3:7…). Jesus himself makes such judgments (e.g., 4:10…). Jesus does not forbid here what he has commanded and exemplified elsewhere. What is forbidden is a rigid, censorious judgmentalism that scrutinizes others without even a glance at oneself.”
And of great interest is the very next verse which follows “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matt. 7:6): What is all this about? It sure sounds like judgment to me. Indeed, it has to be. How can one know what is sacred and what is not, unless one discerns, evaluates, tests, and, well, judges?
And just a few verses later in the same chapter, Jesus is at it again: judging! Here is what Matt 7:15-23 says:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
How can we tell if a prophet is true or false unless we judge, discern and test? We must, in fact, be fruit inspectors. The principle here is found in the old saying, ‘like root, like fruit’. R.T. France remarks, “The fruits are not specified, but the idea is clearly that profession must be tested by practice.”
But it is likely that the fruit of both behaviour and belief are what must be judged and assessed. As John Stott remarks, “The first kind of ‘fruit’ by which false prophets reveal their true identity is in the realm of character and conduct. . . . A second ‘fruit’ is the man’s actual teaching. . . . In examining a teacher’s credentials, then, we have to examine both his character and his message. Bishop Ryle summed it up well: ‘Sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of true prophets’.”
The Need to Judge
From what I have already said, it should be clear that there are at least two vital areas which Christians must be discerning about: truth and error, and right and wrong. Scripture urges us to test, judge and evaluate both areas. We are to examine doctrinal teachings and beliefs, and we are to evaluate a believer’s conduct and behaviour.
Consider some passages which speak about the need of judging doctrine. A classic passage in this regard is Acts 17: 11: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Like the Bereans, we must not uncritically accept everything we hear – even by great men of God – but we must carefully test the message as to how it lines up with God’s truth.
As William Larkin notes, the Berean’s noble character manifests itself in two ways: “There is great eagerness to receive the message. Yet the people’s enthusiasm is not gullibility, for they subject Paul’s message, the word of God, to thorough scrutiny.” Or as John Stott puts it, “They combined receptivity with critical questioning.”
And as John Polhill reminds us, “This was no cursory investigation either, no weekly Sabbath service, as at Thessalonica. They met daily to search the Scriptures.” What a great model for all believers to follow.
Another passage is 2 Thess. 2:3: “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way.” The idea is that deception is all around, and we must guard ourselves against it. Only by the prayerful testing and judging of what people say in the light of Scripture can we avoid being deceived. As G.K. Beale reminds us, “Deceptive ideas can be conveyed in a variety of ways that make them appear attractive and true.” But we are called to look beyond appearances, and carefully judge what is being taught.
We are also told in Scripture to judge behaviour. That includes both us and others. Jesus made this quite clear. In Luke 17:3 he admonishes us with these words: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Joel Green comments, “What Jesus counsels is, first, confrontation, and, second, readiness to forgive.” I am not sure if today’s church is very good at doing either!
Darrell Bock further explains what this rebuking is all about: “Disciples are to share in each other’s commitment to pursue righteousness. Thus, Jesus exhorts them to rebuke a believer who sins, not because he wishes disciples to meddle in the affairs of others, but because he wishes the community to desire the righteousness that results in accountability to one another for the way they walk. Such exhortations are common in the NT.”
Paul also exhorts us to judge others. In 1 Tim 5:20 he says, “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” In an age where believers are loathe to confront anyone, and where church discipline has all but disappeared, such remarks must sound quite alien indeed.
Gordon Fee comments, “This may seem a bit harsh and unloving, but … it is for the sake of the whole community. The point is that the others will experience ‘the fear of God’ by such a public rebuke”. If ‘judgment’ is a rarely heard term in today’s church, so too is ‘the fear of the Lord’.
Of course there are a number of such passages which speak about the need for, and the right way of doing, church discipline. This is not the place to go into detail on the subject. Suffice it to say that all church discipline has as its aim the restoration of the wayward brother. But it starts with confrontation, judging, and rebuking.
And of course we are to judge ourselves as well. Here are two passages – of many – which speak to this. In 1 Thess. 5:21-22 Paul exhorts us to “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” A number of commentators have noted that this passage draws upon the imagery of testing metals, or coins, and can be thought of in terms of distinguishing true or genuine coinage from false or counterfeit coins. Just as judgment and discernment are needed as we assess coins, so too they are needed in the spiritual life.
As Leon Morris remarks, “All things must be tested. And not simply tested, but accepted wholeheartedly or rejected decisively as a result of the test. ‘Hold fast’ denotes the firm acceptance of the good. There must be no half measures.”
A specific example of judging oneself comes in 1 Cor. 11:28: “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” Without such self-examination, the presumptuous believer opens himself up to divine judgment (vv. 29-32). As Paul warns in v. 31, “if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment”.
Peter had said similar things: “Judgment must first begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). David Prior comments, “Each Christian is obliged, not to reach some moral or spiritual standard of perfection (imaginary or otherwise), but to pursue rigorous and honest self-scrutiny.”
Paul sums this up all very nicely in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.”
Many other passages could be mentioned here. The point is, believers are called to judge. We are called to judge the teachings we hear. We are called to judge ourselves and our conduct. And we are called to judge the conduct of others.
So the next time you hear someone recklessly throwing around Matt. 7:1, remind him that he must proclaim the “full counsel of God” as Paul said in Acts 20:27. Ripping one passage out of context is not helpful. Yes we are to avoid censorious judgmentalism. But we are also called to test, approve, discern, evaluate, discriminate, and judge. To do anything less is to renounce our Christian calling.