What do you think is the best known verse in the Bible? Without a second thought, most of us would say John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. Almost every Christian knows this verse. There are organizations named after it. In the 1980s, there was a man named Rollen Stewart (aka Rainbow Man) who donned a rainbow wig, wrote the verse on a sign and held it up at various prominent American sporting events.
But John 3:16 is probably the best known verse only among Christians. What do you think is the best known verse among the general population? Don Carson once suggested it was Matthew 7:1!1 You may not recognize the reference, but you do know the content: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV; cf. Luke 6:37a).
Do not judge. Everyone agrees that judging others is bad—Christians and non-Christians alike. It is sometimes perceived as the opposite of tolerance. And we are all familiar with the concept of judging others (or we think we are) when we encounter it: “Asians can’t drive”; “All footballers are thugs”; “Listen to the way she speaks. What a snob!”; “Non-Christians are illogical”; “Christians are so judgemental”, and so on.
Judging others is extremely unpopular today. To get an idea, type “judging others” into Google and look at the results. Oprah has even addressed the issue on her television programme. Judgemental attitudes towards celebrities, governments, even complete strangers abound.
However, while judging others appears to be almost universally disliked, it also appears to be widely practised. In addition, it is also significantly misunderstood.
What is it?
What is judging others? What does it mean? It obviously involves some sort of negative assessment of another person. But what sort?
Society’s understanding of the concept is fairly hazy. A person in the street might define it as “an improper negative assessment of another person”. But what is ‘improper’ will vary from person to person. If I gathered a random group of Australians and said, “Being involved in the child sex industry is wrong”, almost everyone would agree with me. If I said, “Leaving your wife because you love another woman is wrong”, some would agree with me, but others would probably call me judgemental. If I said, “Having sex before marriage is wrong”, most would probably accuse me of being judgemental. Society’s understanding of judging others is very subjective.
However, my impression is that the Christian understanding of the concept is also fairly hazy; ask friends at church to define judging others and see what they say. It is also interesting to note that despite the relevance of the topic, surprisingly little has been written on it by Christians.
The obvious issue for us to address here is “What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Do not judge’?”
What did Jesus mean?
Let’s consider Luke 6:37a in its immediate context: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (NIV).2 This verse forms part of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), which contains a lot of ethical teaching presented in the context of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Jesus’ teaching on loving others—particularly loving one’s enemies—is central to the sermon.
The Greek word for ‘judge’ in Luke 6:37a is krino. Krino’s most common meanings are ‘to decide’, ‘to judge’ and ‘to assess’.3 In this verse, it appears to refer to a negative (as opposed to positive) assessment of a person (as opposed to a thing) in an interpersonal context (as opposed to, for example, a court of law). Jesus appears to be forbidding certain sorts of negative interpersonal assessments. But is he urging us not to make any sort of negative interpersonal assessment?
The Sermon on the Plain also contains the parable of the tree and the fruit (vv. 43-45). Here, Jesus teaches that in the same way that we can identify a tree by its fruit, so too can we identify what a person is like from their words and actions. This parable calls upon people to make assessments of people. Such assessments may be positive (i.e. identifying a good tree by its good fruit), but may also be negative (i.e. identifying a bad tree by its bad fruit). We shall refer to this sort of assessment as discernment.
Here, Jesus exhorts us to assess people—to be discerning. It is easy to see the value of making such assessments of people. We need to exercise discernment when deciding, for example, who to appoint to a role in church, who to marry, or who to allow to babysit our children.
Judging vs. discerning
But what is the difference between judging, which is condemned, and discerning (which may involve making negative interpersonal assessments), which is encouraged? Again, the Sermon on the Plain is helpful here as it highlights two ways to distinguish between the two.
Firstly, everything we do—assessments included—should be marked by love. The Sermon on the Plain is one of the great love passages in the Bible. The difficult and perhaps unique teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies is particularly prominent: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27; cf. vv. 32, 35a). This verse encourages us to seek to love not just family and friends, but also people whom we find annoying, difficult, foolish and even hateful. It highlights the principle that if we assess anyone, our assessment should be marked by love for that person.
This, of course, raises the question “What is love?” The Bible has a lot to say about love. Jesus said that “all the [Old Testament] Law and the Prophets” hang on the two commands to love God and to love one’s neighbour (Matt 22:34-40). We see love exemplified in his sacrificial death for sinners (1 John 4:10). In addition, he commands Christians to love one another (John 13:34).
Christian ethicist Michael Hill helps us by summarizing what he understands to be the ethical teaching of the Bible. He argues that
[a]n action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.4
In a nutshell, love seeks to promote good relationships between God and people, and people and people. This understanding will, of course, differ at points to society’s understanding of love. For example, while Jesus’ negative assessments of others are always consistent with love, they find expression in a variety of ways: sometimes they are expressed in a warm and gracious manner (Luke 10:39-42), sometimes they are expressed within the context of seemingly civil discussion (Luke 5:21-26), sometimes they are expressed with grief (Luke 19:41-44), and sometimes they are expressed in highly confrontational language (Luke 11:37-54).
However, despite the variety of forms of expression, love will always be consistent with a genuine desire to promote good relationships between God and people, and people and people. Our assessments of other people must be marked by this concern.
ii) An awareness of our limitations
Secondly, our assessments of others must be marked by a humble awareness of our limitations. The Sermon on the Plain also contains the parable of the speck and the log (Luke 6:41-42). In this parable, Jesus poses the question of how one person can try to get a speck out of another person’s eye (i.e. seek to address a minor problem in another person’s life) while they have a log in their own eye (i.e. a major problem in their own life). The person seeking to help should first remove the log from their own eye (i.e. deal with the major problem in their own life).
The problem here is twofold: hypocrisy and incapacity. It is hypocritical to seek to address a minor problem in another while being oblivious to a major problem in one’s own life. It’s like an unrepentant mass murderer seeking to address a young boy’s predilection for deliberately treading on ants. It is also impossible for someone to help if they are incapacitated by their own problem. It’s like someone accusing another angrily and aggressively of being insensitive.
The Bible is clear that while all people sin, there are occasions where correcting another person is desirable—for example, parents correcting their children or one Christian appropriately rebuking another. The point being made in this parable is that before we seek to correct someone, we should consider our own limitations humbly, and seek to deal with them appropriately.
Actually, an awareness of our limitations is an aspect of love. To promote mutual love between God and humans, and humans and humans, one must seek to have an accurate, biblical assessment of a situation, and that, by necessity, will include an accurate, biblical assessment of oneself.
We are now in a position to provide some definitions. Judging others is a negative interpersonal assessment inconsistent with love (as defined in the Bible), whereas interpersonal discernment is an interpersonal assessment that is consistent with love (as defined in the Bible). Accordingly, the difference between judging and negative interpersonal discernment is love.
Two points should be made here. Firstly, while it might be easy to understand the definition of judging others, it is extremely difficult to avoid displaying the attitude. It is easy for our interpersonal assessments, accurate and inaccurate, to be unloving. Furthermore, what may start out as discernment can quickly move to judgement. For example, if a person sped past us on a motorway, exceeding the speed limit by 40 kilometres an hour and weaving in and out of traffic, we may accurately assess that the person is behaving in an extremely foolish and dangerous manner. That is discernment. However, it is only a short jump to being judgemental and thinking, “Look at that guy! What a stupid idiot! Typical provisional licence holder; I hope he wraps his car around a telegraph pole before he kills someone.” The key thing in our assessments of others is to ensure that they are always consistent with love.
Secondly, Jesus’ understanding of judging others is not the same as society’s understanding. This is mainly because Jesus’ understanding of love differs at points to society’s understanding.5 To highlight the difference, and to get a good look at what judging others does and doesn’t look like in practice, let’s consider a particularly telling incident in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus and Simon the Pharisee
We’ve all been in embarrassing situations that have made us cringe or want to bury ourselves. Luke 7:36-50 describes Jesus and some other guests dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee when a particularly embarrassing situation occurs.
Pharisees were very religious, respectable people. Simon’s dinner guests were, presumably, respectable too. But Simon’s respectable dinner party is interrupted when a woman enters. She is described as having “lived a sinful life” (v. 37 NIV). Luke is conveying here that she was characterized by her society as being “sinful”. But we are not told what she had done; perhaps she was a prostitute, a woman in debt or an adulteress.6
This woman doesn’t enter quietly and mind her own business. Instead, she cries on Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and pours perfume on them. As the story continues, both Simon and Jesus make negative assessments of the woman and each other. But who is judging and who is being discerning?
Firstly, Simon makes a very negative assessment of the woman. He thinks, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (v. 39). You can almost hear his contempt. He thinks “what sort of woman”—the implication being that she is certainly not his sort. He thinks of her as a “sinner”—someone, no doubt, totally different to himself. Pharisees rejected fellowship with the ‘unrighteous’ and Simon was typical of this.7 Is Simon’s assessment discerning or judgemental? It is judgemental: he makes a negative assessment of the woman, and his desire to shun contact with her is unloving. Furthermore, the extremely positive opinion he seems to have of himself shows a lack of awareness of his own limitations. Most people in our society would agree that Simon is judgemental.
Secondly, Simon makes a negative assessment of Jesus. He thinks, “If this man were a prophet…” (v. 39), the implication being that Jesus isn’t a prophet, he’s a fake. Simon appears to have had a sceptical view of Jesus even before this incident occurred. The passage goes on to highlight that he ignored various courtesies when Jesus arrived—for example, not giving Jesus water for his feet, not receiving Jesus with a kiss and not putting oil on Jesus’ head (vv. 44-46). Is Simon’s assessment discerning or judgemental? It is judgemental: he makes a negative assessment of Jesus and is unloving in his treatment of him. Again, most people in our society would agree that Simon is judgemental. Furthermore, his assessment is also incorrect for Jesus is a prophet—and much more!
Thirdly, Jesus makes a negative assessment of the woman. He acknowledges that she has committed “many” sins (v. 47) and tells a short parable that, among other things, illustrates this point. He then says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50). Is his assessment discerning or judgemental? It is discerning: Jesus makes a negative assessment of the woman but, unlike Simon, he does not want to avoid her; he shows her love. Instead of pushing her away, he welcomes her and meets her deepest need—forgiveness and salvation.
At this point, many in our society would disagree with our conclusion and would accuse Jesus of being judgemental: “How dare Jesus say that she has committed ‘many’ sins! Who is Jesus to say that? What does he know of her circumstances?” Here we see that society’s understanding of judging others differs to Jesus’ understanding. As the perfect Son of God, Jesus cannot be guilty of judging others. He acts in a loving manner (as defined by the Bible). So if a person accused Jesus of being judgemental, they must have a different definition of the term.
Fourthly and finally, Jesus makes a number of negative assessments about Simon. He indicates that Simon’s attitude to the woman is wrong, his attitude to Jesus is wrong, and his attitude to himself is wrong. Are these assessments discerning or judgemental? They are discerning. While his assessment is negative, Jesus shows love towards Simon. Firstly, Jesus is happy to dine with Simon: Jesus is happy to eat with both tax collectors and Pharisees. Secondly, Jesus is gracious when Simon ignores the social courtesies that should have been paid to him. Thirdly, he seeks to teach Simon in the hope that Simon, like the woman, will seek salvation. Would people in society agree that Jesus was discerning towards the Pharisee rather than judgemental? I think most would.
Our consideration of this story highlights that Jesus’ understanding of judging others differs at points to that held by contemporary society. The difference really boils down to the question of authority: who determines what is loving or appropriate—God or humans?
Let me finish with some implications for Christians.
- Dangers: All people are prone to being judgemental and Christians are not exempt. There are a few areas where we are particularly prone. The first is the area of evangelism: we can sometimes present the gospel to others in a way that gives the impression that we think we are better than our hearers. Sometimes this is due to poor communication. However, sometimes we really do think that we are better than our hearers (e.g. we are more rational, more open-minded, etc.). We must remember that we are only Christians by the grace of God.
A second and related area is our general attitude to the non-Christian world. There are aspects of the world that we are right to be angry about, to be frustrated by, to grieve over or to avoid. However, again, we need to remember that it is only by grace that we are different to the world.
A third area is that of church life: Romans 14 warns against Christians judging other Christians with whom they disagree, and discusses why we should refrain.8
We should also note that Luke 6:37a describes the consequences of judging others: the judging person will face judgement. Elsewhere I have argued that if the judging person is a follower of Jesus, they will face the imminent discipline or rebuke of God and/or a non-salvation-related judgement at Jesus’ second coming. However, if the person is not a follower of Jesus, they face the salvation-related judgement at Jesus’ second coming when they will be assessed and sentenced on the basis of their response to him.9
- Ethical implications: We need to ensure that our understanding of judging others is shaped by Jesus, not by contemporary social attitudes. For example, society considers the assertion that people are sinners in need of salvation as judgemental. A more serious mistake can scarcely be imagined.
We also need to ensure that our attitudes and behaviours are shaped by Jesus’ teaching, not by contemporary social attitudes. For example, many people today seek to avoid those with whom they disagree. This often goes hand in hand with a judgemental attitude. By contrast, Jesus actively sought out people with whom he disagreed.
- Apologetic implications: An understanding of the similarities between Jesus’ teaching on judging others and society’s understanding of the concept might be used as an apologetic point of contact. This could be useful for sermons, talks, conversations, and interactions with mass media and society generally. For example, an evangelistic sermon that opens by criticizing judgemental attitudes should have everyone on board.
- Evangelistic implications: There are a number of accounts in the Bible where Jesus’ discerning attitude is contrasted with other people’s judgemental attitudes. Good examples include the account of Jesus dining with Levi the tax collector (Luke 5:27-32), and Jesus dining with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). These accounts have evangelistic and apologetic force: not only are such stories attractive to contemporary audiences in showing Jesus reaching out in love to people, they also highlight Jesus’ concern that people be saved.
Do not judge; do be discerning: Jesus both taught and practised this. His assessments of others were always motivated by love. Perhaps if we do likewise, non-Christians will also come to grasp the truth of that other best known verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”
- DA Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991, p. 21. ↩
- Space does not permit me to consider Luke 6:37a in its wider context or Matthew 7:1 in its context. ↩
- Friedrich Buchsel, ‘krino’, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, translated and edited by Geoffrey W Bromiley, 10 vols., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965, Vol 3, p. 922. ↩
- Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics, Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2002, p. 131. ↩
- For example, a strongly worded rebuke may be consistent with love (as defined) and, accordingly, be an example of discernment. ↩
- See Darrell L Bock, Luke: Volume 1:1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 695. ↩
- Bock, p. 489. ↩
- A whole other article could be devoted to this topic. ↩
- For more detail, see Stephen Liggins, ‘Jesus’ teaching on judging others in Luke 6:37a’, MTh thesis, Moore Theological College, 2007. ↩