To Judge or Not to Judge?

Conflict within the church Paul planted at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11) spilled over into their worship (1 Corinthians 11:18-19) and sadly even into the public sphere, with “brother [going] to law against brother, and that before unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 6:6). In addressing this last point, Paul asks a question worthy of some consideration: “Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?” (1 Corinthians 6:5).

In the eyes of some, the answer to this question would be a categoric, “No,” and the reason for this answer surprisingly would be another passage of Scripture. To these individuals, when Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” He forever forbad Christians from intervening in the lives of others (Matthew 7:1). So, how could Paul expect a Corinthian brother to judge his fellow brethren when Jesus had forbidden any judgment to take place in the lives of believers?

First, to assume that Jesus categorically condemns judgement is to assume that He not only contradicted Paul but Himself. On another occasion, Jesus actually encourages His audience, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge righteous judgement” (John 7:24). The problem clearly is not judgement, but unrighteous judgment.

Contextually speaking, Jesus’ instruction to “judge not” is surrounded by a lot of judgement. Before Jesus said, “Judge not,” He had already judged some individuals who gave, prayed, and fasted to be hypocritical (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). Before you pass that off as Jesus being the rightful judge of people’s behavior (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10), note that Jesus goes on to encourage His audience to use the skill of discernment to identify spiritual dogs, pigs, and/or wolves in sheep’s clothing by judging their fruit (Matthew 7:6, 15, 20). Jesus judged, and He expected His audience to judge.  

So why did Jesus say, “Judge not”? Consider what Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 7: “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2). The problem Jesus is addressing isn’t judgement; it’s 1) hypocritical judgement (judging others while giving no thought to how you will be judged) and 2) unreasonable judgment (applying a different standard to others than you apply to yourself). If a person follows the example of Jesus by deferring judgment to God’s revealed Word (cf. John 12:48) and applies that standard of judgement to himself, he has obeyed Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 7:1. In fact, as Jesus goes on to say, the aim of His teaching in Matthew 7:1 isn’t to create a community of faith where people ignore the proverbial specs in their brethren’s eyes but instead to encourage believers to remove things from their own eyes so they can “see clearly” to help their brethren (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus doesn’t contradict Paul or Himself when He says, “Judge not.” Instead, He merely encourages people to be careful and consistent whenever they exercise judgement so as to avoid hypocrisy and unreasonableness. Some thoughts from James and Paul seem appropriate in closing: “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty […] For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (James 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:31).
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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