If 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.
Let’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. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 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? 4 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? 5 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
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
This 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.
Disposition, 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.]