It’s intriguing that the only wrong behavior these days seems to be judging something to be wrong. “Don’t judge me” is a common phrase in our culture. It even has its own text-messaging shorthand: DJM. Some people text DJM because, deep down, they know what they did was wrong and don’t want to deal with the consequences. But others text DJM because, they are quick to remind us, the Bible says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
The Bible does indeed say that, but before we explore the fullness of those words, let’s be honest. Most of us make judgments all the time: Should I go to church? If so, where? Should I be friends with that person? Should I let my son watch that movie? Should my daughter date that boy? Should I eat a burger or a salad? Should I vote for this candidate or that one?
All these questions lead to judgments — about people, values, actions, consequences, and behavior. In fact, we constantly judge behavior as wrong, right, good, bad, helpful, destructive, or constructive. And thank goodness we do. Judgment, when applied appropriately, is like a guardrail or safety net protecting us from danger — whether physical or spiritual.
To be sure, Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” But this passage, as with all of Scripture, must be considered in context and placed alongside the rest of God’s word, lest it become a pop-culture copout.
The truth is that Scripture is full of references that point to the need for, and benefits of, sound judgment. This includes judgment about good and bad behavior — and even good and bad people. As a matter of fact, in the very same chapter where we find that oft-quoted “judge not” admonishment, Jesus invites his followers to use their judgment to be on the lookout for false prophets. “By their fruit you will recognize them,” he explains. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” Deciding between bad and good presupposes judgment.
In John 7, Jesus adds, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” In other words, there are wrong and right kinds of judgment.
“Teach me knowledge and good judgment,” Psalm 119 petitions the Lord. Proverbs 13 tells us, “Good judgment wins favor.” And Proverbs 27 declares, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
How do we sharpen each other? It’s not by constantly affirming each other or showering each other with unending praise — though there’s certainly a place for encouragement among friends. Rather, we sharpen each other by pulling, pushing, and prodding each other back onto the right path. Again, that presupposes judgment about where the right path is.
We sharpen each other by pulling, pushing, and prodding each other back onto the right path. Again, that presupposes judgment about where the right path is.
Micah calls on us to “act justly” and “love mercy” — and reminds us the only way to bridge the chasm between the two is by “walking humbly with God.”
As they laid the foundation of the church, Peter and Paul personified Micah’s timeless counsel. These two were expected to make countless judgments: what to eat, how to worship, what to wear at worship, proper sexual behavior, who could serve in leadership, what a believer had to do, couldn’t do, and could do in some circumstances. The Council at Jerusalem offered the Apostles’ prayerful judgment about what Gentile converts were required to do. And the Epistles are a collection of judgments made by Paul about types of behavior — and about fellow believers.
Among other things, Paul unequivocally judges sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, gossip, and dishonoring of parents to be wrong. He reprimands believers who revert to legalism. He condemns lust and fits of rage and “filthy language.” He rebukes those who succumb to idleness and laziness. And he provides a detailed list of sinful behaviors — a list that convicts today’s seekers and believers just as much as it convicted the Galatian church.
Paul scolds believers for taking their disputes “before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people,” asking, “Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?” Indeed, Paul’s writing suggests that applying godly judgment is a given among believers. “Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?” he asks. Even so, he warns against judging hypocritically.
Paul’s example reminds us that godly judgment is about caring, loving, and building up individual believers as well as the entire Body.
Paul did not limit his judgment to generalities. In his first letter to Corinth, for instance, Paul “passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus” on a man sleeping with his father’s wife. He had no problem judging it — and those who did it — to be wrong. At one point Paul even judged Peter’s behavior to be wrong, admonishing his fellow church father for “hypocrisy” that had “led astray” other believers.
Paul’s example reminds us that godly judgment is about caring, loving, and building up individual believers as well as the entire Body. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 18: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” Put another way, Jesus rejects the DJM approach to BFFs. Instead, He empowers us to conclude — based on His word and what He’s written on our hearts — that certain things are wrong, and to point out a fault to a brother or sister with compassion and care.
Echoing our Savior, Paul writes to the Galatian church, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. … If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”
It seems Paul is warning us that loving, caring, godly judgment can devolve into being judgmental, which is not about loving, caring, or wanting to build others up. Being judgmental is about building myself up and tearing others down.
Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental
As followers of Christ, we have a right to make godly judgments. We have no right to be judgmental. The difference comes down to motive, means, and ends.
Is my motive to help a brother or sister, or is it to make myself feel better? Am I motivated by love or something less?
As to means, how I say something is as important as what I say. Jesus tells us to point out a fault privately. Paul calls on us to speak the truth but always with love.
Moreover, am I speaking to the right audience? My judgment is of little value if I don’t know the person with whom I’m sharing godly, biblical counsel. I need to be in community with him or her before I share my judgment about his or her behavior. And if my words are to have any impact, he or she needs to have a desire to get on the right path — and a sense of what the right path is.
Finally, will the result of sharing my judgment be humiliating or edifying; will it improve the situation or worsen it; will it help strengthen the Body or weaken it; will it bring glory to God or disappointment?
So, we can take what Jesus said to mean, “Do not judge anyone or anything, anywhere or anytime” — and thus abandon the gifts of reason and wisdom. Or we can take it to mean, “If you pass judgment unfairly, if you judge carelessly or callously, if you are hypocritical or hypercritical, if you cross the line from good judgment to being judgmental, then that’s how you will be judged.”
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.