Didn’t Jesus teach us not to judge other people? That seems to be the consensus of our culture. Nothing is worse than being judgmental—it’s associated with intolerance and bigotry. After all, Jesus himself did say, “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1). It seems fairly straightforward.
Interestingly, to say “judge not” is itself making a judgment about something. Paul teaches us not to judge (Rom. 14:13), but he also tells the Corinthian Christians to judge unrepentant believers and to even exercise church discipline to the unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:12–13). We have not only permission but also a responsibility to judge those within the household of faith.
As we keep reading Matthew, it seems that Jesus had something specific in mind when he taught people to “judge not.” Just a few verses later (7:6), Jesus compares some people to being like animals (dogs and pigs!)—so he obviously exercised some level of judgment. The best interpretation of Matthew 7 considers the full context of the chapter. When Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged,” he was referring to the judgmental spirit of the Pharisees. They were nitpicky, critical, and hypocritical!
Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14)? The Pharisee prays before God, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” In his list of good deeds, he mentions extortion, being unjust, and adultery. These three terms are shorthand for the eighth commandment (“you shall not steal”), the ninth commandment (“you shall not bear false witness”), and the seventh commandment (“you shall not commit adultery”).
Did you notice how he only mentioned three out of the Ten Commandments? He thinks he’s righteous, but he’s only pointed out that he’s kept thirty percent of God’s commandments; he’s failing at the other seventy percent! This man who uses another man to boast before God (“I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector”), is not a man who loves his neighbor. Instead, he is a self-righteous man who thinks he can stand over his neighbor in judgment.
But alas, this is what Pharisees do. They think they stand, and yet they fall. They point the finger at others without ever pointing it at themselves. They’re hypocrites.
There is no place for this kind of thing in the Christian life; however, there is room for honest judgment. If a brother or a sister in Christ has fallen deep into sin, it would be unloving for the Christian community to do nothing about it or to act as if no sin is there. So there is a place for judgment in the household of God—just don’t become judgmental.
The only sure way to avoid becoming a judgmental person is by confessing that we are insufficient for these things and that only Christ is sufficient. In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector knew that he could not stand before God as someone who was worthy or holy and this was why he needed for another to stand in his place.
As Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14), not because the tax collector thought he was better than the sinner next to him, but because he knew just how bad he was before the face of a holy God. The tax collector knew that he needed Jesus. This is where all of us must start before we can pick up stones.
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