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What Does ‘Judge Not’ Mean?

Judge_inlineBy Matthew Olmstead

One of the more frequent retorts that is thrown at Christians is that we are not to judge. It’s something the unbelieving world thinks is true and should mark Christian behavior—Christians are not to evaluate or measure another person’s behavior or motives whatsoever. Unfortunately, some Christians have picked up on this and are propagating it too. Since this happened to me recently, I want to look at the passage of Scripture from which this position normally originates—Matthew 7:1, which says, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).

For brevity, here are what a few commentaries and study Bibles have to say:

“Judge” . . . can imply to analyze or evaluate as well as to condemn or avenge. The former senses are clearly commanded of believers (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5; 1 John 4:1), but the latter are reserved for God. Even on those occasions when we render a negative evaluation of others, our purposes should be constructive and not retributive. So Jesus is here commanding his followers not to be characterized by judgmental attitudes. The immediate practical rationale for his command is that others, including God, may treat us in the same manner we treat them. Verse 2 provides the premise for v. 12.[1]

Judge. [The original] can mean to condemn or judge overly harshly; that is what it means here in v. 1 because . . . God will judge accordingly. Jesus condemns censoriousness and judgmentalism (v. 1), but judgment in the sense of analysis or discernment is always necessary, once one has examined oneself first (vv. 2–6). Verses 5–6 make it clear that Jesus’ followers must analyze situations and correct people when they err (cf. vv. 15–20; John 7:24).[2]

Judge not forbids pronouncing another person guilty before God. . . . For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged. Undue harshness and a judgmental attitude toward others will result in being treated in much the same way by God.[3]

Do not judge refers to the passing of harsh, adverse verdicts on the conduct of our fellows; it does not forbid the use of our best critical thinking (which may be done in a spirit of tolerance and helpfulness and which Jesus elsewhere commands as a help to others, 18:15; for that matter how can we avoid casting pearls before pigs [v. 6] without a process of discrimination?). “Don’t judge” does not mean “don’t think.” The verb is used not only generally of passing a verdict, but specifically of passing an adverse verdict, condemning, and it is this that Jesus is forbidding. The present imperative gives the sense “Don’t make a practice of judging.” The habit is easy to form. But it is to be avoided, and Jesus points to the disastrous consequences that follow. It is possible to take that you be not judged to point to the judgment others will pass on us; to be sharply critical of others is to invite others to be sharply critical of us. But what other people do is not to be our criterion, and in the end it does not matter greatly. What matters is the judgment of God; Jesus’ words surely refer to the divine tribunal. To be quick to call others to account is to invite God to call us to account. That judgment in some form is required of his followers is clear from the demand that they cast not what is holy to dogs (v. 6); what is forbidden is censoriousness, the readiness to find fault.[4]

It appears, then, that Jesus is not forbidding Christians from evaluating and analyzing the actions of others. As a matter of fact, it would seem impossible for the wounds of a friend to be faithful if he or she did not first wound—i.e., judge, evaluate, and analyze (cf. Prov. 27:6). Rather, Jesus is teaching His disciples to avoid harsh judgmentalism and censor. The warning is that the same measure the disciples deal out, will be dealt back to them (vv. 2–6). By no means does this give license to Christians to go around criticizing each other’s behavior with abandon. But neither does Matthew 7:1 censure a Christian from vocalizing evaluation of a brother or sister’s behavior.

Matthew Olmstead is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Marysville, Ohio. This article is reposted with permission from his blog.

[1] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 127.

[2] The NIV Zondervan Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).

[3] Dennis, Lane T. and Wayne Grudem, eds. The ESV Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008).

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; InterVarsity Press, 1992), 164–165.