“Do not judge, lest you be judged…” The misapplication of Matthew 7:1-5 is not a new phenomenon. For generations people have been escaping or dismissing judgment based on the false idea that judgment in all forms is condemned, or at least untenable as long as the one judging has even the smallest flaw. Consider the way the Sodomites complained of such scrutiny by the unimpeachable Lot:
“But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him, and said, ‘Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly’… But they said, ‘Stand aside.’ Furthermore, they said, ‘This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge, now we will treat you worse than them’” (Genesis 19:6-9).
Interestingly, the “don’t judge me” attitude is not found at the height of a civilization. It is not when Sodom is most enlightened that they espouse this mentality. Rather, it is immediately before their culture’s demise, as they are attempting to slake their beastly desires. A people who are unwilling to withstand examination and reform accordingly have little time left on the face of this planet. So what do we make our Lord’s exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount?
“Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is 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).
Do Not Judge At All?
It is immediately tempting to take this verse out of the context of the rest of Jesus’ sermon. The distortion becomes so severe, though, that it makes the verse say the opposite of what the Lord means. “Do not judge lest you be judged” is not an indictment of judgment in general, but a specific, hypocritical kind of judgment that is destructive to all involoved. “The evil he forbids is condemnation based upon suspicion and surmises, insufficient evidence or upon unloving opinions or sheer ill will. He is talking about those judgments which are motivated by no real purpose to help the object of criticism and which are more often nothing but smug self-righteousness. Jesus is hitting hard at the love of finding fault; that secret joy felt when one discovers another’s failures, that strong inclination to find the neighbor guilty upon slight proof, that presumptuous investigation of motives and that hell-ignited desire to tell it” (Matthew I, Fowler, 398). Rather than a universally condemned practice, judgment is actually required of people in certain circumstances. Even in the context of this sermon, Jesus exhorts His listeners to practice judgment with regard to false teachers (Matthew 7:12-20). Other scriptures also affirm this:
Pertaining to judgments in civil courts, for example (Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-15);
Neither is it prohibiting the judgment of the local congregation in dealing with unrepentant members (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Titus 3:10),
Nor the decision of brethren in private litigation (1 Corinthians 6:1-8);
It cannot be referring to the caution we are expected to have when it comes to our relationships with sinners (Jude 22-23);
Or to the judgment of dangerous influences on the church by an eldership (Acts 20:28-31).
In fact, judgment is such an invaluable component of the Christian life that one might say that it is indispensable. Consider the way that believers are called to live constantly under the light of examination:
“Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).
“But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
“For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” This is at the heart of the issue. It is not judgment itself that is the problem, but the standard we are using – and more importantly, our willingness to heed it!
For some, the standard is their own will or wisdom. They judge others with the kind of leniency they want extended to their own failures and vices (“live and let live”). But this lacks objectivity, and Paul speaks of this in 2 Corinthians 10:12: “For when they measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.”
Naturally, others take this to the opposite extreme and bind an unbiblical standard on others, asserting that “If I can do it, anybody can”. They judge others because they do not measure up to their own achievements or personal sacrifices. “Those who have attained a measure of growth in the character of Christ are tempted to criticize rather harshly those who have not attained to their measure of perfection… Such high standards mentioned in chapters five and six cause men harshly to judge others who have not even completely understood them, to glory in their own superior holiness…” (Fowler, 396).
This why we must seek an objective standard of judgment. “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48). Equipped with the Bible, believers are called upon to “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). If we are directed by God’s message we will never have a problem with judging others by an indefensible, hypocritical, ever-shifting standard.
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” The first step is clearly necessary, but implied in this directive is the idea that we must come to grips with our own sinfulness. “This confession of sin, when truly and deeply felt, psychologically prepares us to be fitter judges, because it restores our humility, our knowledge and fear of personal failure and destroys our cocksure self-righteousness. The more critical we are of ourselves, the more merciful we will tend to be toward the failures of others… The ability to love may be in direct proportion to how much we think we need forgiveness” (Fowler, 402). This is an allusion to Luke 7:36-50.
The person with the speck still needs the Gospel, regardless of the hypocrisy of anybody around him. This is a good reminder to those who refuse to become Christians or attend church because “church is full of hypocrites!” At no point does Jesus’ indictment of the log-eyed person ever justify the speck-eyed one. Rather, the entire purpose in chiding the first man is to eventually help the second! This passage is not intended to discourage judgment, but to refine it and make it all the more effective.