To Judge or Not To Judge? That Is The Question

FAQ: In listening to two Christians having a disagreement about a personal matter, I’ve often heard one say to the other, “Stop judging me,” or “Stop being judgmental,” as if that is always wrong. What does the Bible say about judging one another?

You and I live in a war zone, amidst the battle between the two gods, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Devil (the god of this world – 2 Cor. 4:4). Satan is the master counterfeiter. What does he counterfeit? Truth. He saw what happened in the Garden of Eden when the first woman omitted words from God’s Word, added words to God’s Word, and changed God’s Word. Later on, in another garden, he also saw what happened when Jesus Christ stood on “It is Written.” The Devil’s goal is to blind people to the truth about Jesus Christ, and to do so he must blind them to the truth of the written Word.

As children of God who want to glorify our heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, we are constantly required to distinguish between truth and error, light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate, spiritual realities and spiritual counterfeits. This often takes place in interaction with other people, both Christian and non-Christian. God’s Word often exhorts us to press in, speak up, reprove and “interrupt” those whose lives are heading in a wrong direction. Yet often when we do, we hear something like: “Stop being so judgmental;” “Judge not lest you be judged;” “Go ahead, if you want to live in that judgment.” Such rebuttals can make us less aggressive in future situations and shut down genuine dialogue at the expense of helping another person and edifying the Body of Christ. Let us go to God’s Word and see if we can find the answer to the question: To judge or not to judge?

The basic Greek word translated judge is krino, which comes from the Greek word krisis, transliterated into English as “crisis.” The definition of a crisis is interesting: “the turning point for better or worse in a disease; the point of time when it is decided whether an affair or course of action shall proceed, be modified, or terminated.” A crisis, therefore, is a decisive moment. The word krino means “to divide; to separate; to make a distinction, either positive or negative (to pronounce sentence after examining).” Look at its uses in the following verses:

John 12:44-48
(44) Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.
(45) When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.
(46) I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
(47) “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge [krino] him. For I did not come to judge [krino] the world, but to save it.
(48) There is a judge [krino] for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.

Here we see that the Word of God is the one and only true standard for judgment. That is why knowing it–accurately–is so vital. Consider this verse:

Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The King James Version translates part of that verse by saying that the Word of God “is a discerner” of the thoughts and intents of the heart. The word for discerner is kritikos. In English, a “critic” is “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on a matter, involving a judgment of its value, truth, or righteousness.” Hebrews 4:12 is a fabulous verse, and in it we can see that the Word of God not only reveals my transgression (the act), but also my iniquity (the heart behind the act). What is in me too often goes across (trans) to others. But here’s the problem: my perspective of the Word of God can be distorted. Therefore it could be that what I think it says is not what it really says, and in that case it cannot do for me what Hebrews 4:12 speaks about. This is one reason I personally want many mature Christian counselors in my life. I (and you) am constantly required to judge one thing after another, and I want to do it right.

John 7:21-24
(21) Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all astonished.
(22) Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath.
(23) Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?
(24) Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”

We see from Jesus’ words here that we are most definitely to judge, but we are not to judge by our own perceptions or opinions. Rather, we are to judge by the Word of God. As I said earlier, most of our judgments involve interaction with people. We are to judge people’s words and deeds by the Word of God, and in so doing we must separate the sin from the sinner. This helps us reserve judgments on someone’s heart and give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until we have enough facts, and that may take a while. As Oswald Chambers says, “There is always one more fact in every man’s case about which I know nothing.” Consider the following verses:

Romans 16:17 and 18
(17) I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.
(18) For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.

3 John 1:9-12
(9) I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.
(10) So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(11) Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.
(12) Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone–and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

Again we see that the Word of God (the truth) is the only standard by which to judge anything. In the following verse, notice that the Apostle Paul expected people to judge even what he said to them.

1 Corinthians 10:15
I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

We will now consider a number of verses in 1 Corinthians involving judgment. In doing so, we will see that we need not know all the motives involved behind what people do but, as Paul did, we are required to judge people’s behavior by the unwavering standard of the Word of God.

1 Corinthians 4:1-6
(1) So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
(2) Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
(3) I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.
(4) My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
(5) Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
(6) Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.

Obviously, Paul’s statement here to “judge nothing before the appointed time” cannot contradict the whole idea of discerning truth from error and right behavior from wrong behavior according to God’s Word. The key is not to “go beyond what is written” and make fleshly judgments about one another, exalting some people and demeaning others.

1 Corinthians 6:1-6
(1) If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?
(2) Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?
(3) Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
(4) Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church!
(5) I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?
(6) But instead, one brother goes to law against another–and this in front of unbelievers!

Here again we see the necessity of believers making sound judgments. Now consider the following verse in the context of the “Lord’s supper,” a verse that reiterates this truth:

1 Corinthians 11:31
But if we judge ourselves, we would not come under judgment.

Here’s another verse to look at:

1 Corinthians 14:29
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully [judge] what is said.

Each person with the spirit of God is to learn God’s Word and think for himself, in conjunction with others in the Body of Christ.

If you would like to pursue this study, a related Greek word you could look at is dokimazo, which basically means “to test against a standard in order to prove.” You can find it in Romans 12:2 (“…prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”); 1 Corinthians 11:28 (“…a man ought to examine himself…”); 2 Corinthians 13:5 (“Examine yourselves to whether you are in the faith…”); 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (“Prove all things…”). Before I conclude this article with a key section from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” let us look at some “difficult” verses, ones that are often used to discourage people from speaking up against something they perceive to be wrong:

Romans 2:1-3
(1) You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
(2) Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.
(3) So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?

Many people quote these verses completely out of context, often to stifle another believer’s genuine feedback about what is missing for him in the relationship with the person. The context here is specifically regarding Israel. Paul is making a point in Romans that both Jew and Gentile are without God and without hope. Romans 1:18-32 deals with Gentile sin, and Romans 2:1ff deals specifically with Jewish sin and their self-righteous judgment of the Gentiles, despite the fact that the Jews were doing exactly the same things in their hearts. These verses obviously cannot contradict other verses that tell us to judge. Now let’s consider some of the most “famous” words Jesus ever spoke:

Matthew 7:1-5
(1) Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
(2) For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(3) Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(4) How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?
(5) You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Jesus cannot be saying that we are never to be discerning about ourselves or others. How would we know there is a plank in our eye or a speck in our brother’s? Think about other things he said in the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke about “hypocrites” (you can see the root work “critic” in hypocrite). A hypocrite is one who judges by a false standard. Jesus also said that we can’t “serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). By what standard do we decide? He also warned about “false prophets” (Matt. 7:15). By what standard do we know they are false?

Once again, the point Jesus is making is that we are not to judge by our own standard. Rather, we are to judge by God’s standard. First, I must judge myself by this standard. The more I am aware of the beams in my eyes, the more I am aware of God’s grace and mercy and Jesus Christ’s strength to help me. Jesus does not say we should not be concerned about a speck in our brother’s eye. He simply tells us that we will not be able to effectually help someone else with his issues if we have a telephone pole sticking out of our own eye. The more I am aware of my own “planks” and God’s solution, the more I can see this for you and help you.

It is interesting that I must see both my old nature and my new nature in their respective depth and height. In my relationships, I must be especially aware of “the sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17) and of the spirit of God that dwells in you. That will help me keep myself from judging you according to my perverted standards. It is significant that the Greek word for “hypocrite” refers to a theater actor who wore a number of masks. Thus, a hypocrite is one who appears to be something he is not. The opposite would be someone who allows “into-me-see,” which is a way of understanding what “intimacy” is all about. In other words, I say to someone, “Here’s how Jesus Christ helped me, and he can help you also” (see Gal. 6:1).

It is the Word of God that nourishes us and helps us mature so that we can properly distinguish truth from error.

Hebrews 5:13 and 14
(13) Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
(14) But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

The Greek word for “distinguish” is a different word than krino, but you can see the same principle involved. In closing, consider these verses:

Philippians 1:9-11
(9) And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
(10) so that you may be able to discern [dokimazo] what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ,
(11) filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.

True love is based on knowledge and insight into the heart of God. True love discerns what is best. True love is filled with the fruit of righteousness and gives glory and praise to God. Let us put on the mind of Christ by hiding God’s Word in our hearts and acting on it moment by moment. As we do, we will grow up in Him and be able to walk a path of genuine discernment as our Lord did, judging everything by the written Word of God and the word revealed to us by the spirit of God in our hearts.

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