Shalt Thou Not Judge?

A reader recently asked me about judging others.  As in, isn’t judging others sinful?  Isn’t it presumptuous and arrogant and usurping the role of God if we judge someone else’s actions or thoughts?  This is more or less my response, with some additional caveats and pointers I’ve added in for further clarification to a wider audience.
First off, we have to define what we’re talking about in terms of the word judge – or at least how I’m using it here.  I’m using it in terms of judging an action – something externally observable.  A harsh word, a lie, a lustful comment, hurting someone else, being insensitive to another’s suffering, etc.  We aren’t given the ability to make assessments about someone’s internal condition or nature.  All we can effectively do is make judgments about the appropriateness of their behavior.  In that context, I’m talking about Christian standards for how to conduct ourselves, not what may or may not be legal or proper in a culture or society at any given time.  Just because something is legal does not mean it is in keeping with Biblical Christian beliefs.  There is a secular structure for making and enforcing societal laws.  I’m talking about Christians in relationship with one another, regarding actions that are Biblically identified as sinful (in contradistinction to illegal).  
I’m also using the term judge to mean only judging the action, and not judging the person.  The thief on the cross (Luke 23) had been judged by society and culture, and was being executed for that judgment.  Jesus demonstrated that the state of a person’s heart before God is not knowable to us.  I can’t see a fellow-Christian engaging in sinful behavior and assert that this person is outside of God’s love or grace, or the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.  I can’t say that because Judas betrayed Jesus, he is now burning in hell.  A lot of people believe that, but the Bible is mum on it.  The Bible judges and condemns Judas’ betrayal without assuming that his betrayal means he doesn’t love God.  We need to judge the same way.  
Secondly, we have to acknowledge that we all judge, constantly.  People who claim not to be judgmental are judgmental.  They may have a broader list of things they aren’t bothered by, but everyone has some things that they judge as clearly improper.  Maybe it’s rape, or murder, or theft.  Maybe it’s driving a car on the Sabbath.  We may differ in the things we find meriting of judgment, but we all judge.  It’s impossible for us not to.  Just because you don’t tell someone else your judgment does not mean you haven’t judged them!  The question becomes who are we to judge, and how (if at all) is that judgment to be expressed?
Our culture’s insistence that nobody has the right to tell anybody else that their behavior is wrong (an action which in itself violates the ‘tolerance’ line they’re trying to get everybody else to follow) is confusing to Christians.  Additionally, we have the idea that being honest is somehow not being ‘nice’ or ‘charitable’ or ‘Christian’.  St. Paul has a lot to say about this – though of course the entire Bible sets the stage for how the people of God are to treat one another in terms of ‘judging’.
First off – the line about not judging other people is sometimes a mangling of Romans 2:1, which sounds like it’s saying we have no right to judge unless we’re perfect.  But that’s not what Romans 2:1 is dealing with.  Paul is talking to Jews, who feel that because God revealed His law to them at Mt. Sinai (in Exodus), they are in a position to judge non-Jews who don’t benefit from the Law and therefore don’t keep it.  Paul is pointing out that the Jews themselves, who *do* have the Law, are not able to keep it either.  They break the law just as badly as the Gentiles who don’t know about it.  The Jews have no right to feel smug or to boast about the law because they can’t keep it, which means the Law condemns *them* more than anyone!  D’oh!
Romans 14 brings up another aspect of judging – judging between Christians who are both trying to do the right thing.  He tells us in Romans 14:1-9 talks about those who are able to live ‘holier’ lives than others, essentially.   Paul is warning believers not to ‘judge’ other believers as inferior if they are not able to maintain the stricter, ‘holier’ lifestyle of another.  This is not an issue of being sinful as opposed to not being sinful, or engaging in sin as opposed to not engaging in sin.  It’s an acknowledgment that the Spirit may Call (and enable) one person (like Mother Teresa) to live a ‘holier’ life than another believer.  We don’t point to Mother Teresa and say that any Christian who doesn’t do what she did is not really a Christian.  We can – and should –  strive to emulate Christ, and we can also emulate the good we see in other Christians.  But that good is not to become judgment.
I think 1Corinthians 5:12-13 is another really important discussion of judgment.  Here, Paul makes a distinction between believers and non-believers.  Judging non-believers by the standards of believers is not our job, Paul says.  Non-believers already stand in judgment for their lack of faith.  Of course a non-believer isn’t going to live according to the standards of a believer!  It’s silly to think they would, if our only rationale is that everyone should follow what we believe is the best way to live.  
This doesn’t mean that we should pretend that all behavior is equally good, and that there is no ability to distinguish between healthy and harmful behavior.  We have no problem ‘judging’ murder as wrong.  Where the line gets fuzzy is when we are talking about behavior that some people think is just fine, and others (including Christians) think is clearly wrong.  Sexual sins, for instance (whether porn or adultery).  Suddenly, we’re being ‘judgmental’.  In any event, Christians should not be surprised that non-believers don’t choose to act according to God’s standards (or at least not to act in accordance with *all* of them – even non-believers follow *some* of God’s laws [not killing, for instance]).  Paul tells us not to spend our time trying to condemn non-believers of the law.  
He *does* indicate that we can – and should – ‘judge’ the behavior of our fellow believers.  It’s our duty and responsibility – to ourselves, to our Christian faith, and to our brothers or sisters who are in error – to ‘call a spade a spade’.  That’s what the last part of 1Corinthians 5:13 is saying.  It’s this part of the verse that makes Christians confused and uncomfortable.  In the following chapters of 1Corinthians, Paul lays out some basic expectations in how Christians ought to live.  
Clearly, some behavior is not acceptable as followers of Christ.  It is our duty and responsibility to lovingly make our brothers and sisters in Christ aware when we see them drifting into error.  Failing to do so puts us at risk to begin thinking that the behavior is acceptable (something many Christians have fallen into regarding the acceptability of homosexuality), it puts other Christians at risk for assuming that if a fellow-believer is doing it and nobody is calling them to account that it must be ok (see above), and finally it puts the erring believer at risk of drifting into dangerously unChristian behavior.  
Our goal in calling attention to a fellow-believers unChristian behavior is to do so in love.  Privately, with care and love – not wagging a finger and taking on a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude.  We all fail, constantly, in some way or another.  But it has to be done.  And if it doesn’t work to do it in love, then Paul admonishes his follower Timothy to do it more bluntly (1Timothy 5:20), though it could be argued that Paul is talking about the Pastor’s duty here.  All we can do is help one another see where they are failing, and be grateful and humble when others do the same with us.  I think this is critical – it’s a lot easier to point out someone else’s error than to hear someone pointing out our own!  But our communal lives as Christians means that we are to hope and expect that others will be honest with us, that we might continue striving to be more Christ-like.  And as much as we hope others will be gentle and loving with us, we ought to be gentle and loving with others.  
We are expected – as Christians – to judge the behavior of others.  We are NOT permitted to determine whether that behavior means the other person really isn’t a believer or really isn’t saved.  That’s not our job.  Our job is only to cling to how God has revealed to us we are to live.  We keep our own house in order as best we can, so to speak.  If all we wish to do is judge others without focusing on our own lives, we’re probably already in more need of help than those around us!  And remember that we judge and strive in order to be more Christ-like, more faithful, more expressive of our thanks for God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  We aren’t judging and striving to earn God’s grace – that has already been given!    Rather, we judge and strive out of love and gratitude for the forgiveness and grace in which we live every moment of our lives as people of faith.  Not pointing out the error of our brothers & sisters in faith can endanger them, us, and the faith we both claim to profess.  Not doing it in love can risk damaging the other person.  It’s a thin but important line we’re supposed to walk.

7 Responses to “Shalt Thou Not Judge?”

  1. Melani Says:

    well, the title of your post cought my attention, completely. I just know for me, that judging people for their actions is in our human nature. Although, it can hurt our feelings to be judged by our friends and family in regards to say our parenting. I had a friend who had her own parenting ways and she consistently compared her parenting to mine, and we couldn’t agree to disagree. I have felt she was judging me and basically because I don’t share in the same parenting as she does, then I am less then. Does that make sense? I know I judge people, but I really try not to, who am I? I am not the judge and jury in anyone’s life. I like how you said, keep your own house in order, period!

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    This is a tricky issue for sure, Melani.  The title was meant to confuse people a little bit, since it reflects what our culture tells us our stance on ‘judging’ should be, rather than what the Bible’s stance is.

    Judging *is* in our human nature.  It can be done very poorly and rudely.  It can be in error.  It can be inappropriate.  It can also be insightful.  Helpful.  It can literally save a life.  We judge – so to try *not* to judge is trying to change human nature completely – and it also runs the risk of leaving us open (as Christians) to completely losing sight of God’s Word as the guiding rule for our lives.  Where we find Scripture at odds with our preferences and ideas, we are called to pray for the strength to change our preferences and our ideas, rather than ignoring Scripture.  That’s a tough row to hoe, so to speak.

    I’m going to excerpt some of your comments for another post on this topic.  Thanks for sharing!

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