Don’t be so judgmental! Have you ever heard someone use that criticism? At one point, it was a criticism often leveled at Christians and people who used this criticism even had scripture they could use to support their condemnation:
Do not judge, 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. 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 look, 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!
Matthew 7:1-2 is a frequently debated scripture. Some people, notably theologically liberal Christians, interpret “judge” here very broadly as including even rebuke. However, if “judge” means any statement of the wrongness of some action, then it is impossible to obey this principle without hypocrisy, or without being a moral nihilist (if you do it consistently). It is impossible to live a moral life of any kind without identifying certain actions as wrong and others as right, even if you only do so in your own mind. In fact, if “judge” here means as little as saying (or thinking) that someone has done something wrong, then Jesus himself repeatedly violated his own principle, not to mention the liberal Christians who interpret it this way, because they use moral condemnation very severely for the sins that they choose to take seriously. However, it is also a mistake to only pay attention to this passage when refuting certain erroneous interpretations of it, and then, after that, to pay no attention to it. This principle, or something like it, may be found elsewhere in the New Testament. Take the following:
Therefore you have no excuse, you foolish person, everyone of you who passes judgment; for in that matter in which you judge someone else, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, you foolish person who passes judgment on those who practice such things, and yet does them as well, that you will escape the judgment of God?
I don’t know if Paul’s focus here is quite the same as Jesus’ in Matthew 7:1, though there certainly are similarities. Paul seems to me to mean that the person who passes judgment is without excuse, because the fact that he passes judgment means that he knows these things are wrong but does them anyway. This is meant to prickle the conscience of the reader by pointing out their own violation of what they know full well is the moral law, their consequent hypocrisy in passing judgment on others who violate the moral law, and the judgment of God that looms large as a result. However, it also does seem that passing judgment here is spiritually significant, in that you are condemning yourself by judging others. But there is no explicit condemnation of the act of passing judgment as there seems to be in Matthew 7:1. But let’s take a look at James 4:11:
Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. The one who speaks against a brother or sister, or judges his brother or sister, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you, judging your neighbor?
The above does call to mind Jesus’ principle in Matthew 7:1, because it targets the act of judging. It also reminds me of Deuteronomy 32:35, affirming that God alone has the right to judgment. So, there is a principle here that should be heeded, and this principle is found more than once in the Bible. But what exactly is that principle? If we have eliminated the interpretation that this is about any form of rebuke, then what is the correct interpretation? What does “judge” mean then, in Matthew 7:1 and in the above passage? There really is no reason to think that “judge”, in this context, is referring to the action of saying someone is wrong. It is just an assumption that that is what “judge” means here. Certainly, “judge” can mean something as minor as the act of saying that someone has done something wrong, but in the Bible it usually has a far more weighty, more severe, meaning. To determine what it means, let’s consider what “judgment” normally refers to when it is used in the Bible. As an example, we’ll look at 1 Corinthians 5:12-13:
For what business of mine is it to judge outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the evil person from among yourselves.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13
In this context, “judging” those in the church is something more severe than just saying that they are doing something wrong. It is referring to excommunication. Paul says here that he does not judge those outside the Church. Does that mean that he is saying we are not allowed to say that anyone outside are doing anything wrong? No, in the verses before this, he is clearly saying there are people in the world who are doing all sorts of wrong things (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). In other words, “judgment” here is something more like punishment, or holding accountable. Judgment normally refers not merely to the determination of wrong, but to a sentence of punishment. “Judgment” is what a judge does. The judge does not merely determine what wrong a specific individual has done and the extent of that wrong, he also then sentences that person to a punishment based on the wrong. When the Bible says “judgment”, it is often used synonymously with punishment. Another thing which supports this interpretation is that Jesus himself “judges” people in the milder senses of the word and he encourages others to judge in the milder sense of deciding that they are wrong (Matthew 16:6, Matthew 7:15). This supports the idea that Jesus means to prohibit “judgment” in the more severe sense of that word, as referring not merely to a determination of wrongdoing but an attempt to punish, or having the attitude or motivation of someone who has set themselves up as a judge of others, who has to keep others in line and be a moral policeman. So this does not include rebuke, but there are ways of rebuking others that is like punishing them, depending on how it is done. If you know your rebuke, or the way you plan to rebuke, is going to invite a lot of negative consequences into someone’s life, then it is no longer just a rebuke ( even if this is sometimes not easy to foresee). There are many different ways you can rebuke someone. A private rebuke is a true rebuke, because it invites no negative consequences into someone’s life ( which is probably why it is the first step in the excommunication process in Matthew 18:15 and apparently in Titus 3:10). Even if you disagree with a private rebuke, it is a good thing to respect the person who gave it to you, because it is likely that they actually care about you. A private rebuke does not stand to benefit them in any way ( in fact, they only stand to lose if you get angry and retaliate). Nathan didn’t make speeches to the people about what a terrible guy David was. He went to David face-to-face and rebuked him. He didn’t pull his punches, but it was a rebuke and not a judgment. If a rebuke is public, it is more likely to invite negative consequences into someone’s life, especially if it involves the revelation of wrongdoing that is not public. On this blog, I try to limit my criticism to things that people have said publicly, assuming, as I do, that people have prepared themselves for the eventuality that their public comments will be evaluated publicly. But there are still ways to make your comments more like a rebuke and less like a judgment, by making it less about someone’s moral character and motivations, and more about what’s wrong with the thing they’ve said. If you are demanding consequences for someone, such as that they be fired, then you have gone beyond rebuke and are trying to judge (which is related to “cancel culture”). I think to identify Matthew 7:1 and James 4:11 as being more about punishment than about rebuke, makes a lot of sense, but does that mean there is never a time when a person can punish another? What about the criminal justice officers who punish crimes? What about employers who fire employees for bad behaviour? Are these necessarily wrong by Jesus’ teachings?
As with many of Jesus’s teachings, I think Matthew 7:1 may be referring to attitude and motivation more than any particular action. In other words, don’t set yourself up, in your own mind, as someone who has to mete out just deserts and make sure the moral universe functions as it should. God’s quite capable of doing that himself. Even a private rebuke, which is unlikely to have consequences for someone, can be delivered with the wrong motivation. It can be done nastily. There is a place for a harsh rebuke, but before you deliver it, consider the following. Are you intending for your rebuke to function as a punishment, and you consequently want to make it as hurtful as possible, or are you just trying to wake that person up? God has reserved for himself alone the right to dispense moral justice, and the Master of the House does not like it when his servants sit on his throne and deliver punishments as though they were him. Some of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) moral teachings may be understood as a form of virtue ethics. Obviously, there are some of their teachings that clearly refer to specific external actions, but others do not. Virtue ethics recommends certain patterns of behaviour or dispositions over others, but these recommendations don’t give one a clear formula or calculus for behaviour in a particular circumstance. Take the virtue of courage. Most people would agree that we should be courageous, but at the same time, this doesn’t give us a clear formula for action in every circumstance. Being courageous doesn’t mean living in defiance of absolutely every fear you have. Otherwise, if you fear death, then the courageous thing to do would be to kill yourself! There will be times when you don’t “face your fears”, because the goal is not worth the risk. If, however, you are constantly limited from doing worthwhile things, especially virtuous things, because of fear, then you know that you are being cowardly. In the same way, Jesus’s teachings about human judgment may be giving us a virtue to adhere to.
There are certain human offices which we must assume are exempt from this prohibition on human punishment. The first is the state who judge and punish crimes. Should we believe that Christians shouldn’t be policemen, prosecutors and judges? Watchman Nee seems to say that Christians shouldn’t occupy positions of employment that require them to judge, in his commentary on Matthew 7:1-2[i]. I’m not sure that he’s right. If we should avoid such positions, then Christians cannot inhabit any senior or management-level position, including the office of pastor. All these positions require making judgments about people that will have an impact on their lives, often less severe an impact than the judgments that criminal justice administrators make, but still judgments. The higher you go in leadership, the more consequential your judgments will be. Even if you inhabit a fairly low-level management position, you will make hiring and firing decisions, or at least contribute to those decisions, and those decisions will be based on determinations about someone’s character and competence. Another office which seems to have a biblical mandate to make judgments is a church, which can excommunicate people (Matthew 18:15, 1 Corinthians 5). In every case, you will have to make judgments and your negative determinations about someone will introduce negative consequences into their lives. The office of the (local) church to discipline the unrepentant sinner and the office of the state to punish crimes are legitimized in the New Testament. In all cases, even if you work for the criminal justice system, you should recognize that you don’t have a right to punish someone in a moral sense, and you shouldn’t be motivated by an attempt to punish, i.e. by thinking you know what people deserve in a moral sense. As we will read below from Ellicott’s Commentary it’s a good idea not to attempt to punish people unless you have a duty to do so ( you work in criminal justice or inhabit a leadership position and are responsible for investigating complaints). The rest should be left to God. Even excommunication is essentially negative. It does not endorse attempting to bring negative consequences into someone’s life, but merely enjoins the people in the church to cease their association with the excommunicate. That person is then presumably free to go on their way and continue their lives outside the social network of the church, without the members of that church continuing to hound or harass them. Since the goal of excommunication is redemption (1 Corinthians 5:5), it is actually a severe rebuke ( in terms of motivation), rather than a true judgment in the biblical sense of that word (because you are not there to punish them as God punishes).
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers has a good section about the practical implications of Matthew 7:1.
“The question, how far we can obey the precept, is not without its difficulties. Must we not, even as a matter of duty, be judging others every day of our lives? The juryman giving his verdict, the master who discharges a dishonest servant, the bishop who puts in force the discipline of the Church–are these acting against our Lord’s commands? And if not, where are we to draw the line? The answer to these questions is not found in the distinctions of a formal casuistry. We have rather to remember that our Lord here, as elsewhere, gives principles rather than rules, and embodies the principle in a rule which, because it cannot be kept in the letter, forces us back upon the spirit. What is forbidden is the censorious judging temper, eager to find faults and condemn men for them, suspicious of motives, detecting, let us say, for example, in controversy, and denouncing, the faintest shade of heresy. No mere rules can guide us as to the limits of our judgments. What we need is to have “our senses exercised to discern between good and evil,” to cultivate the sensitiveness of conscience and the clearness of self-knowledge. Briefly, we may say:–(1.) Judge no man unless it be a duty to do so. (2.) As far as may be, judge the offence, and not the offender. (3.) Confine your judgment to the earthly side of faults, and leave their relation to God, to Him who sees the heart. (4.) Never judge at all without remembering your own sinfulness, and the ignorance and infirmities which may extenuate the sinfulness of others.”
The Potency of Accusation
An accusation is the first step of punishment. And when accusation is delivered with an intent to punish, we can see that it all too often gets out of hand. There is a potency to it, an energy that will not rest until the destruction of its target as been ensured. We can see this in the many “moral panics” that have occurred in the past and that occur today. The telltale sign of a moral panic is that the accusations of those who drive it become incontrovertible, so that people place themselves in danger for challenging it. Your challenge is seen as sufficient evidence that you are guilty of the same things. The other sign is that the particular sins which are the focus of the moral panic encapsulate milder and milder behaviour, or behaviour which is not truly described by what the sin originally meant. Gradually, the condemnation loses its meaning and any moral authority it may have had before, because it is used to describe all sorts of things that were not in its original definition. It’s not for nothing that our spiritual enemy is called the “accuser of the brethren” (Revelation 12:10) and it’s not difficult to see that these downward spirals of accusation are driven by something demonic. Another sign of accusation that has gone too far is that any mention of grace and mercy is met with fury. Satanic accusation cannot bear the mention of mercy regardless of what that mercy is thought to entail. That is why the gospel opposes this type of accusation, and declares to it that no sin is beyond God’s forgiveness and no repentant sinner must be barred from the doors of a church.
This obviously doesn’t mean that any charge brought against others is automatically evil or that defense of others is automatically good. A defense can be evil and an accusation can be good. However, a society intoxicated with accusation is an evil society, which sees the intensity and diligence of accusation as a measure of moral character. There is something in the fallen human nature which enjoys accusation and gives it free reign, maybe because it provides an avenue by which the accuser can justify or vindicate himself, and thus provide a refuge from his shame. Therefore, even though we recognize that accusation is sometimes necessary, such as in 1 Corinthians 5, we retain our wariness of it so that we do not become pawns of the devil, and we prevent it from getting out of hand. Unfortunately, any society that tries to be moral in some way falls into this trap and every hegemonic moral ideology becomes the enabler of moral panics. People fall into the trap of thinking that a society’s righteousness is measured by how diligently people oversee each others’ moral behaviour, rather than individuals overseeing themselves. And, in so doing, it becomes an immoral society, consumed with suspicions, driven by unbridled anger (even hatred), and noticing the faintest shade of a particular immorality, but blind to its own more severe sin, straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel. Then the wrath of God looms over it, ready to strike.
[i] Watchman Nee, The King and the Kingdom of Heaven, (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1978) 68