i’m totally judging you for using that verse wrong

I’ve never been on Christian Mingle. I can’t imagine a scenario where I ever will be on Christian Mingle. But I like to imagine that one of the questions that they ask as you are filling out your profile is “What is your life verse?” It might be trouble to match up an Ephesians 5:22 with a Galatians 3:28.

The concept of a “Life Verse” is kind of silly in my opinion. But that’s probably just because my life verse is Ecclesiastes 1:2. I suppose having a life verse isn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, what would Bible college students tattoo on their forearms without life verses? Who am I to judge?

Which leads me to my point. If there was a single life verse that best captured the mood of contemporary life, it would probably be “Do not judged, or you too will be judged.” This is the John 3:16 of our current cultural moment. Unlike John 3:16, of which many know the reference if not the content, we all know the content of this verse if not the reference. It’s Matthew 7:1 by the way.

Matthew 7:1 might be the most commonly referenced and egregiously misused verses in the entire New Testament. It’s entering into the rarefied air of Philippians 4:13.

Many people wield this verse as a protection against judgment from those who, for whatever reason, might disagree with them. “Being judgmental” has become the eighth, and deadliest, deadly sin in contemporary life. I’ll call this the “strong prohibition” understanding. Jesus is saying here that we should never judge anyone. And if you do judge someone, then it is you who will be judged.

There are several reasons why the strong prohibition just doesn’t make any sense.

It is incoherent

The person who says “It is always wrong to judge” faces an awkward dilemma when someone actually judges. His interpretation requires that he judge the person for judging, but then he falls under the judgment of his own prohibition of judgment.

It is practically impossible (and actually kind of monstrous)

Towards the end of Philippians Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” One wonders how we can ever really think qualitatively without passing judgments. How can a person think about what is pure unless there has been a judgment concerning what is impure? How can a person reflect on the good without a recognition of the bad?

The truth is that we cannot go through life without passing judgments. It is impossible to avoid judgment, and to even try is unwise and even monstrous. Imagine a world where everyone literally lived by the strong prohibition. We would lose all capacity to call anything evil or broken or to celebrate and commend what is upright and virtuous. Then again, we seem to be tilting in this direction.

It is hypocritical

Because the strong prohibition is impossible to abide by, it becomes only selectively enforced. It is enforced only when I want to justify myself. And selectively enforcing moral standards for self-justification comes close to the exact definition of hypocrisy.

Jesus gave a lot of instructions – many of them are found in the immediate context of Matthew 7.  He talked of avoiding lust and anger. He talked of loving enemies and turning cheeks. He talked of the sanctity of sex and marriage. He talked of prayer and giving to the poor. At the risk of sounding too cynical, I can’t help but wonder at the intensity of our obedience to “Do not judge” while remaining casually indifferent to much of the rest that is in this Sermon.

It is unbiblical

This leads me to the last point. The strong prohibition interpretation is unbiblical. The Bible itself calls us to make godly judgments – to call sin and righteousness by their proper names. If taken to the extreme, Christian things like repentance, confession, and accountability become, bizarrely, unchristian. And the gospel comes to look more like an episode of Barney the Dinosaur than the very words of life.

I’ll save you the trip through the entire New Testament to prove my point. Just look at the immediate context of Matthew 7:1. In verse 6, Jesus admonishes us to not give dogs what is sacred or pearls to pigs. There are perhaps multiple ways of understanding this verse, but the one thing that seems perfectly clear is that Jesus is assuming that his followers will be discerning and even judgmental. Later in the same chapter, Jesus tells us to keep watch for false prophets. We can identify them by their fruit. Judgment. In chapter 6, Jesus talks about prayer, giving, and fasting and tells his followers to avoid doing these things in the way that hypocrites do. This would seem to necessitate some discernment and even judgment on our part. I could go on, but the point is clear. The strong prohibition interpretation just isn’t biblical.

So what does it mean?

If the strong prohibition interpretation doesn’t work, how should we understand this command. It is most definitely an important and difficult teaching from Jesus (like most of the Sermon) that we would be foolish to just ignore or explain away. The Greek word for “judge” has degrees of meaning depending on the context. In some contexts, it has the meaning of discernment. In other contexts, it has a more judicial understanding – along the lines of “final condemnation.” Given the context of the verse, it seems that the second meaning is more appropriate. This isn’t a prohibition against making wise judgments or being discerning about right and wrong, good and bad. This is a prohibition of judgment without grace; condemnation without self-awareness or reflection. This is supported by the immediate context where Jesus tells his followers to address the plank in their eyes so that they can see clearly to remove the speck in their brother’s eye. It isn’t a strong prohibition against passing any judgments. In line with the rest of the Sermon, it is a prohibition against the hypocrisy of those who would appear one way to the public without addressing the brokenness of their own hearts. It is a prohibition against judgment without repentance, which is a message that we all most certainly need to hear.

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