The recent Phil Robertson Duck Dynasty controversy brought it up again. Bill O'Reilly quoted it on Fox News; Don Lemon quoted it on CNN. The favorite verse of the Bible referenced in the public sphere is Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, lest you be judged." The Bible's most misinterpreted, misused and misunderstood scripture verse is once again in the forefront of our public discourse.
What makes the verse so important is it teaches a crucial truth about human relationships. If this verse is used incorrectly much damage can occur and people can get unnecessarily hurt. Jesus teaches a very important and helpful principle which is there is a crucial balance between harmful judgmentalism and necessary judging.
Judgmentalism is when we condemn others. Jesus uses the imagery of a speck of wood in your friend's eye versus a log in your own eye (vv. 3-5). The message is vivid, shocking and ludicrous. Before you judge someone else for their small imperfection make sure you have first have dealt with your own big imperfection. While condemning others we don't see our own shortcomings. We can judge visible sins like adultery or cheating but minimize less visible sins like envy or gossip. We may even point out the faults of others to shift the focus from our own sin.
Judging and condemning are always easy to do but they are not our job. It is hypocritical to see the sins of others but not our own judgmental attitude. When we have such an attitude we have forced out love. Judgmentalism invites retaliation and hinders fellowship. Many times we may know only part of the story and we certainly do not know a person's motives. The non-Christian will bristle at a condemning attitude almost every time. Love has won over many people, condemnation has won over very few.
The opposite extreme of judgmentalism is naïve acceptance of anything. Right after Jesus talks about specks and logs he talks about dogs and pigs (v. 6). His point is animals can't discern what is of value. The early church used this verse to teach judgment in whether someone was in fact a true believer. There is a place for necessary judging. Judging is the exercise of critical thinking and it is needed on occasion. In fact Jesus said in John 7:24, "Don't judge by appearances, judge by what is right." Jesus is telling us we should express our opinion on right and wrong, truth and lies, good and evil.
Judging is using wise discernment. Some quote Matthew 7:1 to denounce anyone who would expose the sins, shortcomings or error of others. If in the public realm a Christian leader speaks out about moral behavior or even simply answers a media question he or she may be charged with judging. It is ironic in judging someone for judging, you are in fact judging him or her!
We are not to judge on appearances or hearsay. In order to properly judge, correct or discipline all the facts must be available and evaluated. With proper discernment we can make appropriate judgments. We cannot fail to make essential distinctions between right and wrong simply because we fear the accusation of judging.
People make judgments every single day. The idea we should not judge is simply unrealistic. The better question is what is the standard for judging. For a Christ-follower the Bible is the authority for right and wrong. We judge not based on our own opinions but rather based on God's opinion.
Balance is always a challenge to achieve. Christ followers who are condemning and judgmental have done great harm. There are many who will not darken the door of a church or listen to a message from a Christian leader because of the hurt they have experienced. It does the cause of Christ no good if people feel condemned by those who should love them. On the other hand truth must be proclaimed. A Christ follower cannot be fearful to speak about right and wrong. To be intimidated, to be marginalized, to be silenced for speaking the truth can never be tolerated. Properly interpreting Matthew 7:1, understanding its balanced message and applying it consistently is needed in the church, communities and culture.