Doesn’t the Bible Say ‘Don’t Judge’?

One of the most popular and well known passages in the Bible is the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 7:1-5:

 “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. 3 Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 CSB

People love to pull out anecdotes from this passage: “Don’t judge!” “Don’t be a hypocrite!” “Take the log out of your own eye!” The reason for the popularity of these verses and others like them is none of us likes to feel like we are being judged. Whether we have done something wrong or not, the feeling of standing under judgement is distasteful for us all. The naughty kid isn’t sorry he misbehaved, but sorry he was caught. The lawbreaker often would have been perfectly happy if no one had noticed that they broke the law. Even in our personal relationships at home, church and work, no one likes it when it is pointed out that we have spoken or acted in an unkind manner. To be judged is to be told you are at fault and that you are “wrong”. This is something no one enjoys.

Because of this, it is human nature to desire freedom from rules, laws and accountability, at least where our own life is concerned. The irony is we don’t want that personal freedom to interfere with our own lives when it is expressed by others. If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we all have a bit of a hypocrite in us and would prefer a world where we have the freedom to judge others while they were forbidden from judging us. I’m not going to enter into the greater discussion about the laws of the land and judgement on a larger, national scale, but instead look at what role judgement should play on a smaller scale, especially in the local church.

Should Christians “judge” one another? Judge is an interesting word and I guess it depends on what definition you are using. Paul seemed to “judge” some of the churches and people in the churches in his letters. The letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation have a degree of judgement as to the character of some of the churches. Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, we see people held accountable for sinful, wrongful actions and there being consequences for those actions. When you read the language used in the New Testament, the word judge doesn’t seem to fit what is being described. Here are a few examples:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:1-2 ESV

This is a clear situation, someone is guilty, and they have been caught, but this doesn’t sound very much like judgement. Those who are spiritual is most likely referring to spiritually mature believers in the person’s church. They go to the guilty party and restore them with a spirit of gentleness, being careful not to be tempted towards sin on their own. This is all a part of fulfilling the command to bear one another’s burdens. Guilt over wrong doing is a burden and we help those who have committed the transgression to bear it. Bearing this burden doesn’t mean dismissing the transgression as being insignificant, but rather emphasizing that the person who sinned is more important than their transgression and the first priority is their restoration.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17 ESV

This passage is often used as a manual for dealing with sin in the church. This is a very relational process, you are going to the person who has sinned, not with the goal of condemnation, but with the goal of the person’s wellbeing and keeping your relationship with them and their relationship with the church intact. The passage ends with clear judgement, a professing Christian who is unrepentant in their sin, is essentially no longer seen as a part of the church community. This is commonly called today, church discipline.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James 5:19-20 ESV

James holds up the example of someone who actively reaches out and lovingly helps someone to get back on track. This seems to be talking about someone who was a part of the church and then fell into sin. James would have been familiar with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, so perhaps he is talking about the restoration of an unrepentant sinner, though he doesn’t spell that out.

Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

Luke 17:3-4 CSB

This last example passage comes from Jesus and the emphasis is on forgiveness, not judgement. Again, sin is not dismissed, but rebuked. It is never loving to ignore sin. Here the sinner is willing to repent when called to account and it is our responsibility to repeatedly forgive the person who repents. Repentant sin is always forgiven. That is what Christ models for us and it is a standard for our own behavior.

In these passages, we don’t really see judgement in the way that it would traditionally be defined, but we definitely see a process for holding people accountable when they enter into sinful behavior. So, what principles can we apply in our own attempts to remove both the planks and specks out of each other’s eyes?

  1. Community is Key. In the Matthew 7 passage, Jesus was speaking to a large crowd of people. This is similar to a post you might make on social media or an article like this one. When we are speaking to people who we are not close with, not in a local covenant relationship with, it’s best to take the advice of the Sermon on the Mount and avoid judging all together. As I wrote in a previous article, Distance is Dangerous. The further away from a problem we are, the simpler the solution appears to be. When we look at someone’s situation from a relational distance, we don’t know the details of the situation and we often will be hearing/seeing a distorted view of reality. In the other passages shared above, one very important common denominator is community. Jesus, Paul and James direct these comments to someone who is dealing with a brother (or sister), meaning someone who is a fellow believer who you are closely walking beside. We are given the responsibility to deal with the sins of those who are a part of our local family of God. It is a part of the one another commands to all followers of Christ. We take care of one another and part of that is dealing with our sins together as a local church community.
  2. Caution is Common. Spiritual maturity means knowing our own sinful hearts and temptations and the passage from Jesus in Matthew 7 is about being very careful about that issue. All of the passages recognize that dealing with sin can be a difficult thing and it is best to exercise extreme caution. We never ignore the sin, but first we deal with our own hearts and make sure we are right with God before we move forward to confront sin in someone’s life.
  3. Caring is Compulsory. The importance of this happening in community is for many reasons, but one of the most important is the bond of love that exists in a local community of faith. Confrontation over sin occurs within the bonds of relationship and caring. When people know how much you love them and know you have their best interests at heart, this type of correction is much more likely to both be received and be effective.
  4. Sometimes, we have to recognize that just as only God can save people from their sins, only God can call someone who is unrepentant in their sins back to Himself and to the church. There is a time when church discipline must take place and all we can do is pray. We shouldn’t desire this or move in this direction lightly, but it is foolish to both ignore sin and false repentance. If someone continues to live their lives in this way, the loving thing is to bring them under church discipline.

If you are here on social media just for the speck and log hunting, then Matthew 7 is definitely for you. Despite what social media says, we aren’t in true community with each other and being a ‘friend’ here is not the same things as being a brother or sister. Get back into true community, invite real living people into your lives and open the door to them being the kind of brother and sister who will practice both grace and truth towards you. That is a better life and that is real living.

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