Judge not — are we forbidden to judge?
Should we judge others? Many Christians think we shouldn’t. Sermons and Sunday schools have emphasised Matthew 7:1 so strongly that many Christians seem to believe the sum total of the Bible’s teaching on interpersonal judgement is judge not that ye be not judged. (Bold font representing the Christian equivalent of the sword of Damocles; apologies to those who have been triggered!)
But scripture has a lot more to say on the topic of judging others than that one verse in Matthew. If we are to be mature Christians, we need to carefully weigh and study each of the passages about interpersonal judgment in order to understand what God calls us to do.
Here is a list of passages that might help you chew the cud on this topic of interpersonal judgment.
Two passages that say we must not judge hypocritically; and if we do, our hypocrisy will judge us.
Judge not that ye be not judged. (Matt 7:1)
The context makes it clear that what is being forbidden is hypocritical judgment, the kind where one’s competence to judge is hampered by one’s blindness to one’s own shortcomings, and one is just turning a personal opinion into a judgement, or projecting one’s own defects onto the person one is judging, and therefore one is unable to assess the matter objectively.
You therefore have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So then, when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them, and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (Rom. 2:1-3)
This is again referring to hypocritical judgment — judging others for the very faults we have ourselves (‘do the same things’).
There are many passages that teach us how and when to judge others.
None of these passages should be taken in isolation. Each passage needs to be read in its context and weighed against the other passages, so that we do not overbalance in any particular direction. If someone is giving such a lot of weight to one passage that they are violating another passage, then that is a clue that their interpretation is probably out of whack.
Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. … There is only one Lawgiver, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you, who are you to judge your neighbour? (James 4:11-12)
We should not do it in slander (backbiting, defamation).
My conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. (1 Cor. 4:4-5)
We should not do it till the Lord comes.
Ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matt. 19:28)
We will do it later on.
Do ye not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? . . . I say this to your shame. Is it so that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren? (1 Cor. 6:2, 5)
We should do it now for civil cases between believers.
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? (1 Cor. 5:12)
In the case of sinful brethren, we are commanded to do it within the church.
Let two or three prophets speak and let the others judge. (1 Cor. 14:29)
We must judge prophets.
Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. (John 7:24)
We are commanded to do it rightly.
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)
Peter did it about doctrinal disputes.
‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said. (— to Peter when Peter was interpreting a parable, Luke 7:43)
Peter was commended for doing it.
But Peter and John replied [to the Sanhedrin], “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4:19)
Peter and John exhorted the Sanhedrin to do it righteously.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Rom. 14:13, stumbling block means ‘occasion of apostasy’)
But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is judged by no man. (1 Cor.2:15)
Therefore, we are commanded to make decisions (which requires sound judgement) so we don’t put up stumbling blocks that might be hindrances to fellow Christians.
What is a right judgement? A judgment that God makes is a right judgment; the best way to make sound judgements is by using His Word as our guide. While only God can definitively sentence anyone to eternal condemnation, he does call us to discern and assess, and He expects each of us to do that – we can’t leave it to the elders or the pastor. He doesn’t say: “Elders should make a right judgment and the rest of the church can just follow suit with whatever they say.”
Do not put out the spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (KJV: Abstain from all appearance of evil.) 1 Thess 5:19- 22
Here we are commanded to test everything.
In Acts 17: 10-11 the Bereans were declared ‘more noble’ for searching and examining the scripture daily to see if Paul’s teaching lined up with scripture. The word translated search or examine is often translated judge. Would we test Paul’s teaching if he spoke in our church today? Probably not, yet he would want us to. But these days if you question the teaching of many current ministries you are likely to be told ‘Don’t touch God’s anointed!’ or some verbal equivalent of that rebuff. Some celebrity pastors/authors, even those who come across with obsequious humility, are so venerated by their followers that it’s almost impossible to get the celebrity and his followers to open their ears to a reasonable critique of the venerated teacher.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:1-6
Jesus is the Word (John 1:1) and He is the Truth (John 14:6). If someone does not acknowledge the Word, if someone does not love the truth, they do not love Jesus, no matter how much they may say or sing their professions of love.
In Acts 20:30 Paul warned the Ephesian elders: Also among yourselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. False teachers can arise from within the church. And in the very next verse, Paul says “Therefore, watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears.” It was no light matter, no passing comment. Paul had hammered and hammered it to them for three years, because he knew how serious it was! And note that he warned everyone, not just the elders.
Some people say that if a person is off track, you should just keep silent and pray/wait for the Holy Spirit to correct them. But this is unbalanced and potentially dangerous. While the Holy Spirit does indeed convict people of sin, the Bible is also full of accounts of prophets and believers who admonished others for their sins in no uncertain terms. (Eg. Is.58:1; Hos.8:1; Mic. 3:8, Act 8:20-23, to name a few.)
“Our Lord did not condemn the assessment of a person’s character, but the assassination of one’s character.” — Bob Deffinbaugh, The Fool, Proverbs 26:1-11