Rules for (Not) Judging

Matthew 7:1-6

“Don’t judge so that you won’t be judged.” It’s one of the most widely quoted teachings of Jesus and one of the Scriptures that even non-Christians are quick to point out. We hear it used a lot these days in conversations that tend to be controversial as a way of kind of saying, “Live and let live” or “What I do is my business alone and no one has a right to say otherwise.”

In fact, a study by the Barna Group a few years ago, which was written up in the widely read book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, revealed that nine out of ten young people view Christians as “judgmental.” Given Jesus’ command to not judge others, this means that many people view Christians as hypocrites.

There is certainly some truth to that claim. Some Christians do engage in serial judgment of others and act in condemning ways. On the other hand, some Christians have responded to this accusation with shamed silence at best or, at worst, they have adapted their theology to refute this notion of Christians as “judgy.” It’s a theology where concepts like sin and repentance are really seen as too harsh—that people are basically good and just need more self-actualization. As long as people are good and nice to each other and what you do doesn’t harm anyone else, then who am I to judge? Remove the idea of sinfulness and there will no longer be any need for judgment. It’s all about tolerance of anything except intolerance and the only sin is claiming there is such a thing as sin at all.

But is that really what Jesus was driving at here? Far from it, I would argue. In fact, such a “Christianity” really has nothing to do with the witness of Scripture or the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s more akin to what researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which goes something like this

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good and nice and fair to each other as taught by the Bible and most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and Denton called MTD the “new American religion.” They wrote their study in 2005, but actually this paradigm was emerging a lot earlier than that. Theologian Richard Niebuhr described it’s theology like this in the 1938: “A god without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” In such a theological worldview, there is no place for judgment because there is no such thing as sin.

But if you read the Bible at all, you begin to realize that sin is a very serious business. It’s the destructive condition that keeps humanity enslaved unto death. It was so serious that it required God himself to come and person and deal with it on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Denying the reality of sin doesn’t make it go away. We are enslaved to it, we need saving from it, and we are all subject to God’s judgment because of it.

Jesus is thus not saying here that we simply ignore sin in others or ourselves in the interest of being good and nice and fair. The real question for Jesus is how we, as his disciples, deal with the sin we see happening in the world while remembering that we are sinners ourselves. We are all in the same boat—all subject to God’s judgment.

Biblically speaking, however, there are two major dimensions to that word “judgment.” New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce put it this way: “Judgment is an ambiguous word in both Greek and English: it may mean exercising a proper discernment or it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them).”

In the first sense it means to discern between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. We “judge” between different choices all the time. If you are a parent you “judge” what behavior is acceptable in your children and what is not. This is a healthy kind of judgment to which we are encouraged in the Bible—to seek God’s wisdom and to be disciplined in making choices that are holy and lead to wholeness.

The second dimension of judgment, however, is the one we tend to think of most when we hear that word—judgment as condemnation. It is the kind of judgment that assigns people to a less than human status or seeks to determine their eternal destiny. It is judgment designed to create an “I vs thou” or “us vs them” category to place people in. This second dimension is the kind of judgment that Jesus warns against when he gives the command, “Do not judge.” In Luke’s version it is even clearer: “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37).

In other words, Jesus isn’t telling us to let sin slide by without discerning and confronting it, but he is telling us that condemning a fellow sinner is a major no-no. When we unpack the full force of his teaching, it gives us a much better understanding of how we are to deal with sin without becoming the hypocritical Pharisees the world expects us to be.

I want to suggest that there are five important steps to dealing with sin that, if we take them all into account, can help us actually be more redemptive than judgmental. If we take these steps to heart, they will not only help us but they will help others to be shaped into the people God created them to be.

1. RECOGNIZE THAT THE WAY WE JUDGE OTHERS IS THE WAY GOD WILL JUDGE US

The first step is to recognize that the way we judge others is directly related to the way in which God will judge us. “You’ll receive the same judgment you give,” says Jesus, and “Whatever you deal out will be dealt to you” (Matthew 7:2). Remember the Golden Rule? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). This actually takes it a bit further: “Do unto others as you would have God do unto you.” If we want God’s forgiveness and mercy for our sins, then we need to express forgiveness and mercy toward the sins of others. This is Jesus’ way of reminding us that we are all sinners in the same boat and that we are all in need of saving. No one has a corner on the market on righteousness. Jesus died for us all. As theologian Greg Boyd puts it:

“The Christian’s job is to agree with God that every person you meet was worth Jesus dying for.”

When we recognize we have received mercy, we are much more likely to give it in return.

We live in a world where labels and condemnation is part of the air we breathe. People say nasty things to and about one another, assuming that the other is damaged beyond hope. I wonder what would happen if, instead of joining the condemnation bandwagon, we would ask ourselves, “What if God thinks about me the way I think about others? What if God deals with my sin the way I deal with the sins of others?” Such a realization is more likely to put us on our knees instead of a position of condemnation.

2. CONDUCT A RIGOROUS SELF-EXAMINATION

That leads to the second step in confronting sin, which involves rigorous self-examination. “Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Here Jesus confronts the issue of hypocrisy. We first have to confront the sin in ourselves before we can ever hope to help others with their own. It’s impossible to condemn someone else if we are honest and serious about our own sin.

Comparing and contrasting ourselves to others is really the basis of a lot of our sin in the first place. Notice that after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden the first thing they did was notice that they were naked and start comparing themselves to one another. One of their sons would kill the other because of comparison. When we begin to see ourselves as superior to others, we easily move into judgment and condemnation. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves in the same boat with others—as slaves to sin in need of rescue—then we are much more likely to lead with compassion rather than condemnation.

Disciples of Jesus are very aware of their own sin, temptation, and vulnerability. The writer of I John says, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. If we claim, ‘We have never sinned,’ we make him a liar and his word is not in us” (1:8-9). Often it is those who are the most condemning of others who have the most to hide of their own sin. Jesus calls us to humility in our dealings with others—that we confront sin not from a place of righteous superiority but as a way of coming alongside another sinner to find wholeness and healing together. Notice how Jesus puts it: Remove the plank from your own eye and then you can help your brother or sister with the speck in theirs. Rigorous self-examination is the key—we confront sin in the world by first confronting it in ourselves.

3. CONFRONT SIN IN OTHERS WITH HUMILITY AND GRACE

But confrontation of sin is part of the church’s job. It must be done with humility and with grace, but it must be done. This is where a lot of the modern aversion to judgment actually causes more dysfunction—if sin is never confronted, especially in the church, then we leave others and ourselves in slavery to sin and death. The gospel is about liberating us from that slavery, and we need to confront the things in ourselves and in others that lead to separation from God and God’s best for us all.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives a model for this kind of confrontation. It is to be done directly and with love. “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your sister or brother. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention, even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-18).

Notice that this is a direct confrontation—there is no room for gossip or rumor mongering (which are both sins, by the way!). We come to a fellow sinner humbly to discuss what has been done and, if repeated attempts to reconcile and restore that person to wholeness are rebuffed, then we leave it alone. Jesus says to treat the unrepentant sinner as a Gentile or tax collector—but, then again, remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors! He continued to stay connected to them, keeping the door open for God’s grace to work.

In a world with multiple platforms for communication, it is much easier for people to blast others or talk about them rather than talking to them. The church is famous for this sort of thing—we would much rather talk about someone’s sin or what they have done to us with anyone else other than that person directly. It’s a sinful and ineffective way of dealing with conflict. We need to have the courage to “speak the truth in love” as Paul puts it, so that we can grow together in every way in Christ (Ephesians 4:15).

4. SEEK RESTORATION AND RECONCILIATION

The goal of this confrontation isn’t to simply prove that you are right and the other person is wrong. It’s about restoration and reconciliation. James puts it this way: “My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins” (James 5:19-20). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes his or her heart and life than over 99 who have no need of repentance (Luke 15:7).

Confrontation without condemnation is the disciple’s way of dealing with sin. We first confront sin in ourselves, recognizing that we need God’s mercy, and when we see others struggling with sin, we approach them in humility and love, seeking to bring them to wholeness and healing. Even if they don’t repent, we continue to love them even if cannot condone their actions. We leave them prayerfully in the hands of God, who is the ultimate judge.

5. LEAVE JUDGMENT IN THE HANDS OF GOD

Jesus’ warning to not throw one’s pearls before swine or giving what is holy to dogs is a stark reminder that we can’t force others to repent. There will always be those who reject correction, and we have to be careful not to reject it ourselves! Sometimes we have to break fellowship with those who continue to perpetuate sin, for the sake of our own spiritual health and that of the church, but we never stop loving them as God does and praying for reconciliation and restoration.

This is a hard teaching of Jesus, but then again Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to the easy way. The easy way is letting sin run rampant in us and in the world by denying it or failing to confront it. We do so, however, with the humility and love of people who know what it is to be saved from our own sins.

The early Methodist movement took Jesus’ commandments seriously. The Methodist class and band meetings were places where people could confess their sins to one another and be healed. Gentle confrontation and restoration were part of the process. The class meetings largely died out because the Methodist church became complacent about sin and sought respectability with the culture instead. If there is to be a future for Methodism, and indeed a future for the church, it will begin with a return to Jesus’ teaching. It’s not about being judgmental but about spurring one another on to perfection.

The truth is that as long as Christians preach the gospel we will be seen as judgmental by a world that doesn’t want to be confronted with its own sin. But there are ways for us to deliver the good news that are humble, loving, and redemptive. “The Christian’s job is to agree with God that every person you meet was worth Jesus dying for.”

That is the truth that speaks with love!

Source:

Jethani, Skye. “What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘Do Not Judge?'” Christianity Today, September 2010 (Web Exclusive).

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