Numerous people have read Matthew 7:1 out of context and come to the conclusion that Christians aren’t supposed to judge anybody’s behavior. David Croteau, in Urban Legends of the New Testament, writes an entire chapter to explain why this conclusion is incorrect. First, Croteau fleshes out the faulty position:
All forms of judging are commanded to cease. Don’t judge other people, believers or unbelievers, based on what you see them doing, on their lifestyle, on how they dress, or on what music they listen to. Jesus is calling us to a higher standard, to put aside our differences and live in unity with one another. Judging others disrupts unity; it divides the church. The world is looking at us wondering if we’ll ever be united, if we’ll ever demonstrate love for one another. The more we judge one another, the weaker our witness will be.
Croteau then explains, in detail, what Matthew 7:1 does not mean.
The Greek word translated ‘judge’ by virtually every Bible translation has a range of meanings. It can refer to making a selection (‘prefer’), passing judgment based on the correctness of something (‘discern’), or judging someone to be guilty (‘condemn’). The prohibition in Matthew 7: 1 is against condemning other people. Jesus is commanding them not to be severely critical and judgmental. The Sermon on the Mount calls on Christians to judge others in the sense of being discerning.
Jesus’ illustration immediately following this prohibition is primarily intended to communicate the hypocritical penchant humans have for criticizing others while tolerating the same (or worse) behavior in themselves (Matt 7: 3– 5). Jesus concludes that illustration by saying that after the log is removed from your own eye, then you will be able to see clearly enough to help your friend by removing the speck from his eye. This means that you will have to see the speck, the ‘minor shortcoming,’ in order to remove it. This involves judging (in the sense of discernment) on some level.
In Matthew 7: 6, Jesus prohibits his followers from giving ‘what is holy to dogs’ or from tossing ‘your pearls before pigs.’ Obedience to Jesus’ words requires discerning the identity of the ‘dogs’ and of the ‘pigs.’
Finally, how are Jesus’ followers expected to watch out for ‘false prophets’ (Matt 7: 15) if they are prohibited from discerning who is false? From the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, one passage in particular sticks out as relevant: Matthew 18: 15– 20. Jesus commands his followers to rebuke fellow followers when they sin. The process outlined in these verses involves much judging, again, in the sense of discernment. John Stott aptly concludes that ‘the command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind.’
In the context of the entire New Testament, a prohibition against discernment appears to fail as well. Jesus’ own teaching in John 7: 24 appears to contradict Matthew 7: 1 on the surface: ‘Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment.’ Here is an explicit command from Jesus to ‘judge,’ using the same word as in Matthew 7: 1. In the context Jesus is discussing how the Jews (or possibly the Jewish leaders) were passing judgment on Jesus (referring to discernment) regarding his actions on the Sabbath (see John 7: 23). So he commands them to cease discerning based on ‘mere appearances’ (NIV), a phrase that refers to a ‘superficial’ discernment. Instead of discerning superficially, they are commanded to discern based on a ‘righteous judgment.’ Jesus is explaining that a right or correct judgment of himself will lead them to conclude that he is actually fulfilling the laws of circumcision and Sabbath (cf. John 7: 22– 23).
Croteau goes on to provide other examples in the New Testament where Christians are commanded to judge. He concludes:
A strong case can be made that the overall teaching in the New Testament is for Christians to be discerning in areas including others’ sin and false teaching. Christians should diligently discern in at least both of these areas.
If Christians are to judge, then what is Jesus teaching in Matthew 7?
In contrast to interpreting Matthew 7: 1 as a prohibition against discernment, it is a prohibition against an overly judgmental attitude. Jesus’ disciples are to be committed to a righteous life, but he does not authorize them to have a judgmental attitude. The reason Jesus prohibits this is spelled out in the second half of 7: 1: ‘so that you won’t be judged.’ While this phrase could mean that by being censorious you invite others to be overly critical of yourself, it most likely means that when you are overly critical of others, God will judge you with those same standards. Being quick to condemn others is inviting the condemnation of God on your life.
People are incapable of knowing with any certainty another person’s heart, nor can we know their motives. Stott concludes: ‘To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgment, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God.’ Rather than requiring blindness, Matthew 7: 1 is ‘a plea to be generous.’ Augustine summarizes Jesus’ teaching this way: ‘We are taught nothing else, but that in the case of those actions respecting which it is doubtful with what intention they are done, we are to put the better construction on them.’ This is what some call giving ‘the charitable assumption.’
For further thoughts on Matthew 7, see the post entitled “Should Christians Judge?”