Stop Quoting Matthew 7:1. No, Seriously, Stop It.

Tied HandsIf you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a hundred times. Somewhere in public discourse a Christian is speaking about some principle of the Christian faith—the exclusivity of Christ, Biblical sexual ethics, abortion. In response a person arguing against the Christian perspective (and wishing to silence his or her interlocutor) quotes Jesus back. The quote is Matthew 7:1, and typically comes off a little like this: “Jesus said ‘Do not judge.’”

Ha ha. Case closed. Time to shut up, O Christian. Your leader tells you not to judge. So there.

I’ve had it with people quoting Matthew 7:1. I’m sick of the casual smugness with which people misuse Jesus. I’m frustrated on behalf of my fellow Christians who seem to be genuinely stymied by this tactic, reduced sometimes to sputtering incoherence or muted in a well-intentioned but misapplied obedience. It’s time to clear the ground around Matthew 7:1 and set the record straight about just what we Christians have been commanded to do by our Master and King.

Sawing the Branch You're Sitting OnLet’s begin with what’s obvious. The person who says to you, “Don’t judge” has just judged you. Think about this for a moment. To say, “You shouldn’t judge” is itself a judgment, and this fact is quite conveniently overlooked in these public discourses. What is more, I find that the person who tells you not to judge is quick to make other, more culturally acceptable judgments—he or she will be more than happy to pronounce that people shouldn’t drink or drive, or that we should cut carbon emissions to save the planet. These are judgments as well—they just happen to be socially acceptable ones. And so the real reason why such a person quotes Jesus in response to you is because he or she doesn’t like what you’re saying, “I have judged your judgment,” he says, “and I don’t like it!”

That is the first irony about this passage, and the primary reason why pretty much nobody should ever quote those three words to anyone else during a dialogue—to utter the phrase “Do not judge” is to pass judgment. It is fundamentally self-defeating and hypocritical.

This leads us to wonder what on earth Jesus is actually saying, and to understand that we’ll have to quote the whole passage and not just those three convenient words. The paragraph starts in verse 1 and ends in verse 6. Look at the whole thing now:

1“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 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. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

If you read that carefully, you’ll be aware that there is a subtle irony here—namely, that as soon as Jesus tells us not to judge, he then goes on to give advice on how to judge. Let that soak in for a moment. Jesus, after saying “do not judge” teaches us how to judge. This means, at the least, that whatever Jesus means by the words “do not judge,” he can’t mean never to speak in public discourse—to accomplish that would mean, essentially, ceasing to speak at all (which is quite possibly what our non-Christian and ill-informed Christian interlocutors desire).

When we look at these verses carefully, I think we discover four principles of Christian judgment—or, rather, four principles for making judgments as a Christian and in Christian community. We must remember that this teaching is situated within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ magnum opus for Christian living. These are words for the people of God living as the people of God alongside one another.

So, what are these four principles? I call them the principles of Disposition, of Standards, of Priority, and of Propriety.

#1 The Principle of Disposition

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

This first principle deals with our posture in community, and is drawn directly from verses 1-2—that we are not to judge and that we are to be cautious with the standard we use. Why should this be? Well, the second verse informs the first. To judge someone justly requires that I have the following characteristics: I must have authority to judge that person, I must have full knowledge of that person’s life and situation, I must have a perfect grasp of the standards of right and wrong, and I must myself be in a position of perfect rightness relative to that standard. Obviously I lack all four of those characteristics and am disqualified as a judge. So do you, and so does everyone on earth. Nobody on earth is equipped to make perfectly just judgments. And that means that my disposition must change relative to others. I, by virtue of my lack of omniscience and sin must never place myself in a position superior to another person. I am not a judge.

This is a first principle of preserving Christian community—that we are, in a Divine sense, all equal under the law, equally damned, equally recipients of grace, and that there is only one Judge, and we dare not attempt to usurp His place. The best we can do is come alongside one another. This will mean speaking with humility, rather than power.

#2 The Principle of Standards
This second principle is inseparably bound to the first—they are arguably the same sentence. In this second verse we are given the means by which we are to judge one another—that is, by means of a measuring rod. In essence, if we are going to make judgments we must ensure that we are appealing to the correct standard. That standard, for the Christian, is the life and teachings of Jesus our Lord. He is the perfect, omniscient, authorized judge of all humanity. His is the perfect life against which all our lives will be judged, and his words to us are the instructions against which our conduct, choices, and obedience will be measured on the Last Day. Christ is the measuring rod for human life.

The error of our ways is when we apply our selves as the standard of judgment against others. With the measuring rod you measure, Jesus states clearly, you yourself will be measured. If the standard you use to judge others is your self, then you will find yourself judged as well. Consequently the judgments will be self-defeating. Judge the wealth of others, and you will be judged by your own abuse of wealth. Judge the beauty of others, and you will be revealed for the shallow, image-conscious person you are. Judge the economic life-situation of a person, and you will be judged for the ignorance you have of your own economics.

All this to say that making judgments as a Christian means always appealing to absolute standards—the life of Christ, the teachings of the Scriptures, the Doctrines of the Church. “Absolute” in that previous sentence is synonymous with “objective”—the standard has to be outside of your self. We do not judge based on opinion, or preference, or personal discomfort, but on what we believe to be the revealed will of God. Will we be perfect? Of course not, but that may be precisely why we have the next principle.

#3 The Principle of Priority
Log in the EyeThis principle comes from verses 3-5 where Jesus describes the procedure for log surgery. In short, we are commanded to judge ourselves first. Quite simple, really: before you go barging into someone else’s life in the community (especially that of faith), ensure that you have applied the perfect standard of Jesus to your self. If you discover that you have a log in your eye—some glaring omission of obedience—get that sorted first. Then, Jesus says, “you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Nobody wants a speck of sawdust in his or her eye—it is profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, the only thing worse than a speck of sawdust is an unhelpful idiot trying to help me remove it.

The point is not to never make judgments, but rather to make judgments that are at the same time clear and empathetic. Judgments must be clear because blundering about with logs in our eyes only hurts other people and renders us hypocrites. Removing the log removes the hypocrisy and increases clarity. Then, once we’ve performed our log surgery, we’ll be more empathetic with judging others. We’ll know what it feels like and be far more tender, gently assisting the brother or sister with the speck. Much of Christian discourse would improve with a little more empathy—that is, remembering, as we pronounce judgments, however true they may be, that hearing them can be painful and difficult for others. We must imaginatively consider the impact that Christian teaching will have on the world both before and as we pronounce it. Then we’ll be effective speck-helpers for others.

#4 The Principle of Propriety
This final principle comes from the somewhat confusing final verse (7:6) where Jesus says that bit about throwing pearls before swine, or giving holy things to dogs. To state this simply, we are being taught to use propriety when executing our judgments. In other words, only apply your judgments to people who will listen to you. Only judge the willing. Make good decisions about when and to whom we speak Christian truth. Not every situation requires us to speak. Not every person will be receptive to our faith. Not every believer in the Church will be amenable to Godly correction. So make an initial judgment. After all, the knowledge you have of God, Jesus, and the Kingdom is holy and sacred, it is like fine and precious jewels. Offer these jewels of Godly wisdom to people who are profane, and not only will they not know what to do with them, but very likely they might turn on you because of it.

You must make a judgment, then, about who you will judge. Is this a person who will listen to me? Is this a person who will honor the teachings of Jesus? If the answer is no, then you don’t need to worry about correcting them. Your disposition, your right standard, and your log surgery will be meaningless. You can still love the person, and maybe you can plant some seeds of God’s truth in his or her life, but by the words of Jesus you have permission to keep your judgments to yourself. In other words, don’t lose sleep over people who ignore God’s word.

Final Thoughts
PearlDisposition, Standards, Priority, and Propriety: these are the four principles of judgment that Jesus gives us in this passage. With these four principles in place, we will use the knowledge we have been given by God’s grace in a way that accords with God’s plan. We will employ our power in a way that honors God and builds up community. After all, when we come alongside one another, when we come looking at Jesus together, and when we come tenderly, those are the conditions under which a person will feel not reprimanded, but loved. Under those conditions a person will feel grateful that you loved them enough to bring the word of God into their lives. It is under those conditions that the Church acts like the Church for one another.

But outside the Church, what should you do the next time someone quotes Matthew 7:1 to you? You have a number of options. First, you can determine whether you are offering “pearls to swine” (don’t call your conversation partner a pig, please). If you don’t have cause to believe that this person will hear you, then I think you have permission to walk away from the conversation. Second—and if you have permission to speak—you might remind the person helpfully that he or she has just made a judgment, and ask them by which standard they are judging you. That could lead to an informative conversation about authority and sources of knowledge. Third, you can point to the remainder of the passage (Matthew 7) and apply principles two and three—point out that you are appealing to an absolute standard (the words of Jesus), and describe how you yourself are subject to whatever Christian principle you are expositing.

But above and beyond these, a safe bet for faithful Christians in any discourse is to have a ready grasp of Scripture. If your conversation partner quotes Scripture to you, take advantage of the quotation to talk more about Scripture. If they are claiming to hold Jesus as an authority (even in trying to dismiss you), use the door they have opened to speak more about the authority of Jesus—talk about his Divinity, or his claims of exclusivity, or his absolute power. But do this with gentleness and respect, having sanctified Christ in your heart before you even speak. Which is something you should have done before you got involved in that Facebook dialogue anyways.

[Note: I’m thinking about writing on other commonly misused passages. If you have one you’d like me to write about, send me a note or drop it off in the comment section.]

10 comments on “Stop Quoting Matthew 7:1. No, Seriously, Stop It.

  1. Sam Giroux says:

    Very nicely done, J.R. The only thing I worry about is if I can every truly rid my self of the logs in my eye. Plus, after the “surgery” there are sure to be scars remaining that will prohibit me from being being whole again. Which, I suppose is when i should pray for the healing powers of Jesus…hmmmm…maybe, Yet, when you have love in your heart and using Jesus as the standard for the judgement, then proceed. Too many people judge without first doing so out of love, compassion, and empathy. Without those, it will be lost on deaf ears and you will be losing your pearls to swine. Thanks again!

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Sam! Well, guess the good/bad news is that we won’t ever be free from logs. We’ll never be perfect, so that means we’ll always have to judge with humility and alongside-ness, never smug or self-assured. ?How good it is to have a standard who, although perfect, is also both good and merciful!

  2. Bartholomew Wellington Boge says:

    How can I make this article a “sticky” on my FB page so that it is always and forever the first thing anyone reads when they look me up?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Ummm… not sure. Maybe save the link and then post it as a comment whenever someone abuses the text? :)

  3. lbwolpert says:

    Thanks for the helpful post! I think judging well is so hard people have give up trying to do it correctly.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Agreed! Also, the people who do judge do it so poorly that we want to keep our distance from them. It’s a real challenge to do it right!

      • lbwolpert says:

        I do kind of wonder though about other biblical verses about judging that weren’t addressed…for instance Paul says What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? and John says ” In addition, the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge” Doesn’t that make it a little more difficult to figure out when, and who to judge?

        • jmichaelrios says:

          Hi Laurie–good questions.

          As to the passage in 1 Corinthians, the first thing to remember is that Paul is instructing the church there, explicitly, to pass judgement on one another. It is even reasonable to presume that his injunction against judging those outside the church is a direct application of the principle of propriety (i.e,. not putting our pearls before swine).

          But behind this also, to my mind, seems to be the issue of Christians taking each other to the public courts to have their issues judged. This, Paul asserts, is a disgrace, because the Church ought to be fit to judge its own cases–with integrity, honor, and with a minimum of gossip and shame.

          Still, it leaves somewhat unanswered the question of just how we apply our Christian faith to a non-Christian world. We’d want to appeal to other passages for that, as well as carefully define just what we mean by “to judge” and at the same time disambiguate it from how the word defines “to judge”–they’re not the same thing. Suffice it to say that we are commanded to speak the truth–to preach the good news–but to do this openhandedly.

          Now, as to Jesus’ words in John’s gospel–specifically in chapter 5–Jesus is identifying himself as God’s authority on earth. As such, that is, as the divine king, it is his authority to be judge of the whole earth. Now, are we speaking about final judgment, or about individual judgments along the way? I think it clear that Jesus is the final judge of humanity–that is, he is the one who sits on the Judgment seat (cf. 2 Cor 5:10) and passes judgment on all humanity.

          As for the individual judgments along the way, we never make judgments apart from the standard of Jesus. So if I make a moral judgment, it needs to be by a Jesus standard (i.e., to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more”). If I make a salvation judgment, it needs to be by a Jesus standard (i.e., I am the way, truth and life, and nobody comes to the Father but by me). And so forth and so on.

          And so, the main idea remains the same–Jesus is our standard of judgment for all judgments. And in his name and image we can make provisional judgments, as long as we do this with humility, apply those judgments to ourselves, and wisely speak them to the world.

  4. kyfia says:

    Very helpful post! Just around the time this post was published my church pastor preached a sermon on the controversial Matt 7:6, which is very in line with what you have written. Because his emphasis was on verse 6, he also talked about 1) we are never to judge anyone as swine, but some people’s behaviour reveals themselves as “one” – who are not respectful to Christianity; some even publicly declare themselves as such. We don’t even need to judge, they have judged themselves, and it is our turn to take caution and shun. 2) it sounds terrible the similes Jesus used, but if we accept the harshness Jesus spoke with to demonstrate the rudeness and ignorance of certain unbelievers, we must also realise that many of us too, have been swine and dogs before accepting Jesus! (and the perfect example of Apostle Paul) 3) Thus we see that “pigs and dogs” can also change 4) the reason that Jesus don’t ask us to try, even though they can be changed, is to protect us and the truth from harm and manipulation (explained by the verse itself). 5) we are then not to happily walk away, celebrating the exemption of responsibility. When we cannot help people directly, we pray for them.
    Now your post here completes my understanding of this passage, thank you :) I typed the above in the hope that it might, in any way, delight you too, whether it mentions anything you have not thought of before, or it exemplifies how God reveals his knowledge uniformly across the globe.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Thanks, Kyfia, for joining the conversation! Yes, I am also humbled by how God’s word works across the world, in different places, and through different minds, and yet we all are seeking the same Person!

      Paul is a perfect example of someone who changed from “swine” to servant–in fact, I had an occasion to teach this recently when going through the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew is really hard on the Pharisees, and if we only had his testimony we might assume no hope for the Pharisees–but then we have Paul, who proves the exception. What a great hope!

      Every Blessing as you continue to read the word!

      Jeremy

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