CHALLENGE: “Christians shouldn’t criticize others’ lifestyles or actions. Didn’t Jesus say not to judge?”
DEFENSE: Jesus didn’t tell us that we should close our eyes to moral evil in the world.
The exhortation not to judge is found in Jesus’ major ethical discourse (Matt. 5:1–7:29, Luke 6:17–49). The point of the discourse is to give moral instruction. In it, Jesus discusses what conduct counts as good and bad, and he expects his followers to acknowledge the difference.
Not only does he expect them to distinguish between good and evil in their own behavior, he also expects them to do so with others’ conduct, telling them, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20). Thus, whatever Jesus meant, it was not that we should pretend that nobody does evil.
What he did mean is not difficult to discern if we read the statement itself: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1–2); “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).
Jesus is saying we should take a generous, forgiving attitude with others so God will take a generous, forgiving attitude with us. We should treat others as we want to be treated. This is a prominent theme in his teaching (cf. Matt. 5:43–48, 6:12–15, 7:12, 18:21–35).
Although we are to be forgiving and merciful to others, this does not mean ignoring, much less approving, immoral behavior. Neither does it mean we should not try to help others. Admonishing the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy. Scripture elsewhere says: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” ( James 5:20).
Often the exhortation not to judge is used as a conversation stopper to shut down discussions of immoral behavior. Sometimes it carries the insinuation that the one “judging” is doing something morally wrong. When this is the case, the person making the accusation is himself judging, and thus risks being a hypocrite (cf. Matt. 7:3–5)