In Matthew 7:1, Jesus plainly states “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Many have taken our Lord’s teaching and twisted it to support their own agenda. I’ve heard this verse cited in opposition to Christians condemning sinful lifestyles like cohabitation, inebriation, abortion, and many others. Most often, these folks point to Jesus’ words as if He said, “Who are you to judge another?” Indeed, proponents of such misinterpretation fail to consider the context of this doctrine, both within the immediate passage and in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. There is, however, some ground for them to stand on.
Some who do point to this passage are themselves self-proclaimed atheists or non-believers. These are folks who have not grown up in the church but, perhaps, grew up in a Christian culture. For them, there is a cursory, surface-level familiarity with the Bible, but nothing more. They are, therefore, right to question the Christian, “Who are you to judge?” The biblical understanding of this doctrine is, yes, the Christian has no place to judge the non-believer. One, because we can never truly know the eternal state of any one other than ourselves. And, two, because if they are truly non-believers, they have already been judged by God and are condemned (see Romans 1).
Jesus’ charge in Matthew 7:1-5 to “judge not” is given to believers to humble them into recognizing that all sin and fall short of God’s glory and therefore all are in need of a Savior. Jesus transitions smoothly from that teaching to a teaching on judging properly when he says in verse 6, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine.” Jesus expects the true believer to be able to discern who is a dog or swine. And it is precisely that type of judging every Christian is called to hone. Let’s review a few passages of scripture.
Jesus says something similar to Matthew 7 in John 7:24, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” The Christian is to have no prejudice in his judgements. We must not judge a book by it’s cover. Rather, the Christian is to have a “righteous judgement.” A judgment that is grounded in the truth of Scripture. The Bible presents objective reality and gives us objective commands. A righteous judgment is one based on biblical principles.
This means the Christian cannot judge those outside of the church because the biblical principles are neither written on their hearts nor are they transformed by the spiritual renewal of their minds. The same cannot be said for those inside the church. It is for this reason Paul tells the church that “he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.” (I Corinthians 2:15) Those who are outside of the church, those without spiritual renewal, cannot in any way discern the Spirit in believers. Believers, however, not only can but must “appraise all things,” meaning we must judge sin when it appears in the church. Paul later adds that wisdom and discernment in the church are necessary to judge matters between the brethren. (I Corinthians 6:1-8) It appears the church in Corinth did not heed Paul’s teaching because in his second letter he condemns them: “If one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached… you bear this beautifully.” (II Corinthians 11:4) The judgment-free zone some set up in the church led to grievous errors and divisions, which Paul had to address.
Likewise, the Apostle John urges us the church, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits… because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1) Indeed, it is this same practice of judging that Christ praises in the church in Ephesus that they “cannot tolerate evil men, and [they] put to the test those who call themselves apostles.” This testing, John says, revealed to the Ephesian church that these apostles were false. (Revelation 2:2) The hard, yet biblical truth is, Christians are called to judge the false Christians or antichrists that crop up in the church (see, I John 2:18-20). Reader, I urge you to dive into the Scriptures, because it is there and there alone that we will find the measure for righteous judgment.