One of the most popular, perhaps most scathing, objections towards Christians today is that we’re too “judgy.” We hypocritically judge those outside of the church by flying in the face of Jesus’ teaching that “Thou shalt not judge.” (Yes, always quoted in the KJV language, for some reason…)
In fact, this one verse, Matthew 7:1, is perhaps the most widely known among non-Christians. It is also, I believe, one of the most misunderstood among non-Christians and least practiced among Christians.
Both sides of the fence tend to miss this one. On the non-Christian side, people believe Jesus is telling his followers to never make a judgement about anyone and to just mind their own business. On the Christian side, people believe Jesus is telling his followers to never judge one another but to reserve all judgement for non-Christians.
These two interpretations both fall short of what Jesus was getting at. As a result, it has led to much confusion and heartache for both Christian and non-Christian alike. For that reason, let’s revisit Jesus’ teaching on judging to find a better way to understand it in three Thou shalt’s…
1. Thou shalt not judge! (with a wrong judgment)
2. Thou shalt judge! (with a right judgment)
3. Thou shalt assess your audience
1. THOU SHALT NOT JUDGE! (WITH A WRONG JUDGMENT)
First, let’s examine the misunderstanding of Jesus’ command. Popular interpretation of Matthew 7:1 is captured well in this cartoon by The Oatmeal. Written by (presumably) a non-Christian, it serves as a great summary of how many people hear Jesus’ teaching of “Thou shalt not judge” and see it practiced by his followers.
Unfortunately, this is a very bad way of understanding Jesus’ teaching. By telling his followers not to judge, Jesus was not eliminating all forms of criticism, evaluation, discernment, or even judgement. How do we know this? He actually commands his followers to judge!
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” – John 7:24
We need to judge in order to discern between what is right and what is wrong, what is righteous and what is unrighteous. To always turn a blind eye to everything would be dishonest to Jesus’ whole teaching. So, if we wanted to succinctly put Jesus’ entire teaching on judgement into one sentence, perhaps it would be a mashup of Matthew 7:1 and John 7:24.
“Judge not, that you be not judged, but judge with a right judgement.”
Wait… what? That seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? Not if you consider that Jesus was talking about two types of judgement: a wrong judgment and a right judgment. We know this because he specifically uses the term right judgment.
So, when he says “judge not, that you be not judged” he tells us to curtail our wrong judgments, not to abandon judgement altogether.
2. THOU SHALT JUDGE! (WITH A RIGHT JUDGMENT)
So what does this mean? For Christians, it means many of us have some work to do in how we judge. To a certain extent, the objection that non-Christians bring up about Christians being judgy is true. This is not because we are never to judge, but because they have identified in us wrong judgment. So, what is wrong judgment?
Jesus gives us a great (and humorous) illustration of wrong judgement in his Sermon on the Mount.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:1–5
Here we have a guy with a gigantic log (large sin) stuck in his eye going around performing the “kind act” of removing what amounts to saw dust (small sin) from his brother’s eye. Kinda funny if you think about it, the joke is still humorous 2,000 years later! Sadly, though, the joke is on us. We shouldn’t think of ourself as the guy with the speck – we’re the guy with the log.
Here is where we see a wrong judgment. If we point out the failures and flaws of a brother or sister in Christ while having that exact same (and magnified) failure or flaw, we are hypocritically judging in the wrong. Paul says it like this, “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same thing (Rom 2:1).”
Jesus doesn’t call us to be critical referees; he calls us to referee our own criticism.
If you call someone out for half-truths, do you ever tell half-truths? If you criticize stealing, are you 100% financially honest? If your husband/wife does something you don’t like, is there something you’ve been neglecting yourself?
In the words of that great twenty-first century theologian ICE CUBE, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”
At the end of the day, Jesus isn’t looking for critical referees. No, he’s looking for those who will referee their own criticism.
3. THOU SHALT ASSESS YOUR AUDIENCE
So, are we to sit idly by while we see unrighteousness and injustice all around us? Should we never make a judgement? Granted, we should remove the log from our eyes before removing the speck from our brother’s. But that’s family language, that’s within the church. Surly, as representatives of Jesus on earth, we are called to judge those outside of the church… right?
Jesus finishes his teaching on judgement with a very colorful, hyperbolic illustration.
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” – Matthew 7:6
Okay… what’s Jesus saying here? In the original audience’s ears, they would have known exactly what he was saying. To them, pigs were unclean and dogs were voracious scavengers (not Fluffy or Fido, think hyena or jackal). The picture Jesus is painting for us is shocking – He tells us not to give what is precious (our judgment) to pigs and dogs (non-Christians).
Wow, strong language. Why did he say that? Jesus, being the great communicator that he is, uses over-the-top-language to make a very important point. As Christians, we need to assess our audience.
Giving a right judgment (after you’ve removed the log) to a brother or sister in Christ is precious (like pearls) because it helps them conform more to Jesus. Giving that same right judgment to a non-Christian may not be received the same way. In fact, it might get a little hostile.
What Jesus is telling us is, “Before you judge, assess your audience. Non-Christians will most likely appreciate your judgment like a pig appreciates a pearl necklace.”
Christians appear judgy because we do not assess our audience well.
We see this happening all the time, especially on Facebook and Twitter. Christians blasting out judgment to everyone and wondering why they get hostility in return. Perhaps this is why Paul quipped, “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge (1Co 5:12–13)?”
Therefore, in a sense, the complaint that Christians are too judgy is true. Why? Because we’re not assessing our audience well. On top of that, we seem to have a hard time delivering that judgment graciously (Col 4:6).
So, the next time you’re ready to click POST or TWEET, ask yourself these three questions:
1. Is this a right judgment? (Do I have a log in my eye?)
2. Have I assessed my audience well? (Am I giving pearls to pigs?)
3. Is my speech salted with graciousness? (Colossians 4:6)
If we Christians stepped up to the plate and started to referee our own criticism, maybe we wouldn’t be so judgy!