The Sin of Judging Others

There is hardly any verse of the Bible that is more misunderstood than Jesus’ words, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). I have blogged about it before because someone asked me to. How common has this verse become, especially since Pope Francis said "Who am I to judge?" when asked about a priest with same-sex attraction in 2013. It has become a kind of mantra for the Church under Pope Francis, like truth doesn't matter anymore, all that matters is not judging.

This has always made me feel uncomfortable. I know in my heart that in a certain sense this is right, but I also recognise that it is not right in the way it is being used; almost weaponized.

If you know Jesus, if you know the Christian faith, this sentiment is anathema, because the fundamental turning point in most people's lives from agnosticism to discipleship is the point where you recognise you have sinned and you need to be Redeemed by Jesus Christ. Judging right from wrong is a fundamental part of a good moral life, so Jesus can't mean anything as simplistic or platitudinal as it may at first appear to modern readers.

Another way to look at it is in the context of evangelisation. Perhaps the biggest struggle we face today in evangelising in a society which is increasingly pursuing minority social & moral positions as it succumbs to ever deeper relativism, is explaining personal sin.

The only sin in society today is judging yourself. Young people especially have no concept of sin at all. Everything is relative, there are no moral absolutes, even the most heinous crimes can be explained away by sociologists; "it was because of their childhood". Meanwhile, the Way of the Cross is to recognise your sin and to repent, aware that you cannot deal with the enormity of your own brokenness and you need the grace freely given by Jesus to breach the gap (cf. Matthew 4:17)

Notwithstanding this misinterpretation, I know that I have disobeyed Matt. 7:1 many times because what it actually means is that it is a sin to judge another person in your heart, even if you keep your thoughts to yourself. Judgemental words eventually will flow out of a judgemental heart, but the sin begins in the heart. It is a manifestation of pride; we think that we’re better than others are.

St. James elaborates on Jesus’ command in Matt. 7:1 in Jas 4:1  he teaches that wars among men are a symptom of the spiritual war within man. To resolve these conflicts, we must stop judging others hearts and submit to God’s authoritative Word. So what does that mean?

What is does not mean is that you can't discern with regard to another person's character or teaching.

How often have you seen someone cite Matthew 7:1 usually as a rebuke about not judging others? Whenever I see this I find it hugely frustrating, if only because it makes no sense to say we can't make judgements - we have to make judgements every day, what to eat, what to watch on tv, what time our kids should go to bed. 

It also demonstrates great ignorance of Scripture. If they bothered to read down to verse 6, where Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine….” He was talking about people who act like dogs and swine! To obey verse 6, it necessarily follows that you must make some judgemental decisions about the person’s character.

Also, if you keep reading down as far as Matt. 7:15, Jesus says, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Clearly, it takes judgement for a sheep to recognise a wolf dressed like a sheep. It requires judging the person’s teaching as false!

We live in times when tolerance, unity, and “love” (which usually means, being "nice") are dominant themes among a wide range of Christian denominations. If you dare to confront or expose sin, or if you label someone’s teaching as unbiblical or problematic or the person as a false teacher, you're accused of being judgemental and unloving. But the witness of Scripture is clear that a pastor is being extremely unloving to allow wolves to prey on the flock or to allow sinning believers to infect the flock without confronting and exposing them.

Look at Romans 16:17-18
“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.”
Some say you can expose false doctrine but that you should never specifically name a false teacher. But this is contradicted by Scripture as well. For example, in 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul explains how some have rejected faith and a good conscience, “and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” and he goes on (1:20) to name names: “Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.” We see this again in 2 Timothy 2:17, where he names Hymenaeus and Philetus, adding (2:18), “men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.”

In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul tells Timothy, “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me….” In verse 14, he warns Timothy about “Alexander the coppersmith,” who did Paul much harm. In 3 John 9-10, the apostle warns “Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them,” but “does not accept what we say.” Paul names two quarreling ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, urging them “to live in harmony in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). He pointedly tells the church in Colossae, “Say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to your ministry’” (Col. 4:17). St. Paul was not afraid to name names!!

The apostles were not, in any of these instances, wrongly judging others. So we must conclude that it is not judging someone to exercise discernment about ungodly behaviour or false teaching. Exercising right judgement is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit we pray for at Confirmation.
Similarly it follows that it is not judging someone to speak to them about sin or false teaching.

People sometimes say things like, “I could never confront anyone about their sin, because we’re not supposed to judge others. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” But this is simply avoiding a difficult, but loving, responsibility. If you see your child about to run in front of a speeding car, you would do everything in your power to warn them. If you see a brother in Christ about to ruin his life by sin or by believing false, damnable doctrine, love should motivate you to do everything possible to warn him.

St. James was not being judgemental by confronting this sin in the church. In James 5:19-20, he states, “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.” Surely it is love that properly motivates us to speak to our brothers and sisters in all gentleness and with a spirit of reconciling them? When we speak with this care, and not a haughty or vain spirit, our admonition is often taken in the right way, as concern. We can see this modelled by the bishops now writing to the Pope, and in the respectful language used in the Correctio filialis.

On a personal level, such confrontation is the responsibility of every spiritual believer (Gal. 6:1). It should begin in private, unless the sin is public to start with (Gal. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). If the sinning person does not listen to you, then take another mature believer with you, or involve someone else who can try to minister to the sinning person. If he still refuses to listen, it may be necessary in justice to inform the community and remove the person entirely (Matt. 18:15-18) for example in the case of someone who is abusive, or a threat to children or vulnerable adults.

As a general rule, the circle of those who are informed of the situation should be as small as possible, limited to those who can help or to those who need to be protected. The aim should always be to restore the sinning believer, to protect the Church from sin, and to honour God. But it is not being judgemental and it is acting in love to confront sin and false teaching in the Church.

What Jesus does mean in Matt 7:1 is that you judge someone wrongly when you criticise them out of jealousy, selfish ambition, resentment or bitterness. In other words, when you judge someone simply to bring them down, rather than build them up in Christ Jesus.

Your motive is essential: when St. James says (4:11), “Do not speak against one another,”he is talking about maligning someone or damaging their reputation by sharing false or deliberately misleading information. This is always sin. St. James is also transmitting a broader meaning in his text that includes any form of criticism or running someone down from selfish motives. In other words, what you are saying may be true, but the reason you’re sharing it is to make yourself look good and to put the other person in a bad light. If your motive in criticising someone is jealousy, selfish ambition, rivalry, pride, or hatred, you are judging wrongly (see also CCC 2475).

The Catechism also points out how judging someone without proper knowledge of all the pertinent facts and motives is an offense against truth (rash judgement) q.v..

Love does not tear down others; it builds them in Christ. If you speak against others and criticize them to make yourself look good, you are loving yourself, not others. You are not obeying God’s law; you are setting yourself above it. Of course we must love others with our deeds, not in words only. But we almost must take care how we speak to one another and about others who are not present. Our words need to demonstrate God’s love. I get this wrong and I find it complex and difficult to discern, especially in the present situation in the Church, where accusations of detraction are used to stop people finding out about bad things people who have power over them do, a good example would be Pope Francis' accusations that abuse victims were slandering Bishop Barros. There is a balance to found here and the little man, without any power, without the dignity of ordination or office or title must have some avenue of recourse when he senses that wrongs are being kept quiet. Sometimes all we can do is shine a light on the problem, and it seems especially so when all the world is applauding what appear to be choices that are leading the Church away from Christ and towards an understanding more at ease with the world. But you know, the Church is supposed to be counter-cultural, to be a sign of contradiction for the world. The world never claps when the Church fulfils its' mission to be a sign of contradiction, it only claps when members of the Church join forces with the world and betray Christ.

Sometimes we have a duty to speak out in love, love of Christ and His Church, love of the people that He wants to save.

You know sometimes these posts help me to work through these things myself and I think this wander through the New Testament and the Catechism is a good example of that. I feel better for it, as I always do when I have contact with God's Word. I'm still learning and trying to be better, to pray and discern God's will for me in all this but I am aware that it is important to be very careful, and yet I feel God's will pushing me to fight for Him and His Church.


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