Judge Not

Question
Unbelievers often tell me, "You shouldn't judge — you're a Christian." Usually, they are not accusing us because Christians have actually said something to them, but rather because our Christian standards are completely different from theirs. They feel that they are being judged because Christians will not always take part in things that they consider to be acceptable, such as drinking, smoking and swearing. So, are Christians allowed to judge?

The Bible does teach "Judge not or you too will be judged." Does this mean that you are not allowed to judge? Or does it mean that if you judge expect to be judged back, so be prepared to defend yourself?
Answer
As you have implied, whether or not Christians should judge depends to a great degree on how we define "judge." So, I'll try to address several different types of judging.

First, I should mention that there are three major meaning of "judge," and many applications of these meanings. First, "judge" may mean "discern." Second, it may mean "decide." Third, it may mean "condemn."

The Bible never tells Christians not to discern. In fact, it tells us in many ways that we must discern, particularly in cases of morality and obedience to God. Discernment consists of evaluation and determination. In the case of a questionable behavior, one evaluates the behavior in light of the facts of the situation and in light of one's moral standards, and determines whether or not the standard condones the behavior in those circumstances. In this example, discernment is rightly recognizing the morality or immorality of the behavior, regardless of whether one engages in or avoids the behavior. Discernment is a valuable virtue both in the Christian and non-Christian world.

After one evaluates a subject and recognizes whether or not it comports with a moral standard, one then must decide how to react to the information one has discerned. One may decide to approve or disapprove the subject, but either conclusion is a judgment. One may also decide to act in accordance with or against morality, but again, either decision is a judgment. These types of judgments are inescapable because they are part of every decision people make, whether or not they are Christians. The Bible instructs us to make decisions, and therefore it instructs us to engage in this type of judgment.

Condemnation is a decision, specifically one of disapproval. In the Bible, as well as in life, the idea of condemnation is rather broad. Condemnation may be directed toward any subject, such as a thought, or idea, or behavior, or person, or object, or other. It may be as innocuous as mental disapproval, or it may be as extreme as violent retaliation. Some condemnation is unavoidable because any person who makes a decision regarding morality engages in condemnation. For example, if I approve of drinking as moral, I am also disapproving of the idea that drinking is immoral. All people have a moral system, and all people make moral decisions. Therefore, all people engage in condemnation. The Bible tells us to make moral decisions, therefore it tells us to engage in condemnation.

So then, all people must engage in discernment, decision and condemnation. The Bible's instructions regarding these things are intended to teach us how to do each of them rightly and morally. We must discern the facts with wisdom, according to the standard of God's Word. We must decide to approve and disapprove the same things God's Word approves and disapproves, and we must act accordingly.

With regard to your examples, the real question is: What types of condemnation does the Bible approve and disapprove? For one thing, the Bible teaches us that we must mentally disapprove everything that is immoral, and that we must refrain from all immoral behavior. If a Christian refrains from immoral behavior, he or she is in fact engaging in a type of condemnation — but it is a type of condemnation that the Bible requires. But the Bible gives us some guidelines to limit the condemnation we exercise.

Let's look at the example of 1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul told the Corinthians to exercise proper church discipline by dissociating themselves from certain types of believers. Also in that chapter, he told them not to dissociate from people outside the church who engaged in the same behavior. And, he referred to this dissociation as judgment. Thus, he forbade breaking fellowship with outsiders. But in the same letter he also forbade certain behaviors, such as homosexuality, fornication and adultery (1 Cor. 6:9). So, when Paul said not to judge outsiders, he meant not to dissociate from them; he did not mean to engage in immoral behavior when with them. In other words, although it is correct to say that abstaining from immoral behavior is a form of judgment, that is not the type of judgment Paul forbade here. Believers must judge outsiders by example, but not by dissociation.

The same thing is true when we present the gospel. I'm sure many of us have had the experience that when we relate the facts of the gospel to someone, that person responds by saying that we have no right to judge them. Well, in fact the Bible gives us not only the right, but also the responsibility to tell them the gospel. And by pointing out that God disapproves of their sin, in conjunction with our approval of God's judgment, we are essentially "judging" them. But again, this is a type of judgment the Bible teaches us to render. Besides, the act of explaining the gospel is not in and of itself the judgment — we agree with their condemnation whether or not we evangelize them. Evangelism is the outworking of our prior understanding of their judgment; it is an expression of love, an extension of the opportunity for the judgment to be reversed (cf. John 12:47-50). (I should also add that this objection to evangelism is generally rooted in the false idea that we merit salvation. I have yet to speak to someone who continued to be offended after I explained that even as a Christian I was as bad as he or she was. Once people realize that we are not saying, "I'm better than you," they are sometimes slightly more objective about the message.)

We must also make certain that we are not hypocritical in our judgments. You mentioned Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:1-5 about not judging. That text is not saying that we should refrain from judgment. On the contrary, it is telling us that we must judge in two ways. First, we must judge ourselves (i.e., take the log out of our own eye). Second, we must judge our brother (i.e., take the speck out of his eye) after we have removed the log from our own. The point is that we are to judge ourselves before we condemn others. This does not mean that we have to be perfect before we exhort others to holy living; it means that we are not to overlook in ourselves what we disapprove in others. And again, this judgment is about our "brother," that is, a fellow member of God's covenant community, the church. We are not supposed to be taking specks out of the eyes of the world; we are supposed to evangelize the world. It helps little to nothing if they change their behavior but are not saved.

Now, that being said, it is also worth recognizing that not all of our Christian scruples accurately reflect God's standard of morality, and that there is no reason to put unnecessary obstacles between unbelievers and us. For example, you mentioned that Christians don't drink or smoke or swear, and that this offends some unbelievers. Well, I would gently suggest that Christians may do all of these things.

In fact, wine (alcohol) is a covenant blessing that Christians should be happy to enjoy (e.g. Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; 33:28). It was a blessed and acceptable offering to God (e.g. Num. 15:5,7,10). God approved of and encouraged its use (e.g. Deut. 14:26).

With regard to smoking, the Bible gives us some general principles about staying healthy, but it doesn't forbid everything that might pose a health risk — if it did, evangelism itself would be out of the question (look at what happened to Paul in Acts 14:19). Smoking a couple cigarettes a day is probably no worse than breathing the air Los Angeles. We must wisely balance the pros and cons of such behavior. See this linked Q&A for more on this topic: smoking.

And the Bible nowhere forbids profanity, not as such, anyway. Many have argued that it does on the basis that it says not to take God's name in vain, but this commandment pertains to oath-breaking and lying, not to profanity. In fact, the Bible itself uses some words that were probably considered relatively profane in their original settings. We should ensure that our language honors God, but in most settings that has a lot more to do with the meaning of the words we use than with their level of social delicacy. See this linked Q&A for a further explanation of the point: swearing.

There are many behaviors like this that are typically condemned in Christians circles, but that deserve a closer look. Christians may practice these things so long as they do so with wisdom and for the right reasons. As Paul taught, we are to be all things to all people, meaning that we are to adopt our behavior to theirs for the sake of evangelism, but without violating the commandments of God's Word (1 Cor. 9). Although it may seem counterintuitive, perhaps evangelism would be more effective and more biblical in some settings if Christians would have a beer, smoke a cigarette and use coarse language once in a while.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.