“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
We’ve all read Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1. It’s a popular verse that’s often used to rebuke Christians for judging the lifestyles, practices, or values of other people. This is especially so when it comes to highly contentious and contested debates, such as gay marriage and abortion.
Who is right—those who declare such things as sin, or those who argue that Jesus disapproves of those who judge? I remember feeling lost and confused about whose side I was supposed to take.
Perhaps, however, it is the common assumption underlying this verse that we need to address first. Did Jesus really tell us not to judge others?
The short answer is no. Jesus did tell us to make judgments, but with a caveat: there’s a difference between judgment as condemnation, and judgment as discernment. In the famed passage—Matthew 7—where Jesus tells His followers “not to judge”, He makes a distinction between the two.
Don’t Condemn Others
Jesus did warn His followers against condemning others hypocritically like the Pharisees did. The Pharisees thought that because they were God’s chosen people, they were spiritually and morally better than the Gentiles. Today, we too can easily make the same mistake when we condemn other people for their sins.
But Jesus tells us that this is wrong. When we see others as inferior to us—be it in terms of religion, background, or circumstance—we are in effect saying that they are less worthy or valuable than we are. Jesus warns us not to see ourselves as inherently better than any other.
You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).
Jesus’ point is that before we judge the sins of others, we ought to examine ourselves first. We are to repent of our own sins and correct our lives before seeking to correct others. If we judge others because we believe we are superior or more righteous than they—while committing the very same sins—then we are no different from the Pharisees. This is what both Jesus (Matthew 23:25-28) and the apostle Paul also warned against (Romans 2:3).
Jesus also warned us not to judge others based on superficial attributes, the way Simon the Pharisee did to the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet. He had criticized her because of her reputation (Luke 7:36-50). This is what Jesus means when he says in John 7:24, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Discern Between Right and Wrong
While Jesus rejects an unholy sense of moral superiority, He does want us to discern wisely between right and wrong. In fact, throughout the Bible we are commanded to do so (Hebrews 5:14, 1 Corinthians 2:14-15). This discernment, however, should not cross the line into condemnation.
Judgment is essential for assessing what is right and wrong. We have an almost instinctive reaction when we witness sin being committed. It could be your sister stealing money from your mother’s purse, or a government carrying out genocide halfway across the globe.
Opposing or confronting sin is not wrong. When we stand for God’s standard and definition of truth and holiness, we are against what is false and sinful. What is wrong is accepting the popular but inaccurate notion that we should not judge anything as wrong.
Yet today, the word “judgment” has taken on such extreme negative connotations.
What We Ought to Do
As Christians, we ought to stop and ask ourselves (and God), “Am I condemning critically with unholy and unrighteous motivations, while committing the very same sin? Or am I prayerfully discerning between what is good and evil according to God’s Word, with the intent of pointing others gently towards Christ?”
We are called to examine our own hearts first, before seeking to correct others (Jeremiah 17:9). Once we have prayerfully and rightly discerned, we should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). There cannot be one without the other.
Galatians 6:1 tells us that if a fellow believer is trapped in sin, we should “restore him gently”. Similarly, James 5:20 tells us that “whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
When we talk about our stand on what’s right and wrong, or when we see fellow Christians doing something wrong, we should remember that we aren’t called to point fingers, but to point them towards Christ. This is what speaking love with truth means.
Let us follow the example of our Lord and Savior, who confronted critical attitudes, encouraged wise discernment between good and evil, and embodied truth and grace perfectly (John 1:14).