Don’t judge others, Jesus didn’t judge others.
It’s an easy statement to make – ubiquitous on social media. Folk use it to defend politicians, athletes, celebrities, or anyone else’s behavior that the New Testament clearly defines as sin.
The advantage being leveraged is the ignorance of Christians who don’t know what the Bible says about judging (and the different uses of the word) combined with the corrosive power of a shame culture that loves to embarrass, cajole, and marginalize people who don’t toe the latest societal line. That’s why its common when professed Christians essentially make statements like “God loves everyone as everyone, so everyone can do what everyone wants to do” to be met either with virtual silence from Christians who know better or supported with cheers by others who don’t.
To actually look at the context of Jesus’ warning in Matt. 7:1-2 to “judge not, that you be not judged,” is to realize that Christ isn’t prohibiting the identification of something as sinful but the hypocrisy of legalistic religion that thrills in doing so before first sincerely examining potentially greater sin struggles in one’s own life (e.g., the speck/log contrast). This seems to be the definition of judging Jesus is using in this oft-quoted, oft-misapplied passage. The point Christ makes is that singling out the lesser sin struggles of others while hypocritically holding onto greater transgressions is the kind of religious hypocrisy that is the opposite of the kingdom of God. Ahem, please note that Jesus even “judges” his listeners in this very passage by calling them hypocrites (v. 5)! Therefore, we have an admonition for Christians to keep growing in the gospel so they would be quicker to examine their own hearts for sin struggles and slower to criticize other believers for theirs.
However, slower isn’t the same as not at all.
The idea it’s automatically unloving or un-Christian to properly call someone’s sinful behavior as sin is far afield from what Jesus said or did. Furthermore, it’s far afield from what his apostles did and said in the rest of the New Testament.
For example, in 1 Cor. 5, the Apostle Paul writes in the local church at Corinth, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”1
If this were written in 2019 some might be shouting Paul down on Facebook as unloving or give him a Twitter “clap back” shaming him for “judging” others (ironically, both judgments in themselves) because God accepts everyone as they are, or that love is love, or some other bumper sticker platitude that gets you likes and attaboys on the social network echo chamber.
But the apostle not only says what this self-professed Christian is doing is sinful but also that the community of faith should respond to this situation. Interestingly, Paul adds that the Corinthian church isn’t to include non-Christians in this kind of accountability. Dealing with the sins of someone in this communal way applies only to those who consider themselves to be a part of the community of Jesus (v. 11, “anyone who bears the name of brother”). Paul then sums up the principle in vv. 12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
It’s illuminating that the apostle’s expectation for the world and the church are completely different. He knows unbelievers aren’t compelled to follow kingdom ethics (e.g., sexuality, stewardship) nor should Christians expect them to follow Jesus as King or see God’s Word as authoritative and binding on their lives. Thus, the community of faith has no accountability with “outsiders” in those matters.
However, the tune changes when it comes to those within the community of faith.2 While the gospel should shape our addressing any sin with grace, humility, and a keen awareness of our own shortcomings, make no mistake, it also creates a community where sin can be not only identified but also, if need be, confronted. That’s why the expected answer of the question, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” is “Yes” provided the kind of judging is the kind Paul has outlined and not weighing into someone’s eternity as if we were God the Judge.
Neither Jesus nor the rest of the New Testament knows anything of the idea that calling something sinful the Scripture considers the same is somehow the sin of “judging others.”3 It’s merely just agreeing with what God’s Word says. Just make sure if you are agreeing with what God’s Word says about any kind of sin, you also do it with the understanding that the only reason you are a follower of Jesus is because God in his grace redeemed you from the same sinful situation as everyone else. And that were it not for the Cross and the wondrous love of God in Christ, we would all be far from him.
This should also help us see that followers of Jesus fall into a spiritually dangerous situation when they erroneously play the “don’t judge others” card in refusing to acknowledge sinful behavior in other professed Christians. This sets them up at some kind of quasi-authority who knows better than the New Testament ethic (and likely Christian orthodoxy throughout the last two millennia) and leads some scrambling to Google any and all other articles or videos of professing believers that would agree with them. But this kind of strategy only parallels, in a sobering way I might add, Paul’s words to the Romans, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (1:32). Talk about judgment!
It’s more likely that people who play the “Don’t judge” card do so because they’ve confused acceptance with endorsement. They want to rightfully love/support their person in question and think that in order to do so they must wrongfully endorse everything that person does without hesitation. But acceptance is different from endorsement. Contrary to the cultural forces that say differently, you can accept someone for who they are without endorsing everything they do.
To not endorse certain behavior in believers (because it’s sinful) isn’t unloving or unkind. In fact, it’s the most honest kind of love. It’s the kind of love Jesus gave to the woman caught in the act of adultery. Once again, Jesus pushes back on the hypocrisy of the religious leadership when he says to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”4 But, after they leave, Christ turns to the woman and says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”5 Jesus’ love is one that takes her where she is but doesn’t leave her where she is. This woman, after meeting Jesus, is to seek obedience from this time forward. So while Christ’s love fully accepts, it doesn’t fully endorse. He doesn’t say, “I love you for who you are so do whatever you choose,” but the opposite, “I am for you. You know what is right and wrong. Seek to obey.” Jesus loves this woman best because he is honest with her about who she is and what she had done. This is grace and truth, not grace or truth. Together they’re helpful, but offering one without the other is damaging and dangerous.6
Unfortunately employing the “Don’t judge” trump card retards our real growth in the gospel because it keeps us from being honest about sin and sinners. It’s grace over truth, not grace with truth. As much as arrogantly, pridefully condemning others reveals a lack of knowledge about the truth of the gospel so does endorsing sinful behavior in other believers while telling everyone else how wrong they are for calling sin a sin.
May Jesus tutor us all as his followers into what loving other believers (and unbelievers) looks like for our good, their good, and his glory!