In three words, blunt and absolute, Jesus commanded us, "Do not judge" (Matt. 7:1). But did he really mean that we should never judge others? He goes on to suggest that it's not the act of judging but the attitude with which we do it that God is most concerned about—"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged" (7:2).
There are other Scriptures that either cloud or shed light on the issue. Paul told the Christians in Rome not to judge one another (Rom. 14:13) but taught the Corinthians that they were to judge sinful believers and leave people outside the church to God (1 Cor. 5:12-13). James said he who judges his brother speaks against the law (4:11) but also implied that our judgments of others must be done with mercy (2:12-13).
Common sense suggests that if no one ever judged other people, there would be no real human community. In a sinful world, no community can exist for long where nobody is ever held accountable: no teacher would grade a student's performance; no citizen would sit on a jury or call a failed leader to account. And, when you come to think of it, nobody would ever forgive anyone for wrongs he had done; we only forgive people for what we blame them, and we blame them only after we have judged them.
I would suggest that, in our day and age, we need more—not less—judgment. Modern Americans suffer from a fear of judging. Passing judgment on the behavior of fellow human beings is considered an act of medieval, undemocratic intolerance.
Why? Because, our culture tells us, we are all flawed people, and people with flaws have no right to judge other people's flaws. Furthermore, modern Americans do not believe that there are objective standards by which to judge. And where there are no standards, there is nothing by which to measure behavior.
Of course, the person who takes Jesus at all seriously does not kowtow to modern relativism. Judgment, for Christians, is an important piece of work that God calls us to do, especially in a world going morally haywire.
When a person judges, she also forms an opinion. But an opinion is not necessarily the same as a judgment. Opinions are often framed by our fears, pride, or ignorance. If all we had were human opinions, we might agree with those who say we should never judge.
Judgments are opinions that we form only after we have made a serious effort to know the facts, and, for those of us who are Christians, only after we have consulted the moral teachings of Scripture and prayed for Spirit-informed discernment. Any lazy or biased fool can have opinions; making judgments is the hard work of responsible and compassionate people.
For all of these reasons, common sense indicates that Jesus could not have meant that we are never to make judgments on what people, including ourselves, are up to.
But our common sense is hardly the litmus test of what Jesus meant, for in the end it is his Word that we live by. It's helpful, then, to consider Jesus' bold command in its biblical context.
Jesus may have been moved to speak as he did by the haughty way the Pharisees had of judging people. In Matthew 5:20 through 7:6, Jesus warns his disciples against following the traditions and practices of the Pharisees, who judged others as if they themselves were beyond judgment. What's more, they judged people by the letter, not the spirit, of the law.
So, most likely, Jesus meant, "Do not judge at all if you judge others the way the Pharisees do. If you do judge people this way, you will be judged with the same severity." Jesus' intent comes out in his metaphor of motes and beams (Matt. 7:3-5). We all have beams in our eyes, so to speak; to judge people for the little motes stuck in their eyes while we have big beams in our own is devilish arrogance as well as folly.
Nobody with a beam in his eye can see things clearly. He is dangerously low on discernment. And, since we all have this distorted perspective, we need either to be very humble or else leave judging to God alone. We have a moral responsibility to judge the moral behavior of others—but only if we are humbly aware that we will sometimes be dead wrong and never totally right. We must remember that our ability to judge is limited and especially that we are sinful people who will ourselves, one day, come under judgment.
Lewis B. Smedes is professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
By Lewis B. Smedes