May Christians Judge Others?

by Rev. Paul A. Hughes, M.Div

(Note: This article was originally published in the Polk County Enterprise, February 16, 1992. The comedian mentioned was the late Sam Kinison, who was killed in an auto accident not long afterward.)

Once I was flipping through the TV channels when I happened across a popular and controversial comedian on a talk show. In talking about his personal life and choices, he suddenly looked into the camera and shouted, “Judge not, that you be not judged!”

This has been a recurring them in this comedian’s often shocking social statements. A disgruntled former seminary student, he had not only turned his back on religion, but became an avid critic.

Nevertheless, this incident merely reminds me that even among the most devout sinners, there are two Biblical statements which are both oft-quoted and well-received. They are, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), and “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

Are sinners right in quoting these scriptures to stave off moral criticism? Well, yes and no. The answer lies in a correct Biblical view of judgment.

In the case of “judge” (Greek KRINO), one must lean heavily upon the context in which it is used in order to determine its meaning. The correct context is not only the verse in which it is used, but the whole passage of Scripture and the point the writer is trying to make. With this in mind, let me draw several conclusions about the Biblical doctrine of judgment:

1. God is the ultimate Judge. God reserves full and final judgment of sin and sinners for himself (Deuteronomy 32:35). In the End, God will send his Son to judge all. He will appoint the unrighteous to eternal damnation and the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25:31-46). In the meantime, sin has its own built-in judgment, i.e., natural consequences (Matthew 26:52, Romans 1:27). Christians will be judged by the Lord in the form of chastening (Hebrews 12:5-15).

2. Christians are NOT to judge sinners. As Paul said, “What have I to do to judge them that are outside?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Christians cannot associate too closely with unbelievers, for “What fellowship does righteousness have with unrighteousness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). But we still have the responsibility to reach them with the gospel. We are to declare God’s Word and call all sinners to repent (Matthew 28:19-20, John 3:16-21), but are to leave judgment of sinners to God alone.

3. Christians are to judge themselves and sin amongst them. Sometimes Christians tolerate and excuse their own sin and that of their friends. But Jesus abhorred such hypocrisy (Matthew 7:5). Paul taught that Christians were to separate themselves from Christians living in sin, and eject them from the church in hopes that they would repent and return (1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 9-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). During this present Church Age, God’s judgment begins at home, with his Church (see 1 Corinthians 11:1-32).

4. Christians are NOT to judge other Christians in religious practice. This is a major subject throughout the book of Romans. The Church at Rome was full of Jewish and “judaizing” Christians who had added the Jewish Law to their faith. Because of this, they looked down on “lesser” Christians. But Paul declares that Christians who are “without the Law” often “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15), performing true righteousness rather than keeping a legalistic code of behavior.

In Corinth, there were some who had no qualms about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (as much of it was), since idols were not real. Meanwhile, others judged them for it (1 Corinthians 8 and 10). In such arguable practices, Paul does not declare anyone right or wrong. However, he puts the major moral responsibility upon those who felt they had “liberty” to do things that offended others. Paul’s general rules for judging (discerning) right actions are: (1) Does it offend others’ consciences? (1 Corinthians 8:9-13); (2) Does it edify (build up) others? (1 Corinthians 3:1, 10:23); and (3) “Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5), i.e., honestly examine your actions and motives, then decide what is the better thing to do. If only we all put these rules before our own pleasure and opinions!

Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth . . . (Rom. 14:4).

In conclusion, let me deal with the idea of “casting the first stone” (John 8:1-11). Jesus did not “judge” the adulterous woman, for He came to declare the Age of Grace (John 3:17). But his last words to her were these: “Go, and sin no more.”

So quoting scriptures about not judging others is not necessarily a defense or a covering for sin. It all depends on the context.

ADDENDUM

Since publishing this article, I have occasionally found it necessary to elaborate further on the concept of Pastoral Judgment.

Christians are not to judge one another in religious practice, or sinners who are outside the church (who are by definition not Christian), but such judgment does lie within the purview of God’s appointed leaders. When a “brother” in the church at Corinth was found to be openly living in incest, the Apostle Paul, as anointed authority over the church, declared that he had “judged already” (1 Cor. 5:3). This man and others who were convicted of clear sin were to be disfellowshipped by the local church, which Paul called “delivering unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit [he hoped] might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5, see also 1 Tim. 1:20).

Some commentators relate this pastoral authority to the “keys to the Kingdom” and the concept of “binding and loosing” (Mt. 16:19, 18:18).

Moreover, the elders of the church, those naturally respected and looked-to in the local community, were not to be judged lightly (1 Tim. 5:19).  Paul told Timothy not to “rebuke an elder, but exhort him as a father” (1 Tim. 5:1). Yet when an elder sinned, it was the responsibility of the person in spiritual authority to “rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (v. 20).

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:17).

Therefore, I conclude that Christians must seriously regard those appointed to authority above them. If any leader is truly not worthy of respect, then pray to find another whose ultimate authority is the risen Jesus in God’s throne. Outside of that circumstance, however, one defies their instruction and authority at one’s own peril.

© 1992, 2010 Paul A. Hughes

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