What does the Bible mean when it says ‘do not judge’? Does this mean that we can never identify a person in unrepentant sin and call on them to repent and return to Christ? Does this mean that we have to silently endorse behaviours, speech, or thoughts that dishonour Christ?

I’ve had experiences where I’ve had to have difficult conversations with people due to remaining sin in their lives, and they or people around them have replied by telling me ‘doesn’t the Bible say do not judge?’ as a sort of trump card in hopes of quickly ending the conversation. Is this it then?

Well, fortunately not. To understand this, we need to come to grips with a few things, namely i) reading the Bible in light of the whole Bible, ii) the difference between judgment and judgmentalism, and iii) the purpose of judgment according to Scripture.

i) Reading the Bible in light of the whole Bible

One of the principles we have to keep reminding ourselves is that the Bible and its verses are not isolated sayings. We live in a world that loves isolated sayings that can fit into 140 (or now, 280) characters. But that is not how the Bible was written. It is a coherent whole that finds its biblical-theological and redemptive-historical climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is a development and interconnectedness to Scripture that we have to take into consideration. Consequently, whenever we read the Bible, we have to pay close attention to the context (immediate verses, the genre of the book you’re reading, which testament it is part of, and the whole Bible itself). D.A Carson made this saying famous: a text without context is a pretext for a proof text. Therefore, take the whole Bible into consideration when examining a text.

How is this relevant? Well we have to realise that the phrase ‘Do not Judge’ actually comes from Matthew 7:1-5. It says this:

1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NIV)

This passage is found within the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (you can check out this article for more details about how Christians should read and understand it) and upon a surface reading, the instruction seems plain and simple enough. But is it?

Unfortunately, this text has become a license for radical pluralism, a sort of ‘I can do whatever I want and no one has the right to say anything against me’ attitude. But that is far from what Jesus and the Gospel writers had intended. Indeed, if you can just move your eyes past verse 1 and read verses 2-5, what you’ll realise is that the issue here is not immediately about not judging others, but being aware of the condition of your own heart. Let us look at verses 3-5 for a moment. It is effectively a warning that your condition (plank) is far worse than your brother’s condition (sawdust) probably not because he is necessarily more sinful than you, but because you of all people should be most aware of your own heart (read Matthew 5:27-28 which speaks about sinning in the heart and later Matthew 15:19 about the heart being the wellspring of evil). Unlike God, you do not see everything that takes place in the heart of your brother. You do not know his motivations, intentions, or purposes. But you do know yours. And if we are honest before God and ourselves, we’ll know our own depravity better than anyone else.

Since this is the case, an implication that arises immediately from the text is ‘do not judge’. But what does ‘judging’ mean here? Well again, our context needs to determine our definition of the text. Jesus here is clearly addressing those who do not consider the condition of their own hearts before judging others. These people clearly have a lack of self-awareness, and this profoundly shapes and influence the manner in which they judge. The best way to describe people like that are those who are self-righteous, those who think of themselves better than they ought to – those who are ignorant to how sinful and broken they are. Consequently, the commentator R.T France writes that ‘this passage is concerned with the fault-finding, condemnatory attitude which is too often combined with a blindness to one’s own failing’. In effect, the problem that we see here is the judgment that comes from those who i) do not know the condition of their own hearts, ii) think of themselves as better than others, and iii) speak judgment as an expression of their superiority over others [which is the essence of judgmentalism].

I’ll explain the difference between judgment and what I call judgmentalism in a moment, but hopefully it has become clear to you that ‘do not judge’ is not a shield against rebuke or reprove (which is clearly something Paul calls on us to do in 2 Timothy 4:2). But even before we travel that far down the New Testament, we read of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 calling on believers to rebuke a sinning brother and even involving people (firstly with two or three witnesses and then the whole church!) in the process. Clearly, ‘do not judge’ cannot possibly mean ‘you cannot say anything to correct me’. Why? Because that sort of conclusion would be utterly inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. We’ve mentioned 2 Timothy 4:2 but one of the clearest text on this matter is probably 1 Corinthians 5. I’ll expound on this in a little more detail under point 3, but let me show you that the Bible does call on Christians to judge, particularly other Christians who are living in unrepentant sin. 1 Corinthians 5 says this:

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 
13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5:12-13

Based on Paul’s twofold rhetorical question in verse 12, it is clear that i) he knows it is not his business to judge those outside the church because verse 13 makes it clear that it is God’s role to judge them but ii) we are to judge those inside the church.

ii) The difference between judgment and judgmentalism

But there is a difference between judgment and judgmentalism. As alluded to before, judgmentalism is what Matthew 5 was tackling, and this is a sort of fault-finding condemnatory attitude. Notice that this is not just an action but also an attitude. It is a pair of lens through which we see our world and the people around us. When a person is self-righteous, everything and everyone is beneath them and that is their grounds for judgment. Notice this: judgmentalism has ourselves as the standard.

In sharp contrast, judgment is an action of reaching a verdict. It is an assessment of information and determining an outcome. When a judge in a court pronounces someone as guilty or not guilty, he or she is not being judgmental. He or she is merely pronouncing a judgment based on the information that both sides of the argument have presented. The judge is not pronouncing a judgment based on their own self-righteousness or sense of superiority over the other. That is their job description – to judge. Notice this: biblical judgment has the Word of God as the standard.

Knowing this distinction therefore enables us to understand what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 that it is our (Christians) responsibility to judge. We are not, according to Matthew 5, meant to express our sense of superiority over the other. We can’t! The Gospel rids us of any sense of pride or self-righteousness because it reminds us that we are far worse than we can ever imagine yet more loved than we can ever dreamed of. If there is any grounds for boasting, it is that we are known and loved by God – not by our works or efforts. However, we can and we are are called, to judge. But judge who? In Corinthians 5, it is firstly the sexually immoral. It is the one in 1 Corinthians 5:1 who is guilty of the crime of incest. But as Paul continues teaching on the topic of what is known today as church discipline, he expands it by calling on his readers to ‘expel the wicked person from among you’. Paul moves from specific (the man guilty of sexual immorality) to general (the wicked person).

To be sure, we know that everyone is wicked and evil before a just and holy God. We love this passage as ACG, don’t we?

10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 
11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 
12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Romans 3:10-12

But does this mean that all of us should be expelled because of our wickedness? Well again, we need to look at our context. If we move out eyes up the page (or across) of our Bible, you’ll see verse 11 that Paul has moved from the man who is with his father’s wife to ‘one who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy…’ In other words, this is someone who claims to be a Christian yet is living a radically inconsistent life. This is someone who claims to be in right standing before God and good standing in Christian fellowship, yet his or her actions demonstrate that their hearts are far away from God. These are, in short, the unrepentant sinner. These are the brothers and sisters who are stuck and living in sin that they know full well is sinful according to Scripture, but they have no desire or willingness to turn away. Based on Paul’s list in verse 9-11, and then contextualising for our day and age, these are those who are living and sleeping with their boyfriend and girlfriend yet coming to church thinking that it is okay when they know it is completely contrary to the Bible. These are those who continue in their indulgence of porn although they know it breaks God’s heart. These are those who cheat and lie on their tax returns out of greed, knowing full well that they are breaking both the law of the land and God’s law. These are the manipulators, swindlers, or accountants who use various tactics to cheat people for their money or possessions. These are those who through either subtle gossip or outright slander drag peoples’ name and reputation through the mud. These are those who persist in drunkenness while tearing their lives and those around them apart. And they know this is wrong. They know this is contrary to Scripture. And yet they persist in them. These are unrepentant sinners. And these are the ones the Bible calls on us to expel.

‘Isn’t this a bit harsh?’ some might ask. Of course it is. It is meant to be. Because God hates sin. He hates it so much that he will judge and condemn everyone who continues living in it. But he also hates it so much that he sent his one and only Son to redeem people from it. So of course we expect that harsh measures need to be taken to deal with such a great evil. We will not know why Paul and Scripture calls on this unless we know the severity of sin.

iii) The purpose of judgment according to Scripture.

Which brings us to our final point: the purpose of all this.

According to 1 Corinthians 5, there is a twofold purpose for judgment.

Firstly, according to verse 5, it is ‘so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord’. Closely preceding this phrase is the call for Christians to ‘hand this man over to Satan’. What this means is that Christians are to expel an unrepentant sinner outside of the church (the realm of Satan). To clarify, this doesn’t mean that Satan is in control of every sphere outside of the church – Christ is Lord over ALL! But it does mean that the realm outside of the church is dominated by Satan’s influence because it does not have any regard for God’s Word or God’s law. Christ is Lord over every square inch of His creation yet before the final consummation, Satan’s influence is real over the realm outside of the church. Therefore, those who behave like unbelievers (unrepentant sinners) should be cast outside of the church.

But what does it mean to deliver someone over to Satan? This expression really grates against us doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t need to. Because we know from 1 John 3:8 that ‘the one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning’. Further, 1 John 3:9-10 highlights:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of Godare and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

1 John 3:9-10

So what Christians would effectively be doing in 1 Corinthians 5:5 is returning said ‘child of devil’ back to his father, Satan. It is so weird to think about it this way, but it is true, isn’t it? At least Scripture makes it abundantly clear and true.

But what is the purpose? That his spirit may be saved. Theologians have described this as the restoration of the unrepentant sinner. What we have to realise about judgment and church discipline is that it is a gift from God to help an unrepentant sinner to realise how far they have fallen from God’s standard and what is expected of a Christian, and then call on them to return. It is, in an unexpected way, a grace. It is in effect to say: ‘your behaviour is not consistent with your beliefs, so we will treat you like an unbeliever. Rather than discipling you to Christian maturity, we will keep evangelising to you and keep preaching the Gospel to you’. It is to plead for this brother or sister to return to repentance and faith because so long as they have breath and life, they have hope.

You see, the opposite is destructive. What is the opposite? To silently endorse. Imagine witnessing a brother or sister living in unrepentant sin. We know it and they know it. But they continue in it while thinking they are right with God! They consciously live in sin while falling under the false assumption that they will be saved on the day of the Lord because everyone else thinks it is okay. We think that judgment is not loving? No – this is the epitome of not loving. This is allowing unrepentant sinners to live with false hope. It is like watching a friend swim further and further into the ocean where there are no safeguards and where sharks are abundant – and yet we stay silent.

But there is a second purpose for judging, and that is for the purity of the church. We see this in 1 Corinthians 5:5-8. I do not have time to fully expound this, but what these verses are saying in effect is that the body of Christ consists of those who have been cleansed by the sacrificed Passover Lamb – Christ. And judgment of unrepentant sinners is necessary to guard the purity of the church. If the church is filled with people who consciously live in rebellion against God, then this has a massive impact on the health and vitality of the church. This impacts our worship and our witness. This cripples our ability to live as a ‘city upon a hill’ (Matthew 5:14).

Conclusion

What then does this mean for us?

  1. Judge while avoiding the danger of judgmentalism. Whenever or before you judge or call someone out from within the church, read Matthew 5 and examine your own heart. What are your motivations? Why are you about to say what you’re about to say? Are you trying to assert your superiority? Or is what you’re about to say an expression of deep grief over their sin and deep love for the state of their soul?
  2. Expelling someone from the church has varied degrees. This does not mean we set up bouncers at the front door of our church and stop anyone who lives in unrepentant sin. Of course it doesn’t! It cannot! Because they are just like an unbeliever in need of the grace of the Gospel. And so we welcome them in our midst but we treat them like unbelievers: those who need to keep hearing the Gospel. Keep welcoming and loving them. Keep inviting them to your group outings and homes. But treat them as those in need of salvation. Keep preaching the Gospel to them and keep praying for them in hope that their spirit may be saved. Another expression of expulsion is prevention from the Lord’s Supper. This is primarily the responsibility of pastors and elders who administer Communion – but the function of preventing them from the Lord’s Supper is because partaking communion indicates that the said person is in right standing before God and His people. But one living in unrepentant sin does not fall into that category. And the prayer is that the visible withholding of the bread and cup would be a constant reminder to the unrepentant sinner that they need God’s grace. This practice varies from church to church, but it is definitely a principle worth upholding.
  3. Do all of this in love. Judgmentalism makes us all moral police officers who are constantly on the look out for those who sin. It causes us to pounce on people and it creates an atmosphere of fear rather than faith. The last thing I hope this post leads to is that we all become i) fearful of sharing the sins we struggle with and ii) self-righteous fools. There is a difference between a Christian wrestling with sin and an unrepentant sinner. A Christian wrestling with sin is someone who knows in their hearts and minds that their sin breaks both God’s law and God’s heart – and they do not want to do it. They are fighting it every single day and they are doing whatever they can to keep coming back to the feet of the cross to receive grace and forgiveness. But the unrepentant sinner is someone who has a hardened heart – someone who has no regard for God’s rule over their lives. And because we do not know the state of each person’s heart, we judge out of love. You never know, the person you speak to may really be grieving because they still have not been victorious over the sin that they are struggling with. What they need is someone to journey with them and pray for them. So approach everyone with love. You don’t know the cross that they bear. So one of the ways love manifests itself is through understanding. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Be quick to ask questions and slow to make judgments. Be quick to put your hand on their shoulders and pray for them and slow to say ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’.

So, ‘do not judge’? I hope you realise that this is a much bigger theological issue than a mere proof text. Let me lastly point you to what the Westminster Confession of Faith has to say about church discipline and judgment. Article 30.3 says:

Church censures (discipline) are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

WCF 30.3

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