Drinking. Premarital sex. Abortion. Homosexuality. Same-sex marriage. Christians have so many hang-ups with the behavior of non-Christians, don’t they? It all seems so judgmental. Christians have enough problems of their own, so why worry about others? And even Jesus warned against this. “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Who are Christians to judge others?
This common objection to Christianity packs some punch. But why? First, we’re swimming in a sea of moral relativism that prohibits any moral judgments (that is, if you want to be a consistent moral relativist). Against this relativistic backdrop, to identify some behavior as morally wrong is itself wrong. Hopefully you see the self-contradictory nature of this claim, but sadly, many do not as the muddled thinking of relativism blinds its adherents.
Second, tolerance, the one virtue relativists like to apply universally, is incompatible with moral judgments. Mind you, this is the modern version of tolerance that claims all viewpoints are equally valid and therefore, no one’s moral views should be considered better than another’s (a further self-contradictory claim). So modern tolerance is intolerant of moral judgments. If tolerance is good, then judging is bad.
So how should Christians think about judging? First, we must ask what one means by “judge.” The dictionary distinguishes several definitions. To judge can mean to pass legal judgment, like a judge sentencing a criminal at the conclusion of a courtroom trial. Nothing wrong with this kind of judging.
To judge can also mean to form an opinion or conclusion about someone or something. These are assessments or evaluations. A coach judges the skill level of a player trying to make the team. A mom judges the nutritional value of food she serves her family. A plumber judges a clogged sink to fix it. Such judgments or assessments are made all the time, everyday. Again, nothing wrong with this kind of judging.
But Jesus definitely suggests some sort of judging is wrong, so what was He talking about? Well, if you really want to know, never read a Bible verse. To determine the meaning of a single verse, you must read the surrounding verses. Context is king. When we look at the rest of Matthew 7, we actually discover Jesus doing the very thing most Christians think He has forbidden.
In verse 6, He warns, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine…” He calls out “false prophets” (v. 15) and says there will come a day when he will say to some, “depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (v. 23). Ouch, those are harsh moral judgments. So clearly, not all judging is out-of-bounds for Jesus.
The context makes clear Jesus is after a particular kind of judgment:
For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (vv. 2-5).
When Jesus warns “do not judge,” He doesn’t mean we should never assess moral behavior. Rather, he warns against self-righteous and hypocritical judgments. When you judge, take the log out of your own eye first. Jesus is not saying it is never right to judge, He is explaining how we are to judge rightly.
Furthermore, Jesus’ instructions on judging are for individuals, not societies. He is not arguing against the predominant moral views of any particular culture, insisting we adopt moral neutrality (which is a myth anyway). His warning does not bar governmental authorities from judging behavior and dishing out punishment. Jesus is addressing the personal behavior of believers.
Think about the logical consequences if we prohibit all moral judgments. We could no longer declare child abuse, rape, injustice, theft, or racism to be wrong. But these are obvious cases of moral ills. If you were to experience any one of these, you would cry out for justice. However, justice assumes a legitimate judgment.
Indeed, Jesus’ gospel starts with judgment: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Jesus points to the reality of our sin and the appropriate punishment—the bad news. Thankfully, Jesus’ message ends with good news, His promise of mercy and forgiveness. His just judgment is removed from our heads as “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
We cannot point to Jesus as an example of one who did not judge. Rather, He is an example that moral judgments are appropriate because there is an objective Moral Law given to us by a Law Giver, backed by His justice and love. He is just because violation of His law results in appropriate punishment. He is loving because obedience to His law results in human flourishing.