How and When to Judge Properly

"Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" - Rom 14:10 ESV.

People like to throw a particular verse into the faces of those whom they sense to be being judgmental. That verse is found in Matthew 7:1 which says, "Judge not, that you be not judged." Even in cases where there is a clear pathway toward an objective judgment that something is actually wrong, people like these will appeal next to kindness as though it is the supreme virtue. With this belief of kindness as the supreme virtue, it is proposed that it should prevail over any other consideration, even at the expense of being right or being true.

One thing I learned about studying biblical texts is that you can seldom find one which is absolute, especially when it comes to practical matters. That's why even a verse like the one being used by those who feel they are being judged isn't supposed to be understood in an absolute way. They are interpreted and understood in relation to their context. Matthew 7:1 for example is talking about a bigger subject and not particularly about being judgmental. The bigger teaching is about hypocrisy, where one person tells the other that he is dirty when in fact the speaker is dirtier. One can even insert credibility as another sub-topic in Jesus' teaching here. Before we can be credible about our talk, we need to walk the talk ourselves first. This is the context of the warning not to judge, because otherwise, the judgment can be turned against the judge who is himself guilty of that which he judges making all judgment without effect. 

There are other verses that teach almost the same thing about judgment. James 4:12 for example says, "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" Again this passage has a context and it is found in the previous verses. First there is the issue of believers not speaking kindly of each other by their unruly tongue (James 3:1-12). Then there is the issue of contention as to who has more wisdom and insight (James 3:13-18). The immediate context is also helpful when it says, "Brothers and sisters, stop slandering each other. Those who slander and judge other believers slander and judge God's teachings. If you judge God's teachings, you are no longer following them. Instead, you are judging them" (Jas 4:11 GW). In his commentary to this passage, Albert Barnes says this:

"The explanation which will best suit the expressions here used, is that which supposes that it refers to some difference of opinion which existed among Christians, especially among those of Jewish origin, about the binding nature of the Jewish laws, in regard to circumcision, to holy days, to ceremonial observances, to the distinctions of meats, etc. A part regarded the law on these subjects as still binding, another portion supposed that the obligation in regard to these matters had ceased by the introduction of the gospel. Those who regarded the obligation of the Mosaic law as still binding, would of course judge their brethren, and regard them as guilty of a disregard of the law of God by their conduct. We know that differences of opinion on these points gave rise to contentions, and to the formation of parties in the church, and that it required all the wisdom of Paul and of the other apostles to hush the contending elements to peace."

In his letter to the Romans in our passage today Apostle Paul writes, "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Rom 14:10 ESV). This time, Paul's context was on different observances on food and days. Some believers, most likely Jews, have so many observances about what food is allowed and what are not allowed, what days are worthy of celebrating and what are not, extending the application of these restrictions to the non-Jewish members of the church. Did Paul side with the Jews being a Jew himself? Not at all. Instead he says that our observances must not be imposed on others as far as food and occasions are concerned. But he added several principles that should govern whether one would do it or not do it. The first principle is this: One should be fully convinced about what one does (v. 5) because anything that is done in doubt is sinful (v. 23). The second principle is to pursue only that which promote peace and upbuilding (v. 19). If something doesn't build another's faith or even weakens it, even if it is right for you as eating only vegetables or only meat, keep it to yourself (v. 22) and allow the other to eat and live in peace. His stronger advice is this: "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats" (Rom 14:20 ESV). And our passage seals his argument: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17 ESV).

As you can see, none of the verses quoted actually teaches an absolute prohibition against all forms of judgment or judging. In fact part of the responsibilities of believers is to judge between right and wrong. Proverbs 31:8-9 says, "Speak for those who cannot speak; seek justice for all those on the verge of destruction.  (9)  Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and oppressed." This is not a suggestion but a command to judge but only in a way that is righteous. And judging righteously must be based on absolute rules of God, not on personal preferences.
In the case of the Corinthian believers, Paul criticized them for they cannot judge among themselves when they have disputes. Instead, they go to secular courts run by unbelievers to settle matters among themselves. To make them realize that they have the competence to judge matters without resorting to the legal process, he says, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!" (1Co 6:2-3 ESV). The law of God and the principles of the bible is there so that we may be able to judge on the basis of what's written. 

Righteousness in truth is the ultimate basis of all judgement. If one knows what is right, one can render judgment without violating what Proverbs is saying above. But before we render judgement on matters, we should not forget that sometimes truth is not always obvious. Remember the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11? She was of course guilty and if Moses' Law was followed, she would have been stoned to death. But Jesus brought with Him another law, which is the law of grace and mercy and so she was pardoned instead. As far as the adherents of the law are concerned, there was only one course of action - a death sentence. Seemingly, Jesus has one thing in mind and it's not eradicating of the sinner but reforming the sinner. His last words to her, which I believed she followed, was "From now on, sin no more" (John 8:11 ESV).

These days, so many people, especially those who feel they are judged, use Matthew 7:1 as the basis for their resentment. Others who are familiar with the bible will add 1 Corinthians 13 which is a beautiful treatise on love. This time, the favorite verses to quote are from verse 4 which says "Love is patient and kind." and verse 8 which in some rendition says, "Love never fails." In as much as we want to accommodate everyone in the exercise of kindness, contrary to these people's understanding, kindness isn't the supreme virtue. Love is. However, one can't cherry pick whatever one wants from the Corinthian passage to suit one's preference. Verse 6 of that passage clearly tells us that "It [Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1Co 13:6 ESV).

In other words, even kindness has to give way to love but love is not detached from holiness and sanctity. We can't always say, "Let other people live the way they want, if it makes them happy." as a way of showing love. Again, love doesn't rejoice nor celebrate sin and if that person is doing sin and has no intention of stopping, we can't concur. We need to judge the behavior as sinful and, if God allows, influence that person to reform. Jesus would do the same. If the woman persisted on living her old ways, Jesus wouldn't have forgiven her and instead condemned her right there and then. But she was ready to reform and Jesus gave her that chance. Love can pardon any kind of sinner, except him who doesn't want to reform. This is why on Judgment Day, there will be those who will be thrown into the lake of fire. They are they who would remain unmoved and unchanging, preferring to sin instead of repenting. 

But where the issue is as trivial as food or celebrations, although we may have the right to eat or not to eat or to celebrate or not celebrate, we should be ready to give that right up for the sake of the one who believes contrary and is possibly weakened by our choices. In this case, it is advisable to be kind than to be right.

We are all expected to help build each other's faith. We should be able to see beyond our differences when they are not matters of great doctrinal errors. The problem sometimes is on how to decide which teaching is major or not. And this is where believers tend to judge each other. Let's continue to develop a healthy respect for those whom we are sure to be brethren and accepted of God. Things that tend to divide believers into camps of various kinds should be very avoided. Remember that it's not always that we are right about what is right. There will come a time when a fellow believer is actually right and we are wrong and we expect the same kind of understanding from them. We expect to be welcomed and not despised. We all can benefit from each other and thus, we have to be brave in stepping out of our comfort zone and embrace a brother. We all belong to the same divine family after all.

(Photo credit: honestlyadoption.com)