A few weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Channing Crisler posted some very helpful comments concerning the (in)appropriateness of judging and judgments. Coming from a different angle I’d like to diagnose a different problem endemic to the spirit of our age.
The precise wording differs on context but I’d say the phrase “We shouldn’t judge” or “Don’t you judge me” or “What gives you the right to judge me?” is one of the mantras of our age. We could put it on banners and most would see it, nodding with approval.
I heard it just last week from a student in an ethics class, during a group project. She said (this is the gist, but it’s probably not verbatim): “Well, the Bible tells us not to judge. We are all sinners, so we shouldn’t judge. Let God judge.”
Admittedly, this has a certain appeal, even a resonating kernel of truth. And our typical reaction to being judged is inherent, reflexive, and immediate, isn’t it?
If someone makes a critical comment of you, your work, your comments, etc. likely two reactions occur simultaneously: 1) naturally, you’ll be defensive and (perhaps) irritated & 2) you’ll think of ways that you can be critical of the one pronouncing judgment (and sometimes you’ll voice these criticisms).
For example, if your boss says: “I noticed you were a few minutes late” your thoughts might run the gamut from “it was only a few minutes” to (a question you might just think rather than ask): “and you’ve never been late to work?”
In other words, we don’t like to be judged (even on something relatively minor like running a few minutes late), and the reaction to this dislike is typically (whether voiced or not) to return the favor and be judgmental of the one judging you. We don’t like it when people judge us, but when it happens we do precisely what we don’t like. Although psychologists probably have a sophisticated term for it, it’s clear that our natural response when we are judged is to judge the one judging us. Ironic.
This instinctive negative reaction to judging seems like pretty good evidence that judging is wrong. After all, we universally don’t appreciate it when people judge us.
But, I find at least two key problems with the “Don’t judge” theological mantra: 1) It’s absurd and it’s a misunderstanding of the Bible.
1) It’s absurd, unhelpful, and misguided. Now, that’s just my opinion (read: judgment), but I think I can persuade you that I’m right.
If we are not to judge then, what – may I ask – is the proper reaction to say … for example: a pedophile? If we really shouldn’t judge, then by what moral authority should we “judge” such action inappropriate? Someone might say the appropriate term is “unlawful,” but judging a rape “unlawful” falls woefully short.
In my judgment (there I go again) if someone rapes a child it’s wrong, horrific, and morally reprehensible. Indeed any rape fits these categories. But, these are judging terms, so perhaps they’re inappropriate. Perhaps this reductio ad adsurdum argument goes too far to prove the point. Fine, let’s try a milder one.
If you have teenagers who date, don’t you judge their potential boyfriends or girlfriends? Shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t they?
More generally, don’t you wish your kids would use better judgment? Wouldn’t it be parental neglect to advise teenagers to not use good judgment? Imagine if parents began teaching their teenagers: “Judge not.” In my judgment, that’s not wisdom; it’s neglect.
If anything I think we should be teaching our kids to judge more, not less. Note: I didn’t say they should be judgmental, vindictive, uncaring, and unforgiving. But, they should judge.
The “Don’t judge” mantra is promoted as if it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Truth is, “Don’t judge” is in the Bible, but it’s one of the most misused verses of scripture. It becomes a shield that turns morality and expectations into negatives, rather than the positives that they truly are.
What’s even worse though, is people link the “Don’t judge” mantra to the Bible, making the problem more acute, and more dangerous. For, if the Bible calls us to “Don’t judge” then it must be the truth. But, I think a byproduct of this is that the Bible is then used as the moral authority to shield one from accountability. So, does the Bible forbid or condemn judgment?
2) “Don’t judge” can be a biblical admonition, but it’s not a shield for covering up sin.
Please read: Matt 7.1-5
Ostensibly, Jesus is instructing his disciples to never judge. At first glance it certainly appears to be a clear-cut admonintion. But, this first impression is wrong. We might wish he said, “Judge not” and stopped, but alas the thought doesn’t end there, so neither can we.
If you read John 7.24, 1 Corinthians 5.1-5 and 1 Corinthians 5.12-13, I think the overall impression is that we are not to judge (determine) who is or who is not saved (see 1 Cor 4.1-5). We should, however, exercise good judgment.
I think the main point (which I won’t belabor here) of Matt 7.1-5 is an argument against hypocrisy, rather than a prohibition against all judgment. Also, the Matt 7 passage actually calls for us to help others in need, but we must take care in identifying others’ problems, while overlooking our own. To the extent that we want to be held to high standards, we can hold others to the same standard, but we shouldn’t be hypocritically aware of others’ faults and ignore our own.
So, what is Jesus getting at in Matt 7? If you read closely, you’ll see that in the same breath where his disciples are instructed to not judge, he arguably provides the correct way to judge. Judging needs to be done with great care. It takes good judgment to know how to judge.
Should we be hypocrites? No. Should we judge? Yes. Too often people – usually Christians – hide their bad decisions or behavior behind the “Don’t judge” shield, as if it’s a force field that prevents piercing, justifiable, biblical judgment.
We need to replace the “Don’t judge” mantra and start advocating one of these: “Judge well” or “Judge clearly” or “Judge better.” That, in my judgment, is a much better and biblical approach.
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.