In previous articles, we discussed how our behaviors and attitudes interact with salvation, and what God expects from us in these areas. We also briefly mentioned how today’s culture doesn’t always accept these values and is quick to call Christians old-fashioned, close minded, or judgmental when they advocate for God’s standards. All too often, some people attempt to silence Christians from espousing biblical ethics by quoting “Judge not, so that you will not be judged” from Matthew 7.
This excerpt from Matthew 7 is one of the most quoted, and misquoted, passages in the Bible. In it, Jesus warns people not to stand in judgment of others. But what exactly does He mean? Does this quote, as it is often used, promote a form of moral relativism? Is Jesus condemning Christians who question acts of perceived immorality? Or did Jesus mean something else? To understand this verse, or any other, we must look at it within the full context of both the entire passage and the Bible in general.
First, we should define “judge.” Merriam-Webster defines “judge” as “to form an opinion about, after careful thought.” However, we often think of the term judge as relating to being “judgmental” which is defined as “tending to judge people too quickly or critically.” Drawing the distinction between these two possible meanings is very important to understanding Jesus’ warning.
Reading Matthew 7 in totality, Jesus says “Judge not, so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” He then goes on to discuss people noticing the “speck that is in your brother’s eye” but not noticing the “log that is in your own eye.” Interestingly, Jesus then states, “You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye. Then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” So in its fuller context, Matthew 7 is not condemning all forms of judging. He even encourages loving judgment and correction to help others remove sin from their lives (the “speck” in their eye). Jesus’ clear warning is against hypocritical judgment where one holds others to a higher standard than they are willing to hold themselves.
Further evidence that Jesus is not condemning all forms of judging is seen later in the same speech in Matthew 7 where Jesus warns people to “beware of the false prophets…you will know them by their fruits…a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” Also, in John 7, Jesus warns the crowd to “stop judging me by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” In both instances, Jesus is actually encouraging “correct” judgment.
What then is “correct” judgment? Clearly, from these passages and many others, Christians are called to exercise discernment and “judge” whether their behaviors, and even those others and society, are in accordance with God’s will. However, this should be done factually, non-hypocritically, and based on God’s standards, versus our own standards or stereotypes. Also, according to Galatians 6:1, any correction should be done “gently” in a spirit of love, with the goal of restoration, not condemnation. In Merriam-Webster’s terms, Jesus clearly calls us to judge (i.e. “form an opinion about, after careful thought”) but condemns being judgmental (i.e. judging “too quickly or critically”).
Unfortunately, the Matthew 7 excerpt is often used to condemn any form of judging and to justify moral relativism. Often, people quote this passage as a “biblical” way of saying “Don’t judge my actions as immoral! Who are you to say this practice is wrong?” In one sense, these people are correct. You and I are not qualified to deem anything right or wrong. Only God has that authority. But through the Bible, God makes it clear that He does have moral absolutes and that He holds us accountable for adhering to them. He repeatedly condemns moral relativism in passages such as Judges 21 where God rebukes Israel because “every man did what was right in his own eyes” and in Isaiah 53 where God describes how the coming Messiah would suffer because “each of us has turned to our own way.” The idea of moral absolutes and accountability before God may not be an idea we like, but it is clearly God’s design.
However, as Christians we must be careful. The passages that condemn moral relativism and encourage “correct” judgment do not give us license to be judgmental, legalistic, or self-righteous. This is a trap many of us fall into easily. It is this trap that Jesus is warning against. Recognizing and even exposing immorality in ourselves and others is a biblical practice if it is done in a loving way and is meant to restore someone to fellowship with God. If it is done to exalt oneself, tear another down, or illustrate one’s own “righteousness,” it is the very sin Jesus warns about.
In short, Christians are not called to accept moral relativism or ignore immorality. Rather, they are called to discern and follow God’s will. This discernment comes by knowing and applying the Bible, and just as importantly, recognizing when it is being misused. Just because someone quotes the Bible to support their case, doesn’t mean their conclusion is biblical. As an extreme example, the devil quotes the Bible during the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, although he is certainly not trying to follow God’s will! Christians can only identify these types of errors if we exercise discernment and “judge correctly” as Jesus encourages us to do.