Christians and Judging

judge notby John Ellis

“Judge not, that you be not judged.” Matthew 7:1

If Buzzfeed contacts me, asking for an article titled “Top 5 Bible Verses Misused by Liberals to Prooftext Their Nonsensical Polemics,” Matthew 7:1 will undoubtedly make the list.[1] The phrase “judge not,” from the verse, is misused so often in online discussions that it should have its own Godwin’s Law. For those of you unaware of Godwin’s Law, it states that the longer an online discussion goes on, someone is highly likely to compare another thread participant to Hitler, or Nazis in general. Well, I posit that the longer an online discussion goes on, and one of the participants self-identifies as a conservative Christian, the odds make it worth placing bets on the chance that someone else will trot out “judge not” as a response to the conservative Christian. I want that law to be named Ellis’ Law.

But what about Matthew 7:1? The verse means something, but does it mean that I’m not allowed to tell somebody that they’re wrong for being a racist? Well, before I jump into the exegetical deep end, most likely drowning, I want to splash around in the shallow end and point out the hypocrisy of those most likely to smugly chortle, “judge not.” In fact, starting off, I can scratch “most likely to” and replace it with “who”[2], because several weeks ago, Planet Fitness, the gym with the slogan “Home of the Judgment Free Zone” provided a real life example of hypocrisy.

In late February, a woman complained about the presence of a transgender person in the woman’s locker room.  At some point in the ensuing back-and-forth, Planet Fitness cancelled the woman’s membership. The gym issued a statement explaining their actions. Part of the statement reads, “The manner in which this member expressed her concerns about the policy exhibited behavior that management at the Midland club deemed inappropriate and disruptive to other members, which is a violation of the membership agreement and as a result her membership was cancelled.”

Look, I don’t know what this lady did or did not say and/or do. She may have crossed a behavior line that would cause me to side with the gym’s decision, regardless of whether or not I agree with her initial complaint.[3] And my own personal beliefs aside about gender and whether or not a man, regardless if he self-identifies as a woman, should be allowed to use a woman’s locker room[4], the point I want to make is that Planet Fitness judged.

Part of Planet Fitness’ statement reads that the woman, “exhibited behavior that the management … deemed inappropriate.” Planet Fitness judged/“deemed” that the woman’s behavior was out-of-bounds; and the gym’s final judgment was that due to her wrong behavior, she had forfeited her right to be a member. The company with the slogan “Home of the Judgment Free Zone” passed judgment. The particular “why’s” and wherefore’s” aside, I’m happy that they did. I don’t want to live in a “Judgment Free Zone” society.

What I’m not happy about[5] is the hypocrisy. I understand that Planet Fitness is low-hanging fruit; I get that their slogan is mainly a marketing term designed to separate insecure people from their cash. But the company, and their slogan, does represent the laughable hypocrisy inherent in most people’s use of “judge not.”

Society can’t function if “judge not,” as most often used, is the guiding idiom. People are constantly making judgments about others. When my wife and I decided on a piano teacher for our daughter, we judged that one of the available teachers was better for our daughter than the other teachers. When people vote for President in 2016, they will be judging that one of the candidates is better for the country than the other one.[6] When someone states that certain beliefs about sexuality are bigoted, they are passing judgment. What most people mean when they say “judge not” is “I don’t like your specific judgment; I judge your judgment.”

judge not 2If everyone took to heart “judge not,” William Wilberforce wouldn’t have opposed the slave trade; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wouldn’t have organized sit-ins; and Malala Yousafzai wouldn’t risk her life to advocate for female education in Pakistan. Instead of throwing out “judge not,” I wish that more people would have the courage to say “I believe that you’re wrong and that you should change.” At least then there would be a greater chance that dialogue wouldn’t be shouted down by the cowardly pretense of self-righteousness. But that still leaves Matthew 7:1.

This should go without saying, but the Bible is an entire book. Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 21:21 is one story – the story of how God redeems a people unto Himself. Matthew 7:1 exists, first and foremost, in that context. Three of the big questions that should be asked in light of the Bible’s overarching context are 1. Who is God? 2. Why do people need to be redeemed? And, 3. How does God redeem people? I’m sure that you remember at least one of your high school English teachers making you write a paper on Romeo & Juliet. If you were like I was, you complained to your teacher that the major motifs were too hard to find. She or he would patiently, of course, reply that searching the text was the key. The motifs are found in the text. The Bible is no different; the answers to the big questions are found in the text.

God reveals many things about Himself in the Bible, and I could use up most of my vocabulary attempting to parse out the incommunicable attributes of God[7]. For the sake of brevity[8], I’ll lift out of the text those things that God reveals about Himself that are directly pertinent to my as-yet-to-be-stated thesis. For starters, God is the author of all things, and God is holy. Everything, including humans, owes its existence to the sovereign God of the Bible. That same sovereign God of the Bible is holy, and, as a holy God, cannot abide unrighteousness. Here’s the kicker – humans don’t get to decide what God judges unrighteous. God has revealed His definition, His standard, in His book. The story of the Bible makes that clear; starting with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden[9], including Miriam’s leprosy[10], and even the Sermon on the Mount, which includes Matthew 7:1,[11] God reveals to His creatures that He has righteous standards, and that violating those standards results in Divine judgment.

The answer to the second big question (why do people need to be redeemed?) should be obvious, but because of our open rebellion to God, humans believe that we get to negotiate with God, at best. At worst, we believe, for a variety of reasons, that God’s standard isn’t binding on us. But the Bible makes clear that because of humanity’s failure to live up to God’s righteous standard, there is an ethical breach between Creator and created. Once again, look at the story of the Bible; look at Adam and Eve’s expulsion for the Garden, Miriam’s leprosy, and the Sermon on the Mount – three among many other examples in the Bible. Sin, failure to obey God, results in judgment. People need to be redeemed because we all fail to obey God’s righteous standard. Thankfully, the story ends with good news.

Although we are the cause of the ethical breach between Creator and created; although our sin is odious to a righteous God; God provides the means of redemption. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[12] Jesus Christ, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity[13], humbled himself by living as a human and doing what no human is capable of doing – perfectly obeying God’s righteous standard. He then, taking God’s judgment for our sin on himself, died on the cross and was raised from the dead on the third day. All those who repent and place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as their only hope before a holy God, are seen by God as being in Christ and are spared His coming judgment. That is how God redeems a people unto Himself.

Those previous three paragraphs are a brief summary of the overall context that Matthew 7:1 is framed. It’s obvious from the overall story of the Bible that judgment is one of its central motifs (thankfully God provides a way to escape His judgment). Shouting “judge not” because you dislike another person’s belief is not doing justice to the overall context. In fact, the use of “judge not,” as it is most often used today, is nonsensical in light of the overall context of the Bible[14]. What the immediate context of Matthew 7:1 tells us, and affirming the overall context of the Bible, is that there is a standard of judgment that will be applied to each and every person who uses God’s word/law to pass judgment on another.

The immediate context confirms this, and expands on the application. Verse 5 states, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” That admonishment is preceded by the famous, and oft misquoted as well, verses about taking the log out of your own eye before telling someone else about the speck in their eye. By no means does Jesus command people to never judge. But the initial posture that we are to take is one of humility in recognition of our sins. If we’re not actively seeking to root sin out of our own life, we can’t be sure that our perspective of other’s sin is even correct. Using God’s standard, we are to be judging ourselves and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, purging our own life of unrighteousness.

It should also be pointed out that with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “assumes the seat of Moses and announces a regime change.”[15] When King Jesus arrived on the scene, the standard teaching of the Pharisees was that the Messiah would only save those who adhered to the Law AND the extra rules and regulations imposed by the Pharisees – in other words, not sinners. Jesus, contradicting this, made it clear that he had come to earth “to seek and to save the lost.”[16] Part of Jesus’ point with the Sermon on the Mount was to claim that everyone is guilty of violating the law, even if only internally.[17] Everyone is lost, and no one obeys the law perfectly “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[18] This is the important context for Matthew 7:1-5. We are all sinners. We have all violated God’s law. When we point our fingers at someone else in judgment, we need to realize that God is sitting in Divine judgment of us. That’s a sobering thought. Thankfully, Jesus came to earth to rescue sinners from God’s Divine judgment.

When we say to someone, “that action violates God’s righteous law,” our motivation should not be to place ourselves on a pedestal in contrast to the sinner. It should be, first, a humble recognition that we too are sinners who violate God’s righteous law. And, secondly, a prayerful reminder that violating God’s law has consequences; thankfully King Jesus has taken those eternal consequences upon himself for those who bow the knee to him in full faith and repentance.

That’s what Matthew 7:1 means; what it does not mean is that we are not supposed to give the name of sin to unrighteous acts. Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, the writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, didn’t shy away from spelling out actions that violate God’s righteous law. It is not loving God, and it is not loving your neighbor to keep quiet in the presence of sin. Don’t allow those who judge your beliefs as wrong shame you into silence by an out-of-context proof texting of Matthew 7:1.


[1] It may even be #1, although, without putting a lot of thought into the rankings for that entirely hypothetical article, I think that Matthew 22:37 will be #1 followed by Matthew 7:1.

[2] In case substitution isn’t your forte, instead of “those most likely to chortle,” it should now read, “those who chortle.”

[3] For the record, I do.

[4] The fact that I used “man” and “he” should tell you everything that you need to know about where I stand. Feel free to judge me.

[5] Besides the gender issues.

[6] Or, other ones. Maybe there will be a viable third candidate in 2016. While we’re dreaming, maybe there will be a fourth as well.

[7] Briefly – the incommunicable attributes are those that are not analogous in humans/Image Bearers. Things like immutability, self-existence, and the unicity of God. For further study, read the Bible and read a systematic theology that will serve the same purpose that Cliff Notes/Spark Notes served you while you were writing your paper on Romeo & Juliet.

[8] And for the sake that I’ve never been to seminary, and I can’t trust myself to explain God’s aseity with less than four thousand words, and even then, my explanation would be rambling and mostly unhelpful – kinda like this footnote.

[9] Genesis 3

[10] Numbers 12

[11] Matthew 5-7

[12] Romans 5:8, ESV.

[13] The three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are one in essence. The Trinity is one God/essence, but three persons or individual subsistences. Even if I wrote thousands and thousands of words about the Trinity, I would fail to adequately explain the doctrine. Read the Bible.

[14] Not to mention that it’s self-refuting. The person who says “judge not” is judging. But I already covered that.

[15] Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 538.

[16] Luke 19:10, ESV.

[17] See Matthew 5:21-48.

[18] Matthew 5:48, ESV.

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