3-6 Judge Not- ?

A common problem among new converts, especially when faced with problems in church life, is the feeling that we cannot 'judge' individuals or situations.

Any religious individual or community, believers included, will be tempted to morally and doctrinally retreat on issue after issue, until they come to a point where they cannot tell right from wrong; firstly, in the behaviour and belief of others, and then finally, in their own lives. The road to this position often involves the claim that we must not judge, and therefore we cannot label any behaviour or belief as right or wrong. This attitude arises from a faulty understanding of 'judging'. It may seem hard for the new convert to believe that such a clouding of right and wrong is possible; and yet Biblical and present Christian experience confirms that this is a major problem for us all.

Even the most basic reading of the New Testament will reveal that the Greek krino (usually translated " judge" ) is used in more than one way. The same is true of the idea of 'judgment' in many languages. Thus in English, " judgment" refers both to the process of deciding / judging a case, and also to the final judgment of condemnation. We read that the Father judges no one (Jn. 5:22); but (evidently in another sense), He does judge (Jn. 8:50). Christ did not come to judge (Jn. 8:15), but in another way He did (Jn. 5:30; 8:16,26). Paul tells the Corinthians to judge nothing, and then scolds them for not judging each other (1 Cor. 4:5 cp. 6:1-3). Krino (to " judge" ) can simply mean to make a decision, or think something through (Acts 20:16; 26:8; 27:11; 1 Cor. 2:2; 7:37; 2 Cor. 2:1; Tit. 3:12). And because of this, we are encouraged to " judge" situations according to God's word and principles; thus 'judging' can mean forming an opinion based on correct interpretation of the word (Jn. 7:24; 1 Cor. 10:15; 11:13; 2 Cor. 5:14). Therefore judging or opinion forming on any other basis is 'judging after the flesh', and this is wrong (Lk. 12:57; Jn. 8:15); judging rightly is part of our basis of acceptability with the Lord Jesus (Lk. 7:43). It is a shameful thing if we can't judge our brethren (1 Cor. 5:12). " Judge not" must be understood in this context.

Judging Our Brethren

With this understanding of 'judging', it is inevitable that we need to apply our 'judgment' to other people, especially within the ecclesia. The decision to baptize Lydia into the fellowship of the one body involved 'judging' her " to be faithful" (Acts 16:15). If we cannot judge in any sense, it would be impossible to make any fellowship decision, e.g. interviewing a candidate for baptism. James was faced with the problem of deciding how far the conscience of some Jewish brethren should be imposed on the Gentile converts. He reasoned from Biblical principles, and then gave his " sentence" (Greek krino), his judgment- that they need not be circumcised (Acts 15:19). The elders of the Jerusalem ecclesia " ordained" (krino), they 'judged', some ecclesial rules for the Gentile ecclesias (Acts 16:14; 21:25). They didn't read " judge not" as meaning they couldn't ordain anyone. It is evident from all this that there is nothing wrong with 'judging' our brethren in the sense of forming an opinion about their behaviour or doctrine, and carrying this out. Paul reasons that disputes between brethren ought to be settled by other brethren in the ecclesia judging between them, rather than resorting to the judiciary of the world (1 Cor. 6:1-3).

Paul reprimands the Corinth ecclesia for not doing this. It is quite possible that they justified going to law with the excuse that 'Well, we can't judge our brother, you know'. Paul is saying: 'If you were spiritually mature, you would realize that you can judge your brother, indeed it's a shameful state of affairs if you lack the maturity to be able to do it'. In the same context, Paul rebukes Corinth for not withdrawing from the incestuous brother, and he says that although he is not physically present, his judgment is that the  brother should be disfellowshipped; and he implies that they should already have made the same judgment (1 Cor. 5:3). Clearly disfellowshipping a brother involves judging- and we are not in accord with the spirit of Christ if we refuse to do this.

Don't Condemn

And yet, almost in designed contrast, just a few verses earlier Paul has warned his Corinthians not to judge each other, because Christ will be the judge at the last day (1 Cor. 4:3-5). This is one of Paul's many almost unconscious allusions back to his Lord's words in the Gospels; this time to Mt. 7:1: " Judge not, that ye be not judged" at the judgment. Likewise, 1 Cor. 11:31,32 looks back to the same verse; and again interprets 'judging' as condemning. We will all be judged (2 Cor. 5:10); yet if we do not judge, we will not be judged. Evidently, 'judge' is being used in the sense of 'condemn'. If we don't condemn others, we will not be condemned. It can't mean don't judge in the sense of don't form an opinion, don't analyze; because we will all be judged in this sense. If we don't judge / analyze/ form an opinion of others, this won't save us from the process of judgment at Christ's return. But if we don't condemn, this will save us from condemnation. The context of Mt. 7 confirms this; judging others is paralleled with confidently proclaiming that our brother is blind (7:4)- a common Biblical description of those condemned by God (Lk. 6:39; Jn. 9:39; Rom. 2:19; 2 Pet. 1:9; Rev. 3:17).

But there is an inspired commentary on the 'Sermon' of Mt. 5-7. Any good commentary on James will list the copious links between James and Mt. 5-7. The comment on Mt. 7:1 is in James 4:11,12: " He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother...there is one lawgiver (judge)...who art thou that judgest another?" . 'Speaking evil' here doesn't refer to slander; it is parallel with condemning. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:3-5, we must not judge each other in the sense of condemning, because Christ is the judge; we must not anticipate the outcome of the judgment. But it is inevitable that we must 'judge' each other in the sense of some amount of analysis and opinion-forming concerning doctrine and behaviour. Indeed, at least from my own self-observation, it would be impossible for the Lord to forbid us to 'judge' each other in this sense; it's an inevitable function of the human condition. It would be rather like condemning sneezing. We see and hear things, and inevitably we make a judgment concerning them. But we must " judge righteous judgment" , judgment moulded by the word, but not anticipate the outcome of the final judgment.

It seems that the following context of Mt. 7:1 (" judge not..." ) concerns judging in the sense of condemning. And the allusions to " judge not" in James and 1 Cor. also seem to read it as forbidding us to condemn. When the Lord repeated His theme of " judge not" in Lk. 6:37, He seems to have underlined exactly what He meant by not judging: " Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; (i.e.) condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned" . Either He meant 'don't judge in any sense', or 'don't condemn'. We have seen that He could not have meant 'don't judge in any sense', because He asks us to judge in this way. So He meant 'don't condemn'; and because He then goes on to say this explicitly (" condemn not" ), it seems logical to read this as Him underlining the point, perhaps clarifying what had perhaps been misunderstood when He earlier said " Don't judge" in Mt. 7:1. So He was saying: 'Don't judge, what I mean is, don't condemn' (1).


With this understanding of 'judging', we arrive at a telling interpretation of  1 Cor. 11:31,32: " If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged...should not be condemned with the world" . The context is of self-examination at the breaking of bread. If, in the light of our reflection on the Lord's cross, we arrive at that level of spiritual contrition where we know ourselves to be worthy of condemnation, we will not be condemned at the judgment. In this sense, our confrontation with Christ in His time of dying should provoke in us a small foretaste of the judgment to come. It is an agony of the writer's soul that the breaking of bread rarely produces this sense in him. And yet, in all intellectual and expositional honesty, this seems to be Paul's point.

We must judge / condemn ourselves, but not others. Paul 'judged' the incestuous brother as worthy of withdrawal, he 'judged' Lydia to be in a position whereby she could enter fellowship through baptism. Yet Paul could make these fellowship decisions without 'judging' in the way in which Mt. 7:1 condemns. This fact in itself cannot be answered by those who claim that to disfellowship someone is to judge / condemn them, and thereby we condemn ourselves. Paul scolded the Corinthians for their refusal to 'judge' as he judged. It seems the same rebuke is increasingly called for in the Christian community. If we cannot judge each other at all, the whole concept of ecclesial discipline must be dispensed with. The logical result of not judging is to have an 'open table', whereby we would fellowship any one for fear of not judging. The need to 'judge righteously' is destroyed by a refusal to judge at all. Yet we must not condemn- anyone. In this sense, " Judge not" . For example, even though we know baptism is essential for salvation, it is not for us to label anyone as certain to be condemned at the judgment.

Thus the New Testament teaches that we must not condemn anyone, and yet we must withdraw fellowship and keep separate from certain people. This in itself demonstrates that not fellowshipping someone is not the same as judging them in the manner forbidden in Mt. 7:1.


(1) It is often maintained that " judge not" refers to not judging motives. If we are not to judge motives, but we are to 'judge' in some sense, this would mean that we must judge the outward works of men. And yet Biblical and human analysis reveals that outward behaviour is often not a reflection of inner motive (e.g. Samson's marriage, Jud. 14:4). To judge outward behaviour without considering motives is almost pointless. There are countless cases of where the same action may be right or wrong depending on motive. Thus both David and Uzziah acted as the High Priest, but only Uzziah was condemned for it; David refused to choose his punishment as God asked him, preferring to leave it to God, whereas when Ahaz did something similar, he was condemned for it; Rahab's lie is commended as an act of faith, whilst other lies are sins; Samuel and Eli both had the same experience of their children being apostate and them being criticized for it, but only Eli is condemned for this. For a first century Christian  to still keep parts of the Law of Moses was in some a reflection of their lack of full spirituality; whilst others did this in order not to offend other believers, and thereby showed a superior spirituality. The motive was all important to how the outward behaviour should be judged. The commands to discipline weak brethren nearly all involve an element of judging motives; thus false teachers suggest false doctrine because their motive is leadership (Acts 20:30); those who would not work because they claimed the second coming was imminent were in fact " busybodies" , their motivation was not genuine, and the Thessalonians were told to recognize them as such, and " them that are such" should be reproved (2 Thess. 3:12); we should take note of those who " serve their own belly" by creating division (Rom. 16:17,18); and ecclesial elders should be appointed whose inner attitudes are right (Tit. 1:7). Indeed, one of the themes of Titus is the need for a sound mind, which should be evident in those the ecclesia chose to be elders (1:9,10,15; 2:2,5-7,12,15; 3:1,3,5,10 Gk.) This all demonstrates that there is a place for 'judging' motives, especially in ecclesial life.

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