Judging others--is it right? In Matthew 7:1 Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Does this mean it is always wrong for Christians to judge other people?

This is a favourite text of those who, like Pilate, would wash their hands of any responsibility to evaluate and challenge what others are doing. (“He’s the Lord’s servant, so we mustn’t judge him you know.”) However, the statement of Jesus must be seen in its context. It is not any and all judging the Lord condemns, but self-righteous judgment that ignores personal faults (vs. 2-5). The warning is similar to what we have in James: “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1).

When judging others is prefaced by a thorough self-examination before God, spiritual believers are prepared to be discerning (vs. 5). Some we will “judge” to be spiritual “dogs” or “swine,” ill-prepared to appreciate the truths of God. (These were unclean animals to the Jews, animals that often showed little discrimination in their diet, feeding on garbage and even their own vomit, cf. II Pet. 2:22.) Others are going to be dangerous “wolves...in sheep’s clothing” (false teachers) revealed to be such by the fruit in their lives (vs. 15-16). While we are to show love to all (Matt. 5:44), we are not to waste resources trying to present the truths of God to those not ready or willing to receive them.

In Ephesians 5:11 God’s Word exhorts us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose [reprove and rebuke] them.” The words of Jesus are not intended to forbid sound, righteous judgment (cf. Jn. 7:24), and spiritual discernment (I Thess. 5:21-22), and even the rejection of those who are sinning or in error (cf. Rom. 16:17-18; I Cor. 5:11; II Thess. 3:6, 14; Tit. 3:10-11). Note how Paul passed judgment on ministers of the gospel (Phil. 1:15-17) and urged others to be discerning as well (vs. 9-10). Paul even opposed Peter when he saw the latter behaving hypocritically (Gal. 2:11-14).

What Christ is warning about in Matthew 7:1 is not spiritual discernment and the exercise of proper godly judgment. It is what we might call a judgmental spirit or judgmentalism. A judgmental person sets himself up as superior, and as being above the faults of others. In so doing he is blinded to his own (often similar) sins. A person like that will often gloat over the failure of others (as the Pharisees seemed to), because it increases his opinion of himself. The Lord is condemning the superficial, self-justifying judgment of the Pharisees who saw everyone’s faults but their own. Those who were judging others needed to realize they too would be judged (vs. 2). They needed to take steps to deal with their own sin first, before condemning others (vs. 3-5). But note that afterward action is to be taken to deal with the fault of the other person (vs. 5).

Church leaders are to protect the flock from enemies of the truth, whether they come from outside the church or from within it (Acts 20:28-31). Discernment followed by appropriate action is the Christian’s responsibility. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life” (I Cor. 6:2-3). We are to reprove and rebuke those who sin (II Tim. 4:2; Tit. 2:15), on the basis of God’s Word which is “profitable for reproof [and] for correction” (II Tim. 3:16). The final goal, when a Christian brother or sister is involved is not punishment but rather restoration (Gal. 6:1).