Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, that you may not be judged.” From this statement one might conclude that judging is prohibited, but in the next verse the context helps us understand that the passage is not a prohibition. Rather it is a warning: “For in the way that you measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).
Luke 6:36-37 records a similar statement by Jesus: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not judge and you will not be judged, and do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Set free and you will be set free.”
The starting point here is following the Father’s example of mercy, and a sound standard of judgment. A few verses later, Jesus reminds His listeners to beware of the log that is in their own eye rather than trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye.
Jesus’ comments here are given in the context of the kingdom of the heavens being offered to Israel. In that offer Jesus explains that entrance into the kingdom is not based on external behavior, but rather an internal righteousness that only can be found by trusting in Him—that is what the sermon on the mount was all about. While the comments are broadly applicable, we do need to remember His audience and His purpose in communicating with that audience.
Later Paul helps us understand, in a context directly related to the church, believers’ appropriate use of judging. In 1 Corinthians (2:14-3:3), Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for walking as fleshly rather than as spiritual men, and expressing that in specific immoralities and wrong response to those immoralities. Paul goes so far as to specifically say that he has judged the one engaging in such immorality (5:3).
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (ESV, 1 Cor. 2:14–3:3)
Clearly Paul did not take Jesus’ words as a complete prohibition of any kind of judgment. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 provide a clear paradigm for believers to follow:
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:12–13)
Paul wants the Corinthians not to associate with those who call themselves believers but then engage in immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, swindling, etc. (1 Cor. 5:11). It is clear that believers are to judge the actions of other believers, and this judgment is to effect whether or not fellowship is appropriate.
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor. 5:11)
Importantly, Paul does not tell believers to judge whether or not these people are actual believers. In other words, the judgment is regarding actions—practice, and not position. Consequently, we need to be very careful not to judge whether someone is actually a believer or not—only God can make that judgment.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb. 4:12–13)
Actions, on the other hand, are plain to see and generally easily discerned.
Further, Paul explains that believers are to judge the actions of those in the church, and do not have jurisdiction to judge those outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12-13). God handles that.
So the answer is simple. Are Christians to judge others? Yes. Christians are supposed to hold each other accountable for our actions, but it is not our job to (1) make judgments regarding someone else’s position (whether they are actually a believer or not) if they are claiming to be a brother or sister in Christ, nor are we to (2) judge those outside the church.
Even though in the future believers will participate in judging the world (1 Cor 6:2), it is not part of the program now. Finally, it is important to realize that even in appropriately judging others, our intention should always be for their restoration and spiritual wellbeing.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)
We can’t restore others if we are not making accurate assessments regarding whether they are walking appropriately. We are to hold one another accountable, and to do so in such a way that reflects our Father’s mercy.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.