Scripture is filled with tensions; seemingly irreconcilable truths that taken at face value can’t seem to coexist while still holding that the Bible is entirely consistent, and totally infallible in its wholeness. One such example of this is the question of judging others. How do we reconcile Jesus’ oft-quoted words in Matthew 7 (“Don’t judge others, and you won’t be judged yourself”) with instructions from, say, Paul to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5 (“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear”)? There is a mystery here that deserves exploration.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus was speaking to the scribes and Pharisees; a section of society that thrived on looking down on other people’s lesser standard of behaviour, largely in order to highlight their own outward piousness. Here when Jesus talks about judging he is sternly warning against the condemnation that occurs when one chooses to set themselves up as a morally superior critic of the other. Of course, Jesus is not telling us that we shouldn’t have firm convictions of what is right and wrong, but there’s more to it than that.
Jesus’ own brother James provides further support for what Jesus was referring to. James elaborates on Jesus’ words by reminding us in James 4:11-12 that when we set ourselves up as the final judge on a matter – because we know the position Scripture takes on this issue or that – we actually usurp the role of God, taking up the law and handing down condemnation. The early church father St. Jerome said in his commentary on Matthew that 7:2 (“for in the manner you judge”) is the key to understanding verse 7:1. Here’s how Scholar and Theologian Scot McKnight articulates this lesson:
“This leads to what might be the cutting edge of learning how to read this passage most accurately: we must learn to distinguish moral discernment from personal condemnation”
For some, this casts our text in a brand new light. The Matthew 7:1 catchcry of “it’s not for me to judge” is a common response from Pastors and leaders today as a theologically soft way to avoid church discipline (which Jesus outlines later in chapter 18) or taking a solid stance against issues that run counter to Biblical truth. Jesus encourages us to seek God, study Scripture, and obediently spur one another and ourselves on toward knowing clearly what is right and what is wrong. James’ words help to clarify that it’s our posture towards people as we live this out that must be kept in check. So what does this posture look like, especially when someone you care for is caught in behaviour that is clearly sin? Paul tells us in Galatians 6 that we bear a responsibility to act; not to be silent or to “just love them”, but to partner with them in working towards repentance of the destructive behaviour through gentleness, helping to bear one another’s burdens. The logical extension of this thought is that Jesus wasn’t trying to develop disciples who were indifferent to morality, but rather mature men and women who could say with conviction “that is wrong” without attaching “you are condemned by God”.
In hearing the harmony between verses that discuss judging/not judging, John Wesley puts it like this: “the judging that Jesus condemns here is thinking about another person in a way that is contrary to love.” Again, moral discernment is absolutely necessary. To turn a blind eye to sin is to miss the whole point of the text. Instead, Jesus calls us to strive to love God and love others through careful study of and obedience to his commands, and to grow together through confession, forgiveness, and holiness in a loving community built on grace.