What Does it Mean to ÔJudge NotÕ?
It's a common caution, but we often misunderstand it.
Last week, Twitter users met ESPN analyst Chris Broussard with a wave of criticism for his comments on NBA center Jason Collins’ sexuality. While thousands used their 140 characters simply to support Collins, some turned to Broussard—a known Christian—with the Bible. The verse they quoted comes straight from Jesus’ mouth and, at only nine characters, is endlessly tweetable: “Judge not.”
When confronted by preachers, protesters and television personalities who offend us, it’s easy to cling to Jesus’ simple command from Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” These words give a sense of vindication to the offended, a chance to expose today’s Pharisees by telling them they have no biblical precedent for their moral evaluations. The verse is popular; on Google, “judge not” gets four times as many searches per month as “for God so loved the world.”
But if “judge not” means that Christians are to abstain from all moral evaluations, all assessments of good and bad, then Jesus contradicts Himself in the analogy that follows His famous command. After telling the hypocrite to remove the log from his own eye, Jesus instructs Him to take the speck from his neighbor’s eye—a flaw that, without someone’s help, his neighbor would be unable to recognize.
In fact, Jesus’ disciples are frequently urged to make moral judgments: to evaluate false prophets “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16), to identify the false teachings of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6,12) and to point out faults in other believers (Matthew 18:15). If these aren’t judgments, then what are? If they are judgments, then what did Jesus mean by “judge not”?
As a general rule of biblical interpretation, verses should not be read in isolation but in their greater context—including Matthew 7:1 . C.H. Talbert, a religion professor at Baylor University and author of Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making, says that Matthew 7:1 is best understood as part of the overall teaching of Matthew 7:1-12. This section of the Sermon on the Mount includes “judge not” and the speck/log analogy (vv. 1-5), casting “pearls before swine” (v. 6), “ask, seek, knock” (vv. 7-11) and the Golden Rule (v. 12). Several formatting parallels suggest that vv. 1-5 and vv. 6-12 are actually two sections of one unit, all under the theme of judgment, climaxing with the Golden Rule.
The first section (vv. 1-5) warns against judging with too much severity. It opens with a prohibition (“judge not”), followed by a statement of what God will do (judge each person by his/her own judgment of others) and concludes with a practical application (“first take the log out of your own eye”). It’s an exhortation to withhold judgment without first examining oneself; to take the log out of your eye before helping your neighbor with the speck in his. Dr. Talbert, calls this judgment contra severity—a judgment that is prefaced with and tempered by careful self-analysis.
The second section (vv. 6-12) is a counter to the first, and should be read as one paragraph (as opposed to two or three, as in some translations). With a warning not to give what is precious to pigs and dogs (a prohibition), Jesus instructs His followers not to be overly permissive, but to exercise discernment between what is holy and what is profane. “Pearls before swine,” then, is not a disconnected teaching, but a qualifier for Jesus’ earlier “judge not” statement. Jesus’ followers are to judge contra severity, but also contra laxity—with restraint, but not too much restraint.
The “ask, seek, knock” teaching, then, is not another miscellaneous saying, but an extension of Jesus’ admonition to discern between right and wrong. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” is a statement about what God will do: provide wisdom. Jesus is probably not using this analogy to tell his followers they can get whatever they want if they pray. To say so would be to assume that God never answers prayers in the negative, which He often does (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Rather, the saying is typical of a Jewish prayer for wisdom, in this case the wisdom to discern between right and wrong. This is a gift that God is happy to give to those who ask (see James 1:5).
What ties the whole section on judgment together is a practical application: the Golden Rule. “In everything,” Jesus says, “do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” This verse mirrors Jesus’ warning about judgment in verse 2: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” The manner in which you give judgment should be the manner in which you would wish to receive it—gentle yet firm, graceful yet truthful, contra severity yet contra laxity.
Although Chris Broussard didn’t volunteer his opinion about Jason Collins (he was asked), he may have known airing it publicly may not have been the best way. Though he didn’t resort to anger or bitterness in his comments, he did give them in such a setting and timing that, had their roles been reversed, he may not have preferred.
Yet for those who wish to respond to Broussard’s judgment or another that they find offensive, “judge not” probably isn’t the verse you’re looking for. An alternative may be Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Or perhaps James 1:19: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” These verses get to the heart of the issue—not condemning one’s judgment in itself, but the manner in which that judgment is expressed.
If you think someone’s judgment is incorrect, regardless of their presentation of it, then by all means, disagree—just do it with accurate biblical citations, not unrelated blanket statements. Don’t resort to saying, “You’re wrong for judging,” but rather, “Your judgment is incorrect, and here’s why.” Note that in order to disagree with someone else’s judgment, you must also make a judgment yourself. And that’s OK. Just make sure to do all the things you would want someone to do before confronting you: Check your eye for logs, clear your mind of assumptions and get ready to listen. “Do not judge by appearances,” Jesus said in John 7:24, “but judge with right judgment.”