Reading time: 9 minutes
Occasionally we hear a Christian tell another they should not judge others. “Judge not” is a common statement among believers, but universally prohibiting all forms of judgment causes problems.
The New Testament uses several Greek words related to making official or legal judgments, including those involving punitive sentences. But the most commonly used word also applies to judging in a personal (non-official, non-judicial) sense. That word generally involves forming either a positive or negative opinion of something by carefully considering it, and its exact meaning depends on the context in which it’s used. It means to decide, assess, select, resolve or simply explain in detail. Understanding the meanings of this word can significantly change our interpretation of important Scriptures, including verses Christians often use to prohibit any form of judgment. Let’s see how the New Testament uses that word.
How to Judge
Matthew’s gospel records one of Jesus’ statements used most frequently to prohibit any form of judgment. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2, NIV). Jesus clearly said not to judge others, or we’ll also receive judgment. The context is focusing on the figurative “speck of sawdust” in another Christian’s eye, while ignoring the “plank” in our own eye (vv. 3-5). The emphasis is personal responsibility, but he didn’t rule out seeing faults in others. It’s similar to “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). If we’re critical of others, others will become critical of us and to the same degree. We clearly need to speak out against sin, but we must do so with humility because we also have sin in our lives. Maybe even the same type of sin we’re judging in others. We can easily overlook or even justify our own sins.
On another occasion, Jesus was speaking to a crowd when he said, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57). He was speaking to ordinary people and clearly wasn’t telling them how to decide a legal case. He said they need to reach their own conclusions, not just accept what someone else says.
He also said, “I pass judgment on no one” (John 8:15), so some believers contend that if Jesus didn’t judge, we shouldn’t, either. If only they would read his next statement! “But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (v. 16). He made a similar statement earlier. “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). So when Jesus said, “I pass judgment on no one,” he was not saying he never used judgment or assessed what someone did, because Scripture describes many instances when he did. Rather, he never relied solely on his own judgment, but instead judged as his Father would.
The apostle Paul also addressed the issue of judging others. For example, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1). Each time he used the phrase “pass judgment” or “judge another,” he used the word we’re examining. When he referred to “condemning yourself,” he used a strong variation of the same word. Only in the next verse did he use a term for a legal decision or a decree of guilt: “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth” (Rom. 2:2). God alone makes legal judgments of people’s guilt, either condemning them or declaring them righteous. We’re only to assess and evaluate whether something is right or wrong, and not merely with human judgment, but with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:15-16).
Another of Paul’s statements we often hear comes from Romans 14:13, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.” The context shows Paul was addressing disputable matters, such as what people consider sacred days or acceptable foods to eat (vv. 1-6). His point was that we’re not to judge others as sinful for having different religious practices. Each person should be “fully convinced in their own mind” (v. 5), and keep such decisions between themselves and God (v. 22).
Let’s consider some verses using this Greek word that show the importance of exercising good judgment. Jesus answered one of many accusations from unbelievers by telling them, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). If they should not have judged at all, he would have said so.
The issue is not whether we judge, but how we do it. It’s essential that we rely on God’s judgment and principles when we must judge. As we saw earlier, Jesus said it best: “I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). We’re to evaluate matters as God would, based on Scripture and his perspective, not our opinion or preference.
Paul told the church at Corinth to judge what he said for themselves (1 Cor. 10:15). That is, they could decide for themselves whether what he said was valid.
He also expected believers to judge those who claimed to be Christians but were sexually immoral, greedy, idolatrous, slanderers, drunkards, or swindlers (1 Cor. 5:11-12). That is, they were to decide whether such behavior conformed to biblical standards. He then advocated judging disputes among believers in the church. Paul criticized the church – he evaluated their behavior and decided they were wrong – for taking each other to court, instead of having other believers judge their dispute by making a non-legal decisions that resolve the issues (1 Cor. 6:5). It clearly is important for Christians to judge and to do so righteously.
How to Respond
All Scripture is God-inspired and useful for correcting ourselves and others, whether we made a mistake or simply need to improve (2 Tim. 3:16). On a different level, if another believer is guilty of sin, we need to show or prove it to them from Scripture (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:11), even rebuking or criticizing them as needed (2 Tim. 3:16). Jesus said if another Christian sins against us, we should warn them; and if they repent, we’re to forgive them (Luke 17:3). Clearly, exercising proper judgment enables us to identify what needs to be corrected and how.
As we learn from the Bible and are sensitive to Holy Spirit’s direction, we’re competent to instruct one another (Rom. 15:14). Again, properly judging – carefully evaluating a person and their circumstances – reveals what to teach them from Scripture and how to do it. Sometimes it’s necessary to instruct others by warning or counseling them wisely with relevant Bible statements (Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:14).
This isn’t about making legal judgments with punitive sentences. It also isn’t about simply forming correct opinions. Rather, we’re to assess other believers’ needs and problems properly so we can help them become more like Jesus.
Jesus said we’re to love other Christians as he loves us, which requires us to follow his example (John 13:15, 34; 15:12). How did he love us? He gave himself up for us and served us with complete humility, expending himself to meet our needs (Eph. 5:2). So our primary goal in judging others must be to serve them in love any way we possibly can.
Repeatedly, the New Testament says we’re to encourage one another, our spiritual brothers and sisters (2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25). The most important way we do this involves using God’s Word to give hope, assurance, comfort, and consolation. Properly judging a person’s situation enables us to do this effectively. Even prophesying should comfort, refresh and soothe other believers (1 Cor. 14:3).
Scripture encourages us to consider how to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). The word translated “spur … on” implies stimulating someone, even provoking a strong emotional response; a positive response, in this case. We can help others be motivated strongly by love to do good works for other people, and properly evaluating their nature, interests and motivations will show us how to “spur” them on.
Another goal the New Testament frequently sets is for us to strengthen, build up, or edify other believers according to their needs (Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 14:12; Eph. 4:16, 29). Sometimes their needs are obvious, but many times we’ll know what to do only by carefully assessing their nature and their situation with a biblical perspective.
We’re to train ourselves to be godly and to distinguish good from evil (1 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 5:14), but this is something we can help others do, as well. We use Scripture to train others in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), and we do this most effectively after properly judging their needs and deciding which Bible verses are relevant.
Just as a doctor must perform examinations and tests before treating patients, we must properly judge, assess or evaluate people’s conditions before we can serve them effectively. Proper judgment must precede our efforts to encourage, motivate, strengthen, correct, warn, or train those who need our help. God always does what’s best for us, and we should have the same motivation for serving others.
- “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).
- Describe an incident in which someone criticized you because they thought you had an improper motive, but in fact they misjudged your motive. Consider how differences in personalities cause people to have different motives. What insight does this give about judging other people?
- How can you make a “right judgment,” according to God’s standard, and what does that require you to do?
- “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! …. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (1 Cor. 6:4-5).
- If you become involved in a dispute with another believer, what are some ways you can apply these verses?
- Consider Matthew 18:15-20 as a related passage. What is the spiritual significance of asking other believers to judge the dispute?
We must properly judge, assess or evaluate people’s conditions before we can serve them effectively.