What ​'Judge Not' Really Means

(Photo: Shane Idleman)

News reports are featuring famous athletes, actors, and pop-stars being asked about abortion and gay-marriage. Often, they criticize Christians: "Doesn't the Bible say 'judge not'; who are you to tell people what they can, and cannot do?"

Unfortunately, misrepresentation of this Scripture is common among the media and other groups who often misquote Jesus' words from Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged." Ironically, few reference another scripture that also deals with judging, John 7:24. Here Jesus encourages His followers to "judge with righteous judgment."

At first, these two scriptures may seem contradictory, but when we look at the context and the true meaning of "judge," we clearly see that there is no contradiction. This misrepresentation of "judging" is an attempt to conform scripture to support opinions, when, in fact, moral values are designed to conform to scriptural truths. Personal opinions vary — truth does not.

We tend to pick and choose certain Scriptures as if they were choices on a menu. But we can't choose those we like and discard the rest. I liken it to someone skimming through the pages of my first book, What Works When "Diets" Don't, and reading: "Eat whatever foods you choose." In its entirety, it actually reads, "If you follow these guidelines, stay within these ranges, and avoid these foods, you can eat whatever foods you choose." Reading and following fragments of information can be misleading. If we apply only what we choose, we can easily miss what we need.

Judging within the context of Matthew 7:1 refers to the type of judgment that a judge would render in a court of law, such as in Romans 14:4, "Who are you to judge another's servant?" A judge hears the evidence and pronounces a judgment. We are in no position to do this — we don't have all the facts. God tells us to leave justice to Him because He is the judge.

In John 7:24, however, Christians are to judge or "call into question" those things that clearly contradict God's principles. In 1 Corinthians 2:15, the apostle Paul said that those who are spiritual should judge and discern all things.

The famous reformer, John Calvin, commenting on this topic, said, "These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease — criticism."

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state."

Serving as the conscience of the people has been one of the primary functions of the church since its conception. Scripturally, we are commanded to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and error, light and darkness.

We are to judge according to the truth, especially pastors. To truly help people, we must preach the difficult truths as well as the joyful ones; preach the cross and the new life; preach hell and preach heaven; preach damnation and preach salvation; preach sin and preach grace; preach wrath and preach love; preach judgment and preach mercy; preach obedience and preach forgiveness; preach that God "is love," but don't forget that God is just. It is the love of God that compels us to share all of His truth.

Regarding moral issues that destroy lives and dishonor God, we are to judge ("call into question") behaviors, choices, and lifestyles that lead people in a dangerous direction, especially if these issues are to become social policy and legally sanctioned.

On another note, within the church itself we are to judge, but this is often misunderstood, and we can easily become "wrongfully" judgmental ... failure to recognize diverse gifts may explain why.

For instance, many Christians have different ministries, but all fall under the umbrella of Christian service. Within each of us, God creates varying desires, talents, and levels of interests. If God has called a man to preach His Word, that will be his passion. If God has called a Christian to pursue politics, that will be his or her passion. God established the concept of government; therefore, He desires godly leaders who govern according to His standards. If God has called a Christian to concentrate primarily on feeding the poor, that will be his or her passion. If God has called a Christian to the mission field in Africa, that will be his or her passion, and so on.

Problems arise when we fail to respect different gifts. For example, those who believe that Christians should not mention controversial topics contradict the most basic of principles. From time to time, God clearly calls us to do just that — to confront, rebuke, and challenge. I encourage you to read Jesus' words to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, to the religious leaders of His day, and to the cities that did not repent.

Those who have been called to preach, much like the prophets of old, will confront compromise, condemn social digression, and powerfully denounce sin in the hope of reconciling man to God — they speak the truth in love. However, a spirit of compassion and understanding should move us, not judgmentalism. It's often not what we say but how we say it that tilts the scale.

Admittedly, I've failed in this area because I did not exercise grace at opportune times. We should not excuse sin in exchange for tolerance — extending grace does not mean approving of sinful behavior, but it does mean extending compassion.​

Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. Shane's sermons, articles, books, and radio program can all be found at shaneidleman.com or wcfav.org. Follow him on Facebook at: facebook.com/confusedchurch.