Hands down, Matthew 7:1 is the most frequently quoted Bible verse today: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” It’s been twisted to mean we can’t say someone’s action or lifestyle is wrong. However, when someone says, “Don’t judge,” he’s judging you for judging someone else. You’ve done wrong by saying someone else has done wrong!
Clearly, we can’t escape making moral judgments. Furthermore, in the same context of the oft-quoted verse, Jesus made a moral judgment about certain persons, using metaphors about “dogs” and “pigs” (Mt 7:6), stressing that we shouldn’t continue to present God’s grace to those who persistently scoff and ridicule. At some point we must shake the dust off our feet and move on to the more receptive (Mt 10:14; Ac 13:51). On the other hand, Jesus commanded, “Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment” (Jn 7:24, emphasis added).
How do we resolve the apparent tension? By taking note of the spirit in which we make judgments. Do we think we’re superior (the attitude Jesus condemned), or are we assessing actions or attitudes with a spirit of humility and concern, recognizing our own weaknesses (1 Co 10:13; Gal 6:1)? In Matthew 7:5, Jesus told us first to examine ourselves (removing the log from our own eye), then we can help our brother or sister (taking the speck out of his or her eye). So there is a problem to be dealt with—but only after self-examination. The wrong kind of judging is condemning. The right kind of judging is properly evaluating moral (or doctrinal) matters with a humble, helpful attitude. (In 1 Co 5:5, “judging”—even excommunicating—is required in light of a church member’s shameless sexual misconduct.) We should treat others the way we would want to be treated (cp. Mt 7:12), thinking, There—but for the grace of God—go I.
So when discussing judging with others, first clarify what you mean by the word “judge.” This can serve as the context for clarifying right and wrong kinds of judgment. Further, we must take care to avoid the “Who am I to say So-and-So is wrong?” mentality. We can’t shrink from making moral judgments, nor can we escape them—lest we declare it wrong to say another is wrong.
Paul Copan is Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida