Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 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? How 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? 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 – 1978
Small Group Dynamics and Mob Mentality
I once participated in a small-group discussion wherein the participants were going over the Sunday sermon from just three days prior. This group was populated predominantly by young adults, mostly in their twenties, with a couple of thirty-somethings also in the mix. My wife and I rounded out the group as the geriatric section.
The purpose of the group’s discussion each week was to solidify in our minds what we had been taught in that week’s sermon. The sermon for the week was drawn from Jesus’ statement above, “Don’t judge,” a difficult sermon topic that was handled with great care and effectiveness.
The discussion started off well and continued well for about five minutes. At the five-minute juncture, something surreal happened as the group gently, almost imperceptibly, shifted and reseated itself in a “yeah, but” posture.
It was as though the collective had run out of things to say regarding not judging, despite the fact that we had a wealth of information from the forty-five minute sermon on not judging, so we burned the remainder of our time together brainstorming every specific case the group could dredge up to which the sermon did not apply.
In those exception cases and others like them, according to the group, we must judge.
“Sometimes we have to judge.”
Why do we have to judge? Jesus says, ‘Don’t judge or we will be judged.’
“Well, yeah but, because, like … what they’re doing is sinful.”
That may be true. Why do we need to be the ones to judge them? I have enough sin in my own life to deal with.
“Well, I can’t … I mean, like, if I don’t, then it’s like I’m agreeing with them. I mean, they’re like [insert sin here], right?”
Right, and so we need to judge them? How about we try to help them see a better way?
With speck-removing tweezers in hand, this group engaged the next forty-five minutes, swinging bridge-timbers around the room, dismantling the pastor’s sermon, saying, “Yeah, he’s right, but here are all the reasons and circumstances in which what he said doesn’t really apply. So, in those cases, we have to judge these sinners, right?”
Nothing I said in objection to this mentality was going to shake the group from their judicial bench. We became the jurisprudence committee, imbued with the holy responsibility of passing judgement on everything inside and outside the body of Christ to which we found some reason for objection. The more examples that were presented, the more a sort of mob mentality gained momentum and support from others in the room who agreed that judgment or condemnation in those particular instances was good and appropriate.
We discussed myriad examples of sin in people’s lives (not our own), and the group was convinced that each of these sins was an exception to what Jesus taught us through the previous Sunday’s sermon. Don’t judge, except in these six-dozen cases, because in cases like these, good morality on my part demands that I judge. By the time we were finished, the pastor’s sermon was relegated to something that was a good idea in theory, but impractical in reality.
What Jesus Said
Jesus said, “Don’t judge.” When we look at his verbiage in the Greek text . . . it still says, “Don’t judge.”
It is present tense, active voice, imperative mood, meaning: starting now and with a duration as far into the future as my imagination can run with it, this command applies to all who hear – don’t judge. It is spoken to any one of us who might be tempted to judge, and it is a command from God in the flesh.
The term Jesus used, derived from κρίνω (kreeno), is a common term with a broad definitional spectrum. It can mean calling someone or something into question, or passing judgment or even a full-blown condemnation of a person, a thing, or an action. It can be a personal term, or a legal term. It involves selection, drawing conclusions, making determinations. It is a neutral term, meaning it is neither positive nor negative in a moral or ethical sense. It simply is, and Jesus says, “Don’t do it.”
What Jesus said in Matthew 7:1 becomes confusing when we read other verses that seem to say something quite different about judging. Elsewhere, we find Jesus being criticized by the crowd for healing on the Sabbath. There, he fires back at them, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”1
Jesus has just instructed the critical crowd to judge, and to do so with righteous judgement. To solidify the confusion, Jesus used the same term here that he used when he said “Don’t judge,” and both statements are recorded in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
Moving away from the gospels, we find that the believers at Corinth were settling disputes among themselves by going to court before non-believers, a practice that brought on this response from the apostle Paul:
Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? – 1 Corinthians 6:1-2, NASB
In saying this, Paul uses the same root word Jesus used when he said, “Don’t judge.”
Immediately prior to making the statement above, Paul spoke very strongly against a situation in the Corinthian church wherein a man was sexually involved with his step-mother. Rather than respond with shock and grief at this gross immorality, the church in Corinth was rather proud of their progressive style.2
Though Paul was not there in person, he said he had already judged the man, and eventually told the Corinthian believers to send this man from their fellowship like old yeast, noting that a little bit of leaven spreads through the entire lump of dough.3
Before giving that instruction, however, Paul said something that merits careful consideration.
I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. – 1 Corinthians 5:5, NASB
There is nothing haughty in what Paul has done, or what he is instructing the church at Corinth to do. In fact, I am certain that it pained him deeply. Everything being done with regard to the man’s sexual involvement with his step-mother, is being done in an effort to shake the man to his senses, and save his eternal soul.
Removing the Speck
Four verses after saying, “Don’t judge,” Jesus spoke of the absurdity involved in trying to remove a speck of dust from the eye of a brother when we have a floor joist hanging out of our 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. – Matthew 7:5, NASB
In saying this, Jesus has established that there is a point at which we assist a brother or sister in Christ with extricating undesirable elements from their lives, but that point is reached only after we have cleaned our own house.
In John’s gospel, as Jesus was teaching people in the Temple, the scribes and Pharisees confronted him with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Having put the woman on display in the center of the courtyard, they looked to Jesus for some feedback on how to dispense with her, saying . . .
Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say? – John 8:4b-5, NASB
The intent of the scribes and Pharisees is known, because John tells us they were setting a trap for Jesus by asking this question. The quandary in which they attempted to snare Jesus involves the differing views of this crime in Roman law, which did not punish adultery, and the Law of Moses which sentenced adulterers to death (both the man and the woman).4
If Jesus aligns himself with the Roman law he will lose his popularity with the people, because the people hated the Roman occupation. If he aligns himself with the Law of Moses, the accusers will take their case to the Roman authorities, saying, “This man is instructing us to violate your laws.” It is very similar to the trap that was set by asking Jesus whether or not it was right to pay tribute-money to Caesar.5
Jesus’ familiar response:
He who is sinless among you, let him throw the first stone. – John 8:7, my paraphrase
Notice that Jesus does not commute the sentence in this response. He allows that a stoning can occur. What Jesus has done is to prescribe whom it is that is to carry out the sentence, and he has presumed that no one’s conscience will allow them to affirm this execution.
In capital cases, such as this case of adultery, the Law required that the witnesses cast the first stones.6 Jesus has modified this such that those who cast the first stones are those who are declaring themselves as pure and innocent before the Law, sinless.
When all had dropped their stones and walked away, Jesus had this interaction with the woman:
Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” – John 8:10-11, NASB
It is worth noting that while not condoning the sin, neither did Jesus condemn the woman. “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”7 Again, the endgame is always the salvation of the soul.
I once read the story of a convicted thief, named Moses, who attended the trial of another man about to be judged and sentenced. Moses came to the trial carrying a basket full of sand, but the basket, being porous, could not contain the sand. He asked the ruling council, “How should I judge my brother when my sins run out behind me like the sand in this basket?”8 Which of us could possibly hold onto a stone when, like Moses, our sins run out behind us like the sand from his basket?
There is something inherent to condemning sin in the lives of others that says, I am superior to you in this matter, and in that superiority, I am competent to pass this judgement or condemnation regarding you. The reality is that the constant flow of God’s grace into my life makes it terribly inappropriate and uncomfortable for me to judge others.
I once had a bizarre discussion with a brother in Christ who practiced judging lust and pornography in the lives of others as a means/brand of repentance for that same sin in his own life. If I condemn the use of pornography in Chuck’s life, then that is a demonstration that I know it is wrong for me too. It is convoluted logic, but it is logic that is common for many, and it results in a self-deceiving hypocrisy.
Guidelines for Speck Removal
When I have removed the log from my own eye and set my hands to removing the speck from another’s eye, there are some guiding principles that must come into play as I do so.
- Submission – “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”9 The only reason for me to identify sin in your life, much less to offer to help you with it, is because I am submitted to you in love. Assisting a brother or sister in Christ with overcoming sin is something that is to be done with complete humility.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2, NIV-1978
- Protection – “…you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”10 “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.”11 The purpose of identifying sin in the life of another Christ-follower is always a protective move in two directions:
- It is a protective move for them, to restore them with gentleness.
- It is a protective move for the body, because unrepented and unconfronted sin will spread like a wildfire in dry grass.
- Self-Examination – “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.”12 Judgment has to begin with a look in the mirror. Notice that the guy with the beam in his eye has convinced himself that he is seeing clearly, certainly clearly enough to remove the dust from his brother’s eye. Jesus does indicate that we want the speck removed from the brother’s eye. It is not the removal of the speck that is the problem, but rather the fact that I don’t see the beam in my own eye.
- Purpose – “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”13 If God in the flesh does not see it as his purpose to condemn the world, but rather to save it, then my purpose as a Christ follower has to be the same.
- Impugning Motive – “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?”14 “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’”15
Matthew Henry said:We must not judge the hearts of others, nor their intentions, for it is God’s prerogative to try the heart, and we must not step into his throne; nor must we judge of their eternal state, nor call them hypocrites, reprobates, and castaways; that is stretching beyond our line; what have we to do, thus to judge another man’s servant? Counsel him, and help him, but do not judge him.16
- Grace as Default – Default to the position of extending grace. There is a world of difference between looking at a situation and saying, “I don’t like that,” and looking at that same situation and saying, “This is an affront to God.” Far too often the latter is said in response to something better suited to the former.
Some pious believers do not approve of the struggles through which many believers go, or of the survival techniques those believers employ to endure their trying circumstances. Rather than judge their coping mechanisms, we can applaud their love for Jesus, and their devotion that keeps them in the fight. We can come alongside them in love to help them conquer their challenges.
Revisiting Jesus’ Command
Sometimes the most subtle differences can result in an impactful difference in how we hear or understand a statement from Jesus. Consider the differences in understanding between saying:
“Don’t judge or you will be judged,”
“Don’t judge so that you will not be judged.”
The difference is subtle, but the meanings are distinct. One comes off as a threat (Don’t do X or you will be in big trouble.), whereas the other is more of a preventative, cause and effect instruction (If you do X, you can be certain that Y will happen also.).
The term in question is ἵνα (hina), usually translated something along the lines of “so that,” denoting purpose, or a desired result or outcome. Translating this as “or you will be judged” is more interpretive than translational, though not entirely out of the question.
The next challenge arises in the logical leap many make in determining who it is that will be judging in the “or you will be judged.” Many commentators and students of the Word fall immediately into the idea that it is God who will judge me, and that he will do so in the same way I judge others. That can be a fun and frightening discussion for another time and place, but I do not believe that is what Jesus is saying here. I am convinced that Jesus is speaking about the way in which I treat others naturally becoming the standard for their treatment of me.
Imagine, if you can, someone becoming angry with Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.17 Fred Rogers was the perfect picture of kindness, gentleness, and soft-spoken demeanor. It is difficult to imagine him ever becoming incensed toward anyone for any reason, and equally difficult to imagine someone becoming so angry with Fred Rogers that they stood toe-to-toe with him, shouting at him in red-faced anger.
Conversely, such a scenario is not at all difficult to imagine with a personality like actor, Alec Baldwin. Mister Baldwin appears to relish the shouted exchange of insults, and the measure he uses is measured back to him, even as he faces a tragic cirsumstance like taking the lives of people on a movie set.
This understanding of Jesus’ teaching seems to be in alignment with what he said just ten verses later, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”18 If you want to judge, then judge – but do so with the knowledge and expectation that others will judge you in a similar fashion.
For people shrink from contact with those who systematically deal out harsh judgment upon others—naturally concluding that they themselves may be the next victims—and feel impelled in self-defense, when exposed to it, to roll back upon the assailant his own censures.19
1. John 7;24, NASB
2. 1st Corinthians 5:2
3. 1st Corinthians 5:6-7, Galatians 5:9
4. Leviticus 20;10
5. Mark 12:14
6. Deuteronomy 17:7
7. John 3:17, NASB
8. Ward, B., (1975). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (p. xxv). London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications.
9. Ephesians 5:21, NIV-1978
10. Galatians 6:1b, NIV – 1978
11. Galatians 5:9, NASB
12. 1 Corinthians 11:31, NIV-1978
13. John 3:17, NIV-1978
14. 1 Corinthians 2:11a, NASB
15. 1 Samuel 16:7, NASB
16. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1643). Peabody: Hendrickson.
17. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a popular, half-hour children’s program that ran on public television for just under four decades, beginning in 1963. The program was conceived and hosted by Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers, when he first saw a television set in his parents’ home and was displeased with the way the medium related to children.
18. Matthew 7:12, NASB
19. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 29). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.