Prepared for the Adult Forum, Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Loveland,
October 2, 1999
Are we allowed as Christians to make judgments about either the behavior or
the beliefs of other people?
Most of us, I suspect, would answer that question, “No!’
Since we were children, we have heard Jesus warn us somberly, through the
voice of a long succession of teachers, “Judge not lest you be judged,”
(Matthew 7:1). And, taking his words at face value, most of us have found it
increasingly uncomfortable, if not impossible, to draw doctrinal and/or
moral lines even within the church. Diversity and pluralism have become the
church’s only indisputable values.
*WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?*
Most scholars, however, are not inclined to take Jesus’ words woodenly.
Better, they are quick to point out that there is a meaning to them that
goes beyond the surface meaning, and that the New Testament is full of other
counsel that both broadens and fills out our understanding of the subject of
In Matthew 7:1, Jesus is talking about hypercritical judgments and quick
condemnations, pointing out that they are like boomerangs they have a way of
exposing those who engage in careless fault-finding to the very same kind of
treatment. Therefore, we must exercise care not to condemn someone else for
those things of which we are also guilty. To put it another way, before we
criticize a brother or sister for bad theology, we’d better be willing to
have our own theology subjected to review.
Calvin puts the matter this way:
“These words of Christ are not to be taken exactly in the sense of
condemning the function of judgment … The faithful should not be so
blind as to notice nothing, but they should hold themselves in, and not
go beyond the limit of strictness, should they ever have any occasion to
make judgment upon their brothers. … Whoever judges by the Law and
Word of God, and directs his judgment according to the rule of charity,
always begins his censure with himself, and this preserves in judgment a
proper limit and order.”
*JESUS TEACHES THAT WE HAVE A DUTY TO BE DISCRIMINATING*
It used to be a compliment to say that someone is discriminating. In this
positive sense of the word, discrimination refers to the ability to make
distinctions, to be discerning, to differentiate. Today, however, the word
is used almost entirely in a negative way to mean to be unjust or unfair.
Jesus urges that we be discriminating in the first sense of the word that we
learn to think analytically about issues and behaviors . In Luke 12:57,
Jesus asks, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” In John 7:
24, He tells some of his critics, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge
with right judgment.”
So, in warning us about judging, Jesus is not calling Christians to be
credulous (I.E. gullible, nave, innocent or uncritical). We are given both
the ability and the responsibility to make perceptive and thoughtful
distinctions between various behaviors and ideas.
For example, in I John 4: 1, the apostle tells us not to believe every
spirit. Rather, we are to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God;
In Jude 1:3, we are instructed to “contend for the faith which was once for
all delivered to the saints.”
In 2 Timothy 4: 1-3, Paul charges us to “preach the word, be urgent in
season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in
patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure
sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves
teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the
truth and wander into myths.”
Testing the spirits, contending for the faith, convincing, rebuking and
exhorting all require that we make prudential judgments about what is true,
good and beautiful. This is precisely the opposite of the “spirit” of our
age which tells us not to judge, to be open, to accept anything and
everything, to encourage a pluralism of ideas about God and morality, and to
make an idol out of diversity.
As Christians we must constantly form estimates of the conduct and character
of others, and the content of what they are teaching. We do this for our own
guidance and safety, and to remain useful to the Kingdom of God. “By their
fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16). The prohibition of judging in
Matthew 7:1 is not opposed to this.
And the standard by which we are to engage in this kind of positive
discrimination? The magisterial Reformers said, “Sola Scriptura” Scripture
*THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT *
It may also be necessary for us to judge more officially. Human government
is divinely authorized. And the exercise of judicial functions is essential
to all government. All judges, however, are to remember that they are
subject to the judgement of God, and to exercise their office equitably and
with due moderation (Romans 13: 1-5; I Peter 2: 13-14). Therefore, if we are
summoned to jury duty, Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 are not to be used as a
blanket excuse for not exercising our civic responsibility.
While we are forbidden to pass rash, unjust, uncharitable and needless
judgments, we are at the very same time, and without contradiction required
to think carefully and to choose wisely between various ideas and behaviors,
because not everything that is taught is true, and not every behavior that
is advocated in pleasing to God.