Should we ever judge others?

Jesus said, “‘ Do not judge, or you too will be judged’” (Matthew 7:1, NIV).

Does this mean we cannot pass judgment against sin or discipline a person who has done wrong?

The passage is one of the great sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Obviously Jesus did not mean that we cannot make choices or relationships between good and bad, between good and evil. Nor did He mean that we should condone evil or overlook moral lapses. For in verse 6 of the same chapter, He says, “Do not give to the dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” This saying implies that one must make judgments about the definition of a dog or a pig. That is to say, the Bible nowhere prohibits a person or a body of persons from distinguishing between that which is wrong and right; nor does it prohibit disciplinary measure against what is considered wrong, sinful, or unacceptable conduct.

Hence, Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 admonishes the church to deal firmly “in the name of our Lord Jesus” with a certain individual who has been living in open sin and urged the church to “expel the wicked man from among you” (vs. 1-13).

So the saying of Jesus must not be understood to mean that we as individuals or as a body of believers have no business condemning sin or disciplining wrongdoers—be it in the church, in school, or in families. Nor should the saying of Jesus be taken to mean that humans have no business judging. If no one could judge others, there would be no court system, no trials for breaking a law, no justice, and no punishment. A society without the ability to judge its members for violation of its law would descend into chaos and eventually self-destruct. Even within the limitations of human knowledge and understanding, there is need for judgment.

What the text prohibits, therefore, is not judgment but judgmentalism—that attitude of arrogance by which one assumes an air of superiority over others by constantly indulging in criticism, faultfinding and an unforgiving spirit toward others while ignoring the same faults in oneself, that hypocrisy that sees a splinter in a brother’s eye while ignoring a beam in one’s own (vs. 3). Ellen White calls this spirit of judgmentalism Pharisaical, and counsels: “Do not set yourself up as a standard. Do not make your opinions, your views of duty, your interpretations of Scripture, a criterion for others and in your heart condemn them if they do not come up to your ideal. Do not criticize others, conjecturing as to their motives and passing judgment upon them” (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 124).

While we must guard against judgmentalism, we must not fail to protect the moral and spiritual health of the body of Christ, which includes us as well. That’s why Jesus warned in Matthew 7: “Watch out for false prophets.… By their fruit you will recognize them “ (vs. 15-20). Safeguarding against false prophets and examining the nature of “fruits” people produce involve a spiritual discernment that is different from being judgmental and censorious. A clear line must be drawn between ethical assessment and motivated criticism, between censure unto condemnation and discipline unto redemption.

Jesus further warns us against being zealous judges over others. The Bible often uses the words judge or judgment in terms of the final salvation of a human being. This arena is off limits to us. “Do not judge” certainly prohibits us from passing judgment as to the final salvation of an individual, however sinful that person might be. The fitness of a person for eternal life is something that will be decided by God alone.

John M. Fowler (Ed.D., Andrews University) is the associate director of education for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and editor of Dialogue.