“Do not judge!”—“Test the spirits!”: A contradiction?

Jesus’ state­ment that we should not judge oth­er­wise we will be judged is a verse which is often quot­ed. Usu­al­ly it is under­stood that we are not allowed to make any assess­ing state­ment about anoth­er per­son because only God knows the heart of man. On the oth­er hand there are many pas­sages in the New Tes­ta­ment which show the impor­tance of assess­ment (dis­cern­ment) so that the Apos­tle John in his first let­ter even com­mands to “test the spirits”:

Dear friends, do not believe every spir­it, but test the spir­its to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged”: What does the term “to judge” mean in the New Testament?

First of all we can look at the con­text of the above men­tioned state­ment of Jesus.

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. 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. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may tram­ple them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:1–6)

Jesus was con­front­ed with the reli­gious lead­ers of the Jews who regard­ed them­selves as right­eous and very obe­di­ent to God. How­ev­er, they looked down on oth­er Jews and despised them, con­demn­ing them as sin­ners and being igno­rant towards Moses’ law. All through­out the gospels we can see that Jesus admon­ished these Phar­isees and scribes because of their hyp­o­crit­i­cal atti­tude. They were judg­ing oth­ers in the sense of con­demn­ing them although they them­selves sinned grave­ly. In apply­ing dif­fer­ent stan­dards to oth­ers and to them­selves, they brought God’s judg­ment on them­selves. Jesus’ com­par­i­son of the oth­er person’s sin as a speck and the own sin as plank is a fur­ther hint at the Phar­isees’ think­ing that they sin only lit­tle. Jesus shows them that it is just the oth­er way around.

It is a mis­un­der­stand­ing to use this pas­sage as an argu­ment that Jesus was against assess­ing oth­ers because these vers­es them­selves show the neces­si­ty to do that. Due to right dis­cern­ment I can rec­og­nize my own sin (plank) and the oth­er person’s sin (speck) and should remove both. Fur­ther­more Jesus pre­sup­pos­es in verse 6 that we know who are the dogs and pigs whom we should not tell the gospel. This is only pos­si­ble by right assess­ment through the Holy Spirit.

The term “to judge” is used in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sense in 1 Cor 5:9–131:

I have writ­ten you in my let­ter not to asso­ciate with sex­u­al­ly immoral people—not at all mean­ing the peo­ple of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idol­aters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writ­ing you that you must not asso­ciate with any­one who calls him­self a broth­er but is sex­u­al­ly immoral or greedy, an idol­ater or a slan­der­er, a drunk­ard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What busi­ness is it of mine to judge those out­side the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those out­side. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

The apos­tle Paul wants the Chris­tians in Corinth to judge the evil­do­er in their midst. They should exclude him because he does not want to give up his sins. Judg­ing does have a pos­i­tive mean­ing here in con­trast to Matthew 7. This shows that we always have to look at the con­text in order not to mis­un­der­stand cer­tain vers­es in the bible. The same term can have dif­fer­ent mean­ings accord­ing to its usage in spe­cif­ic con­texts. There is no doubt that prop­er assess­ment is absolute­ly nec­es­sary in order to avoid an unright­eous exclu­sion. Exclu­sion from the church has to be the last step after try­ing to help the broth­er who sins to change, as Jesus him­self said in Matthew 18:

If your broth­er sins, go and show him his fault in pri­vate; if he lis­tens to you, you have won your broth­er. But if he does not lis­ten to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three wit­ness­es every fact may be con­firmed. If he refus­es to lis­ten to them, tell it to the church; and if he refus­es to lis­ten even to the church, let him be to you as a Gen­tile and a tax col­lec­tor. (Matthew 18:15–17)2

Although Jesus does not use the word “to judge” he speaks here about the same as Paul in the let­ter to the Corinthi­ans. A Chris­t­ian should not be indif­fer­ent towards his broth­ers but assess their sins and admon­ish them. Broth­er­ly love just means try­ing to do every­thing that can help my broth­er or sis­ter to live a holy life in close rela­tion­ship with God. If love is the rea­son for assess­ing and judg­ing then it is very dif­fer­ent from what Jesus accused many Jews of, who judged accord­ing to appearance.

Stop judg­ing by mere appear­ances, and make a right judg­ment. (John 7:24)3

We should judge just­ly says Jesus.

“The spiritual man makes judgments about all things”: The necessity of assessing

The man with­out the Spir­it does not accept the things that come from the Spir­it of God, for they are fool­ish­ness to him, and he can­not under­stand them, because they are spir­i­tu­al­ly dis­cerned. The spir­i­tu­al man makes judg­ments about all things, but he him­self is not sub­ject to any man’s judg­ment. (1 Corinthi­ans 2:14–15)4

A Chris­t­ian is filled with the Holy Spir­it and hence, as Paul says, capa­ble to assess every­thing. An unbe­liev­er will not agree with the thoughts of a Chris­t­ian because he does not fol­low God’s stan­dard. The Apos­tle Paul tells the church in Corinth not to fel­low­ship with unbe­liev­ers because they do not have any­thing in com­mon with them.

Do not be yoked togeth­er with unbe­liev­ers. For what do right­eous­ness and wicked­ness have in com­mon? Or what fel­low­ship can light have with dark­ness? What har­mo­ny is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believ­er have in com­mon with an unbe­liev­er? What agree­ment is there between the tem­ple of God and idols? For we are the tem­ple of the liv­ing God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my peo­ple. There­fore come out from them and be sep­a­rate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daugh­ters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthi­ans 6:14–18)

First you have to assess the ungod­li­ness before you can stay away from it and those who prac­tice it. Assess­ing some­one means to neu­tral­ly dis­cern his spir­i­tu­al state in front of God. This pro­vides the basis for mak­ing him aware of this and thus giv­ing him the chance to change accord­ing to God’s will. The New Tes­ta­ment shows us that it is the task of a Chris­t­ian to help both his broth­ers and non-Chris­tians as well to turn to God, either through encour­age­ments or admonitions.

Warn a divi­sive per­son once, and then warn him a sec­ond time. After that, have noth­ing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sin­ful; he is self-con­demned. (Titus 3:10–11)5

If the false teacher does not lis­ten he is self-con­demned. The warn­ing of the Chris­t­ian does not judge him but his own dis­obe­di­ence. Sep­a­ra­tion from god­less peo­ple is a con­se­quence of right assess­ment as also Jesus taught his disciples.

If any­one will not wel­come you or lis­ten to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. (Matthew 10:14)

The Apos­tle John could not have sum­ma­rized in sim­ple words who is a Chris­t­ian if he had not been sure that we can know what is in the heart of man:

This is how we know who the chil­dren of God are and who the chil­dren of the dev­il are: Any­one who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is any­one who does not love his broth­er. (1 John 3:10)

Every­one assess­es many things in dai­ly life—is this not some­thing usu­al, nor­mal, and nec­es­sary? If some­one says that you should not assess he dis­proves him­self because he has just done it by this very state­ment of his.

Jesus’ example shows how to encourage and admonish but not to condemn

Jesus’ behav­ior fits the sit­u­a­tion always the best because he was moti­vat­ed by love and thought of what helps oth­ers to be saved. He admon­ished the Phar­isees very strict­ly in order to show them their self-right­eous and proud attitude.

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swal­low a camel. (Matthew 23:24)

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being con­demned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)

On the oth­er hand Jesus spoke very gen­tly, invit­ing those who were will­ing to see their sins and want­ed to seek refuge in God.

Come to me, all you who are weary and bur­dened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gen­tle and hum­ble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my bur­den is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

Jesus was able to do this because he assessed the peo­ple very clear­ly and rec­og­nized their spir­i­tu­al needs. He did not judge them, in the sense of con­demn­ing them, but called them out of their sins to a life in the light.

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  1. In 1 Corinthi­ans 5:12–13 and Matthew 7:1 the same Greek word “κρίνειν” (krinein = to judge) is used. 
  2. Tak­en from the New Amer­i­can Stan­dard Bible. 
  3. Also here the Greek word “κρίνειν” (krinein = to judge) is used. 
  4. The Greek word “ανακρίνειν” (anakrinein = to check, to dis­cern, to assess) is used here. It has the word stem of “κρίνειν” (krinein = to judge) but is a dif­fer­ent term. 
  5. The Greek word for self-con­demned is “αυτοκατάκριτος” (autokatakri­tos) from the verb “κατακρίνειν” (katakrinein = to con­demn). The word stem is again “κρίνειν” (krinein = to judge).