A few years ago, I preached a sermon series called, “(Mis)Understood,” in which I took popularly quoted Bible verses and explained how they’re often misinterpreted, and what they actually mean.
The first verse I tackled in that series is probably one of the most-quoted verses in the entire Bible: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). In fact, even people who aren’t particularly religious know and recite that verse.
Typically, the passage is used to convey that we should never make moral judgments with regard to another person’s beliefs or behavior. Here are a couple of examples of how Matthew 7:1 is commonly quoted or referred to:
“And in any religion we’re supposed…to be kind…We’re not supposed to pass judgment. Our Bible says, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ and I believe in all those kinds of things. We’re all God’s children. No matter how we try to get to heaven, we all wanna go there. We just have our own routes to take, and that’s how I look at it.”
“I don’t judge others. I say if you feel good with what you’re doing, let your freak flag fly.”
-Sarah Jessica Parker
The message is clear: Never tell anybody that what they believe or what they are doing is wrong, because you are in no position to judge. You don’t even know what’s right or what’s wrong, and even if you do know, you are probably just as bad as the other person.
But is that what this passage actually means? Does it prohibit us from making any moral judgments at all? The answer, of course, is no.
First, there are many places in the Bible where we are encouraged to make moral judgments. For example, in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus Himself tells His disciples to make judgments about whether or not a brother has sinned:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In James 5:19-20, Jesus’ brother urges Christians to warn their fellow believers away from sin; clearly, this would require a moral judgment:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
In John 7:24, Jesus actually commands His disciples to judge, but to do so correctly: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” In other words, the Bible is clear that we are called upon to judge people sometimes!
Now, it’s important to notice that in all of these passages, the purpose of judgment isn’t simply to claim moral superiority over other people. The purpose is to save people from the damaging consequences of their sin. Godly judgment produces restoration, not merely condemnation. Nonetheless, we are commanded to make moral judgments, especially in our relationships with other followers of Jesus.
If you think about it carefully, you’ll realize that it’s impossible to live without making any moral judgments at all. Let’s consider Sarah Jessica Parker’s words quoted above. Parker was the star of Sex and the City, a show that celebrated the sexual revolution and the “freedom” to act out one’s sexual desires without restraint. But in an interview in 2018, she said that Sex and the City would be a “different show” in light of the Me-Too movement. She recognizes that the show crossed certain moral boundaries, even by the standards of our sinful culture. She’s making a moral judgment about the sexual content of a show that she participated in, albeit in hindsight. Her understanding is that our current culture has the moral standing to judge the culture of the 1990s, which was when that show first aired.
Without meaning to, Parker is undermining her own belief that people should never make moral judgments at all. Even if we claim we don’t make moral judgments, we can’t avoid doing it. Everyone views certain behaviors or beliefs as out-of-bounds, and everyone feels compelled to hold other people to some type of standard (even though we disagree on what those standards should be).
So if Matthew 7:1-5 doesn’t mean that we can never pass judgment, what does it mean? What was Jesus actually saying when He said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged?”
The key to understanding Matthew 7, as with every Bible passage, is to understand its context. Matthew 7:1-5 is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus lays out for His disciples what attitudes and actions ought to characterize the people of God in an ideal world. He begins His sermon with the Beatitudes, a set of attitudes that meet with God’s favor: Meekness, mercy, peacemaking, humility, and so on. Then, Jesus expounds on those attitudes and some of the barriers that His followers might face as they try to live out these Beatitudes. He talks about pride, greed, anxiety, and interpersonal conflict.
Then, He talks about another barrier to being the people God is calling us to be: When we lack gentleness and mercy toward others, we hinder our relationships with other people, and also with God.
One way in which we often lack gentleness and mercy toward others is by judging them by the wrong standards. Perhaps we judge people hypocritically, looking at other people’s faults without attending to our own faults. Or perhaps we hold people to a standard of judgment that isn’t God’s standard of judgment.
The key to the passage is actually found in Matthew 7:2: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”
Jesus isn’t saying that we should never judge at all! He’s saying that we should be very, very careful to judge according to the right standards, which are God’s standards. Sometimes we have to pass judgment on somebody else’s behavior or attitude, especially within the body of Christ. Sometimes, in fact, pointing out another person’s sin is an act of kindness, to prevent them from damaging their relationships with God and other people. As James tells us, we can actually save another person from destructive choices that might lead them toward terrible consequences, even death itself.
But when (not if) we judge, we are to always make sure to judge by the right standards. And we must also make sure we’re attending to our own sin first, at least to the degree that we are able. It’s not that we have to be perfect, but instead that we must be aware that we’re never above sin and temptation ourselves. We have to keep those principles in mind before we point out the sins of other people.
Jesus is warning us to be careful when we judge, but He isn’t saying never to judge at all. He’s reminding us to always err on the side of grace, recognizing that we are likely just as prone to sin as the person we’re correcting. He’s reminding us that the purpose of biblical judgment is restoration rather than condemnation. When we point out sin in somebody else’s life, we ought to always check our own attitudes to make sure that we’re coming from a place of love and grace, rather than a place of harsh condemnation. Our goal ought always to be to help our brother or sister to turn away from sin and to turn back toward God. We are seeking to help our friends, and not merely to shame or condemn them.
And, of course, we ought always to look into our own hearts first. Look in the mirror before you pick up your microscope, in other words.
I’ll close with the words of Paul in Galatians 6:1, as he describes the attitude of gentleness that ought to characterize our interactions with one another, as we warn each other to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus:
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.