"So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”" - John 8:7 NKJV
Christians are commanded to do many things, many of which we don’t do. One of these bajillion commandments is spoken by Jesus in the book of Matthew, “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” (v. 1-2 NIV). Yet, many people believe that Christians are among the most judgmental people in the world. Even Christians think this of other Christians.
I think this command is funny, because everyone makes judgments all the time. Barbara Markway, Ph. D, says that we are hardwired for judgment because we need it to survive. I like this story that psychologist Tara Brach tells about how judgment is crucial to survival: “Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. It looks cute and friendly. You approach and move to pet the dog. Suddenly it snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you feel fear and possibly anger. Then, as the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and is suffering.”
Our judgments about other people happen immediately and come from gut feelings, which are usually right. In Nicholas Rule’s article, “Snap-Judgment Science: Intuitive Decisions About Other People,” he says, “Before we can finish blinking our eyes, we’ve already decided whether we want to hire, date, hate, or make friends with a person we’re encountering for the first time.” Studies show that we can often determine qualities about a person within the first few seconds of meeting them. We can figure out whether someone is extraverted or introverted, confident, shy, arrogant, friendly, mean, intelligent, snobby, etc, even before they speak.
Making judgments about others is important for our survival and social interactions. We pick leaders, friends, and partners based on our judgment and assessment of them. So then, why does Jesus say to not judge others, and what does he actually mean? Gregg Henriques, Ph. D, had an enlightening point in his article, “On Making Judgments and Being Judgmental.” He says that Carl Rogers, who was very influential to the way psychologists treat patients today, believed that people have a tendency to grow in a positive way, but that positive growth would be stopped if others were judgmental toward them. He believed that therapists had to have a “nonjudgmental, positive regard for their clients,” which he described, “It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of "I like you only if you are thus and so."” When you don’t judge another person, it means that you are accepting them as they are.
Henriques goes on to describe the difference between making judgements about someone as opposed to being judgmental. He says, “It is when we make judgments in ways that have harmful or negative consequences that we are being judgmental...” It’s when our judgments hurt someone else and keep them from growing positively. Of course, this is the kind of judgement that Jesus is referring to in the book of Matthew. We all do it and it’s been done to us all. It’s one of those sins no one is exempt from. So then, why is it that Christians in particular are seen as more judgmental than non-Christians? I’m not saying this is true, but it is a commonly held belief by a lot of people.
As a Christian, and someone who has friends and family who are not Christian, one of the top reasons I hear for why they don’t want to be Christian is because they don’t like being told they are sinners who are going to hell unless they turn to Jesus. I mean, c’mon, there are probably very few people in this world who would be converted by that phrase. They don’t like feeling guilty or bad just because someone is telling them to feel bad about it. They don’t like feeling judged because they don’t believe what Christians believe. Not every Christian does this, but for those who do, it makes others feel inferior and want to be as far away from Jesus, God, and religion as possible.
For the non-Christians out there, this is called evangelizing – talking to others about Jesus with the hope and intention of leading them to Christ. Christians are called to do this because of verses like:
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15 NIV)
For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:47 NIV)
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. (Psalm 105:1 NIV)
So, whenever Christians talk about the Gospel and Jesus, they are doing what they believe is their duty as Christ followers. The problem with the way some people do this is that they focus more on someone else’s sin rather than the love of Christ.
The thing is, even though Christians aren’t supposed to be judgmental, that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to turn a blind eye to when other Christians are being destructive either to themselves or others. We are called to help our “brothers and sisters” when they seem to stray. Jesus says so in Matthew 18:15-17, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
There are a few things I want to point out with these verses. The first is that it is only directed to believers. All non-believers are exempt from this process, which means that if someone who is not a Christian sins, it is not a Christian’s duty to point it out. In fact, 1 Corinthians says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (5:12 NIV). Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, explains that we shouldn’t judge non-believers, what they do or the way they live. They live by their own morals and values, which may or may not be different from Christianity.
However, we are supposed to “judge” other Christians. It’s interesting that Paul tells us to judge, when Jesus tells us not to. I’m going to refer back to Henriques for this one, who believes we can judge without being judgmental. I think Paul is asking us to critically examine the actions of others and whether those actions are good or bad. I think Jesus is saying that whether those actions are good or bad, we shouldn’t believe that we are ever better than others in any way. Jesus wants us to help each other stay on a good path, which is what anyone would do for someone they cared for. He wants us to point out when another Christian is doing something that is hurting their soul or others.
This is where things get tricky for Christians. How do you tell someone what they’re doing is bad without seeming superior to them? Jesus has an answer, “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 7:3-5 NIV). He is saying that whenever you notice something bad that someone else is doing, the very first thing you should do is examine yourself. Our first response should never be to immediately point out someone else’s flaws. First, look at yourself, and ask if you ever do the same thing, and why you do it. First, judge yourself. When you understand why you do it, then you can approach someone else with more caring and understanding for why they do it.
Of course, this is not the process that most people ever take, whether Christian or not. As Rule pointed out, it is very natural for us to make judgments all the time without giving them a second thought. However, Christians are called to go beyond their human nature. They are supposed to act and think with loving hearts. It’s not something anyone is capable of doing 100% of the time.
Also, it’s not easy to understand someone else’s actions when they do something you’ve never done or think you would never do yourself. Since I was about thirteen or a little younger, whenever someone has done something that I don’t understand, I’ve asked God to help me understand. I was a very judgmental person, but I didn’t want to be, because I saw how my judgments hurt those closest to me. I’ve also always been a very curious person, and I want to understand people completely. God has had a funny way of helping me understand things I don’t, usually by putting me in situations where I’m forced to learn more about another person, or about what I would do in the same situation.
Of all the things God has helped me understand, I have never understood cheating. It’s actually one of my worst fears to be cheated on, but it’s never happened to me as far as I know. Conceptually, I get why people do it. We like the unknown, and people we can’t have intrigue us, yet we also crave stability and comfort, which is why, I’m assuming, cheaters stay in their current relationships. Yet, I cannot understand why someone would ever cheat on the person they love. I just don’t see how they can claim to love that person. So, I judge cheaters, because I can’t understand them or see their point of view. I think less of them and would prefer to never associate myself with one, even in friendship. I know I’m supposed to examine myself, but I can’t imagine I would cheat on anyone, because I see myself as a very faithful and loyal person, especially to those I love.
It is very easy to judge, and very hard not to, which is why Jesus has to not only tell us not to do it, but to also be an example of what it looks like to not be judgmental. Early in Jesus’ ministry, he called Matthew (otherwise known as Levi) to follow him. Matthew was a tax collector, who were widely hated by Jews. According to the Oxford Companion to the Bible, tax collectors had a reputation for illegally collecting more than what was owed and keeping it for themselves. They were even permitted by the governor to use violence when necessary. Those despised the most were the Jews who became tax collectors, because, “Native collectors of taxes were now seen as collaborators with the oppressor, using his backing for their illegal profits” (pg. 632) This was the type of person Jesus had asked to become his disciple, and Matthew left his profession and accepted the call.
The book of Matthew and book of Mark both have accounts of this calling, and afterward, Jesus went to Matthew’s house to have dinner, where it is said, “many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15 NIV). Jesus surrounded himself with people that other “righteous” Jews wouldn’t want to associate themselves with. Jesus accepts all sorts of sinners, including greedy tax collectors, as well as prostitutes, who have in nearly every century and region been viewed as the “lowest class in moral terms” (Offord pg. 624).
Even though Jesus accepts all types of sinners, outcasts, and hated people, there are a group of people who he judges hardcore – Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law. Chapter 23 in the book of Matthew is almost entirely dedicated to criticizing these people. Jesus calls them hypocrites, and says everything they do is just for show. He even goes as far to call say, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (v. 33 NIV). Why is it that Jesus judges these religious leaders and not other types of sinners?
Some background. Pharisees were a strict group of religious Jews who “sought holiness by the avoidance of what was unclean" (Oxford pg. 588). They were seen as legalistic and “advocated obedience to the most minute portions of the Jewish law and traditions” (Life pg. 1609). They despised Jesus because he didn’t follow all of their traditions and associated with “unclean” people. The Sadducees were wealthy upper class Jewish priests. They were “were concerned principally to uphold the temple and its sacrifices: for them it was the proper observance of Temple ritual that maintained the covenant relationship between Israel and God” (Oxford pg. 1609). They cared deeply for the sanctity of the Temple, yet also saw it as a place of business, which angered Jesus greatly. Teachers of the law were commonly Pharisees. They emphasized the traditions a lot.
Before I explain why Jesus judged the religious leaders, yet not tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, I want to point out something a friend said to me. She pointed out that people tend to think Jesus was not judgmental and just lovingly accepted everyone. This isn’t true. She said Jesus judges all the time and it’s his job to do so. She helped me see why Jesus condemns some and not others.
The first distinction between the so-called self-righteous religious people and the sinners is that one group followed Jesus and the other didn’t. In Matthew 12:30, Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not father with me scatters.” The Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law were against Jesus. They wanted him silenced, arrested, and killed. Yet many others found mercy in Jesus, and they sought his help and guidance.
Another distinction is that the religious leaders fell into the most dangerous trap any religious person can fall into – they didn’t think they needed saving. The same friend who pointed out to me that Jesus judges, also likes to tell me often that a Christian should never think of themselves as “good.” Though, I don’t fully agree, I see where she’s coming from. Once you think you have it all together, are a completely wonderful person, and aren’t capable of doing anything wrong, then you’re in a dangerous spot because you don’t think you need Jesus. You think you can take on the world on your own and live your life how you want as long you follow the rules. It's also easy to think you're better than others, because you don't do what they do. Broken people are the ones who most easily recognize their need for Jesus, whereas a self-righteous person has a much harder time.
The most important reason Jesus condemns the religious leaders, yet helps the “wicked” is because he judges something we cannot. He judges our hearts. Jesus tells us to not judge others, yet he is allowed to judge everyone. It’s because when we see someone doing something bad, that’s all we see. When Jesus sees someone doing something bad, he sees the intent and reason behind it, as well as their heart. The same is true for when someone is doing something good. I think we can learn to see why people do bad things, but how can we ever truly know someone else’s heart? Especially those we don’t know well or at all.
We are called to make right judgments, yet not be judgmental. Jesus says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24 NIV). Many Christians don’t understand this fine line; many non-Christians as well. How are you supposed to confront someone who is doing something bad without seeming judgmental? Henriques has a pretty long answer for that, “someone is being judgmental when their judgments are power-driven, unempathetic, based on their own idiosyncratic values or tastes, overly based on other people’s character, and are closed, shallow, and pessimistic, and ultimately have the consequence of making the other person feel problematically diminished.” The mark of a judgmental person is when your words push others away from you or Christ.
While Christians are evangelizing, or simply just trying to be a good friend, the way Jesus treats sinners is a good example to look to. He befriends them. He listens to them. He doesn’t condemn them (except the hypocritical religious leaders). He doesn’t condone their behavior, but instead tells them to sin no more. Most importantly, his words and actions don’t push them further away from him, they bring them closer. Above all, he is compassionate and forgiving, two qualities we could all learn to do a little more.
Life Application Study Bible NIV
The Oxford Companion to the Bible edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan