Do not “judge,” except for when you should

photodune-4489651-judges-wooden-gavel-xsMatthew 7:1-2 “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.

If there is one word that needs greater clarity and nuance in our day it is the word “judge.” In our cultural context and in our churches there is a great deal of concern about “judging.” You shouldn’t judge. Who are you to judge? There is a lot of heft to these words. Included in questions like these are certain assumptions about the judger: she is self-righteousness, hypocritical, even bigoted perhaps. Jesus is often drug along into discussions of judging: Jesus said, “Don’t judge!” That’s in red letters!

I’m no champion of hypocrisy, nor of self-righteousness (nor of bigotry). If there is one thing I know about myself, it is that I’m no prize. I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace. I’m guilty of great (in the sense of large) sin. I offer this preamble of self-humiliation because I’m sure that my discussion of judgment will be judged by some as being judgmental (I judge this to be a tad ironic!). But we simply must bring greater clarity to such emotion-laden words as “judge.” We need to define what in the world we are talking about, what these words mean. Doing so can bring nothing but greater lucidity and civility to our discourse.

I would like to look at “judging” in the New Testament; we will do this through a study of the relevant Greek word group. That sounds boring, but there is big pay-off here. Judging is not nearly as simple as folks assume.

The Greek verb most often translated “judge” would be transliterated as kríno.  You’d pronounce it just like it looks.   Kríno is a word with a very broad range of meaning. It means “judge” in the sense of rendering a legal decision, but it means a great deal else as well. It includes the ideas of deciding, preferring, evaluating, holding a view, condemning, and ruling. That is a very broad range of meaning! (The technical term for a range of meaning is semantic domain). Kríno’s semantic domain includes a whole bunch of different kinds of things: some of these carry a negative connotation to most people (such as condemning), while others carry a much more positive or neutral connotation (such as preferring).

Kríno is an important verb in the New Testament, but as important for our conversation are three related Greek verbs. These verbs are like sisters of kríno, differing in form only by the addition of a prefix. These are diakríno, anakríno, and katakríno. All occur throughout the NT, sometimes in conjuction with kríno. They relate closely to the root term (kríno), but each carries its own, more narrow, semantic domain.

diakríno – Like kríno this means to “judge,” but specifically in the sense of making a distinction, noting a difference. In short, this verb means to distinguish.

anakríno – Again, this verb means to “judge,” but more specifically carries the nuance of engaging in careful study, questioning, examining, discerning. In short, this verb means to evaluate.

katakríno – Like kríno, katakríno means to “judge,” but here the force is consistently negative. It carries the nuance of pronouncing sentence after determination of guilt, of condemning, or damning. In short, the verb means to condemn.

We opened this post with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-2. The context is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), a sermon which focuses largely on the condemnation of self-righteousness and hypocrisy (one of the most prominent marks of Jesus’ opponents among the Jewish religious leaders).

Jesus says, “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.”  Which verb is here employed? It is kríno. What is the force of kríno here, however? Is it referring to judging in the sense of making distinctions (a la diakríno)? Is he talking about judging in the sense of making moral evaluations (as in the sense of anakríno)? Or, is he talking about judging in the negative sense of condemning (as in the sense of katakríno)?

This is not a hard question to answer. Jesus means judge in the sense of condemn or pronounce judgment upon (like katakríno). How can we know this? The same way we always make sense out of the manifold possibilities for any word’s meaning. We know from context. And what is the context of these words? Well, consider the words immediately following:

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? 4 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? 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.

What is Jesus talking about here? The sin of hypocrisy. The inability to recognize one’s own sin (while clearly seeing the sins of others!). What should we do? Recognize our own sin and repent of it (take the log out!) – this requires that we “judge” ourselves (in the sense of anakríno). Note too that “you will then see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The problem isn’t noticing the speck in your brother’s eye; it is failing to notice the log in your own. You are to help your brother out with his speck (sin!), but after first dealing with your own. The “judging” Jesus is addressing is condemning. It is self-righteous, hypocritical judgment, not all judgment. Otherwise, Jesus is contradicting himself (he’s not). He goes on:

6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Jesus says not to throw our pearls before pigs. This raises an important question – how am I supposed to know who the pigs are? Does this not require me to exercise some measure of discernment? That is, must I not judge the spiritual condition of those around me (in the sense of diakríno)? Of course it does. Unless Jesus is contradicting himself (he’s not). He goes on:

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

I’m to watch out for false prophets. How will I spot one? By his fruit! Good fruit indicates a good tree; bad fruit indicates a bad tree. How do I determine good fruit from bad (and therefore a good teacher from a bad one)? I discern (or judge) the fruit (in the sense of anakríno or diakríno, take your pick). Jesus wants me to judge, unless he’s contradicting himself (he’s not!).

When Jesus talks about judging in Matthew 7:1-2, he clearly means it in the sense of “offering self-righteous and hypocritical condemnation.” This is consistent with what we see so often in the New Testament witness:

Luke 6:37  37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Romans 2:1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 14:10  10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

James 4:11-12  11 Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor?

Clearly, self-righteous, hypocritical condemnation is viewed as a serious sin. But…not all judgment is bad! In fact, we are often expected and even commanded to judge. In Luke 12, Jesus rebukes the crowd for hypocrisy because they fail to judge! Here judging (kríno) clearly has the sense of discerning (diakríno).

Luke 12:54-57  54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? 57 “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?

In this sense, it is absolutely wrong not to judge. There are a great many other New Testament texts that command us to judge as well (1 Cor 5:11-13; 6:1-6; 10:15; 11:13; John 7:24, to name a few).

The path to this point may seem a long and winding one, but we’re ready to apply. When the Bible (and Jesus in particular) talks about the sin of “judging,” there is a very particular kind of judging in view. We see that:

  • Judging” is NOT moral evaluation of oneself. We are commanded to do this.
  • Judging” is NOT moral evaluation of the actions of others. It is expected we will see and recognize sin (as defined by scripture) in others as well as in ourselves. We are commanded to do this.
  • Judging” is NOT evaluation of the spiritual condition of those around us. We are explicitly commanded to do this (pearls and pigs – recognizing our inherent limitations here and leaving final evaluation to God, who alone is the Judge).
  • Judging” is NOT recognizing error and false teaching. We are commanded to evaluate and discern the teaching we receive (trees and fruit).

In contrast we see that:

  • Judging” is an attitude of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
  • Judging” is condemnatory; It is not primarily concerned with evaluating the truth, or discerning rightly.
  • Judging” usurps the role of God, who alone is the Judge in the sense of pronouncing judgment.

The conversation goes off the rails in our day because the cultural definition of “judging” assumes the meaning denied in points 1-4. Instead, “judging” is points 5-7. There is plenty of potential application in our day to the sin of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. We should apply accordingly. However, there is also plenty of mis-application in our day. Discerning moral error is not “judging.” Recognizing sin is not “judging.” Affirming the exclusive truth of the gospel is not “judging.” Affirming salvation through Christ alone is not “judging.”

Let’s understand “judging” rightly (that is, biblically) and not judge or judge accordingly.