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Out of Context: “Judge not.”

Out of Context
Judge not, that ye be not judged.

—Jesus, Matthew 7.1 KJV

And that’s as far as people quote.

This verse is quoted a lot, usually for one of two reasons, both wrong. The first is, admittedly, noble: It’s for the sake of tolerance and acceptance. When people behave in a way that offends you personally—either sinfully, such as cheating one another, or in a way that offends your sensibilities, such as more wasteful than you’d like—“Judge not” is meant to remind you that we’re all equal in the eyes of God: You’re no better; you sin just as much; you’re likely just as ignorant of your misbehavior as these poor souls; you need to love them for Jesus’s sake, despite their flaws.

The second is to get out of trouble: “Hey man, don’t judge me. ‘Judge not,’ right?”

I think we can set aside those people who quote “Judge not” in order to continue living the lifestyles they know they shouldn’t. Clearly they’re using the scriptures as a loophole. But using “Judge not” as an appeal for open-mindedness and understanding: That’s a valid concern. Christians should be open-minded and understanding. It’s part and parcel of a lifestyle of forgiveness.

The context.

Still, let’s make sure we understand the scripture correctly. The whole teaching goes like this. (I lined it up as poetry because, well, it is poetry. That was Jesus’s intent in phrasing it this way.)

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.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,

but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Or how can you say to your brother,

“Let me take the speck out of your eye,”

when there is the log in your own eye?

You hypocrite, 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, Matthew 7.1-5 ESV

The point of this passage, as I’ve discussed, is to teach Christians to not live by double standards. When we tell someone, “You sinner; you know better than to steal,” we ought not be thieves ourselves—we ought not be hypocrites, pretending to not be thieves; or pretending that we’ve never, ever stolen in our lives; or objecting to people stealing money while we ourselves rob our employers of time; or objecting to people stealing large items while we only pilfer small ones.

Hence the example of the person with the log in the eye, offering to help the person with the speck. Jesus exaggerates, but you get the idea: If we have the same problem, we’re no help. We need to overcome the problem, then help. And then, though Jesus doesn’t say so here, we can actually be a more valuable help than someone who can’t relate. When members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery get “sponsors” to mentor them, these sponsors have struggled with addiction too, but have been successful at resisting temptation, and that’s what makes them valuable resources. A person who lapses frequently would be a rotten sponsor; such people still need sponsoring themselves.

Where “Judge not” comes in is that, as before, we’re equal in the eyes of God. You’re a sinner; I’m a sinner; you’re trying to stop sinning; so am I. If I judge you, I judge myself as well, for I must be held to the same standard. There’s not a different standard for the Christian and the pagan, just as there wasn’t a different law for the Hebrew and the Gentile. (Nu 15.15) There’s not a different standard for the rich and poor, (Lv 19.15) simply because one is more pitiable, or the other can afford to get away with it. There’s not a different standard for children and adults, young and old, women and men, wise and foolish, smarter and denser, anyone. We’re all judged alike.

Commanded to judge.

Everyone judges. The word “judge,” either our English word or the Greek word kríno, means to decide between one thing or another. Everyone does that. You decided to read this post instead of the stuff your friends stuck on Facebook. (You might have chosen it second, but still.)

And from time to time we’re expected to judge. Jesus orders us Christians to judge matters among ourselves, rather than take one another to court. (Lk 12.57-59) He tells us, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (Jn 7.24 ESV) James judged, on behalf of the early church, to not obligate Gentile Christians to obey the Law before they could turn to Jesus. (Ac 15.19) Paul judged, in absentia, a Corinthian who was sleeping with his stepmother, and rebuked Corinth for not doing so themselves, writing, “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.” (1Co 5.12 NLT) He further wrote,

When one of you has a dispute with another believer, how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers! Don’t you realize that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide even these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues? But instead, one believer sues another—right in front of unbelievers!

—Paul, 1 Corinthians 6.1-6 NLT

If all we follow is “Judge not,” we would be violating each of these other scriptures that tell us we need to judge—we need to choose between right and wrong. Not among pagans, as Paul pointed out; (1Co 5.12) not till the End, (1Co 4.5) for not even Jesus intends to judge anyone till the End. (Jn 12.47-48) But when there are disagreements between fellow Christians? Judge away. Just remember: We are judged by the very same standard.

As for pagans, they don’t need judgment. They need grace. They need to be won over by experiencing the generosity and forgiveness of God. They already know they’re in the wrong with God. They don’t need to hear any more of that. What they need is to hear that Jesus took care of their sins, and offers them a restored relationship with God. They need to experience Christians’ kindness. Not our judgment.