‘Judge Not’?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.’ And this is often quoted in the context of Christian ‘judgmentalism’ – what people call it when we declare that certain behaviours are right and certain are wrong. I see it from non-Christians, but more disturbingly, even from people who post things online, say they’re Christians, then feel the need to disclaim ‘but I don’t judge’. Yes, Gandhi teaches us a harsh and needed lesson; that is, good trees borne of good seed (the kind of Seed that fell to the ground and died and rose again) must bear good fruit. Yes, we as imitators of Christ are to show compassion and love.

However, I’m not sure how well-versed in Scripture the people who use this verse (Mt 7:1) in the context of judging are. Jesus spent a lot of time healing the sick and forgiving people, and in the end, He died to save sinful, undeserving men – all true. But he also spent a lot of time (more!) teaching God’s will and denouncing sin. When He began to preach, His first declaration was – ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Repent! To repent, one must have done something wrong. So Jesus was essentially saying, all of you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn around.

Kevin DeYoung explains it this way –

 ‘Too many people, non-Christian and Christian, take Jesus’ words to be a blanket rejection of all moral evaluation. But given that Jesus alludes to his opponents as dogs and pigs five verses later, it’s safe to think Jesus wasn’t condemning every kind of judgment. We see from the rest of the Gospel that Matthew 7:1 is not inconsistent with strong criticisms, negative statements, church discipline, and warnings about hell. Judgmentalism is not the same as making ethical and doctrinal demands or believing others to be wrong.

Many like to quote the story of the woman caught in adultery and the crowds intending to stone her. Then they throw Jesus’ famous words, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’ right back at the people who are criticising them. But there are a few things to be said about this passage in John 8:

  1. This passage of Scripture was not found in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of John. Hence I would hesitate to draw any direct theological points from it, unless it corresponds with the rest of Scripture. In which case, I might as well learn my theology from those other parts.
  2. Do not forget what Jesus said to the woman – ‘Go and sin no more.’ This implies two things – firstly, that the woman had committed sin in her adultery (yes, there’s ‘judging’ going on here, Jesus is saying the woman is wrong), and secondly, that Jesus calls people to stop sinning. Not exactly the model story you want to use to illustrate your point.

If I may suggest, let us go slightly earlier in John, and ponder this instead – ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.’ (Jn 7:24) So, there is a right and good way to judge. It comes with a willingness to be judged likewise (thus, log in eye vs speck in others), it arises from first having tested oneself, repented and a renewed avowal to live in the light of grace (see the P.S. for more).

But what constitutes good and right judging is not my point; what the world calls ‘judging’ is. Let us be clear. To declare something is right, or wrong, is not what Jesus meant by ‘judging’.

Imagine a conversation 200 years ago –

William Wilberforce: It is an offense to the God we proclaim that we treat people as chattel.

Random Aristocrat: If you think it’s wrong, just don’t do it! Stop judging other people by your own weird moral standards from an old book!

And we’d still have slaves today. Or be slaves today.

You see, people like to think that Christianity and other religions are just a way of life, much like being a vegan (arguable), or using only Body Shop products, or making sure a house is Apple-product-free, or having no clothes that are not branded, or eating organic (margarine, no, butter, no, margarine). And if it really was just that, then I would agree with you 100%, that we have no reason to impose it on any one. We have no reason to shout in the public square that certain groups of people should not marry. We should just live our little narrow lives in our houses and churches – feel free to waste your time studying the Bible, praying and singing songs, just don’t bother me.

But what if Christianity is more than that? What if Christianity is a declaration of objective truth, much like ‘the sun is hot and bright’? If the sun is hot and bright, it is hot and bright. Go near it and die. Look directly at it and go blind. It would be utter cruelty if I don’t tell people this truth. ‘Well, personally, I think the sun is bright, but that only applies to me. Just look through that telescope straight at it and do as you please, dearie. Who am I to judge how you choose to live your life?’

‘I don’t think God will judge me as long as I lead a good and sincere life’, some might say. This begs many a question. How do you define ‘good’? C. S. Lewis explains – Imagine you found a person on the point of starvation. The naive person would feed him a grand, rich meal, which would probably make him severely sick, if not kill him. And that is because that person has not been informed of the facts (of medicine and physiology) – that a starving man’s stomach cannot take it.

Likewise, knowing the truth of Christianity will change your understanding of ‘good’, so you will be better able to do ‘good’. It will teach you that your ideas of ‘good’ – not bothering anyone, earning enough money, giving to charity – are actually harmful if God is not in the picture. And if you counter that with, well I’ll just do the best I can, Lewis would reply – ‘Are we ready to run the risk of working in the dark all our lives and doing infinite harm, provided only someone will assure us that our own skins will be safe, that no one will punish us or blame us?’. But I digress.

Lastly, the declaration that ‘God/Jesus loves anyone as they are! Stop judging!’ is sheer nonsense, if not mentioned together with one more thing: God hates sin. He hated sin enough to sacrifice Jesus so that His justice could be fulfilled. The story of Scripture would be quite a different one if ‘God loves people the way they are!’ is the sole truth we need to know about Him: see Adam Ford’s comic for a super cute but cutting version of it.

So we will and should declare truth, a large part of which is right and wrong according to God’s standards. Judgmentalism (which is wrong) is not the same as making judgments (which is commanded).

P.S. A little more on Matthew 7:1, by D. A. Carson –

‘When I was a boy I learned a few of the first principles of interpreting texts. I learned, “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text.” So I suppose we better remind ourselves of the context where Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” It’s found in the Sermon on the Mount. That sermon contains quite a few teachings of Jesus. Here, for example, Jesus criticizes the man who looks at a woman lustfully, on the ground that such a man has already committed adultery in his heart (Matt 5:28)… Here he tells us to watch out for false prophets, which presupposes we must make distinctions between the true and the false (7:15-20). Here he insists that on the last day not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of his Father who is in heaven (7:21-23).

In all these utterances, Jesus is making moral, religious, and cultural evaluations. He is, in short, making judgments. So after making all these judgments, what does he mean by saying “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”? The context shows that he means something like “Do not be cheaply critical, or you will be subjected to the same criticism.” In other words, there is no way on God’s green earth that this command prohibits his followers from making moral judgements, when making moral judgements is precisely what the sweep of his teaching demands that they do. But he does insist that when they follow his instruction and make evaluations and judgments they must do so without cheap criticism of others – a notoriously difficult requirement. There must be no condescension, no double standard, no sense of superiority, no patronizing sentimentality. Christians are never more than poor beggars telling other poor beggars where there is bread. This humble tone ought to characterize all Christian witness, all Christian missionary endeavor. But to argue that Jesus wants his followers to make no judgments at all merely betrays biblical illiteracy.

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