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Evangelical Christians are often told not to judge. If there is one verse non-Christians know (after, perhaps, some reference to the “least of these”) is that’s Jesus taught people, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). Of course, what the casual Christian critic misses is that Jesus was not calling for a moratorium on moral discernment or spiritual evaluation. After all, he assumes five verses later that his followers will have the wherewithal to tell what sort of people in the world are dogs and pigs (Matt. 7:6). Believing in the sinfulness of sin, the exclusivity of Christ, and moral absolutes does not make one judgmental. Just look at Jesus.

But this doesn’t mean Matthew 7:1 has nothing to teach conservative Christians. Like everyone else on the planet, we have a propensity to assume the worst about people, to happily pass on bad reports, and to size up individuals and situations without knowing all the facts (or even half the facts). I’m not talking about disciplining wayward church members, or having hard conversations about people caught in sin, or refusing to ever take someone’s past behavior into account, or being hopelessly naive about the way the world works, or refraining from the public exchange of ideas, or suspending all our powers of discernment until we understand something or someone with omniscience. I’m talking about the all too natural tendency to shoot first and ask questions later (or not at all).

Is there a piece of biblical wisdom more routinely ignored on the internet, not to mention in our own hearts, than Proverbs 18:17?—”The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I’ve never been accused of serious misconduct that I knew to be patently false or horribly misunderstood. But if I am someday, I hope folks will remember the book of Proverbs. “”If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). Too often we are quick to speak and slow to listen. The world, the flesh, the devil, and the internet want us to rush to judgment, when the Bible urges us to suspend judgment until we’ve heard from both sides. It happens all the time: pastors sinfully judge parishoners based on hearsay, church members criticize pastors without knowing the whole story, citizen assume the worst about politicians whenever another Scandalgate emerges, kids attack their siblings at the first whiff of error.

Most of us go through life hearing dozens of reports and accusations about celebrities, athletes, pastors, and people we know, operating under the unwritten rule that where there’s smoke there must be a fire. And that’s often true. But arsonists also light fires. Sometimes the cloud of controversy conceals a raging inferno of wrongdoing. But sometimes the pungent smell of smoke turns out to be crumbs in the toaster. Best not to yell “Fire!” in a crowded building, only to find out later your neighbor likes crispy Eggos.

Some readers may wonder what has prompted this post. Nothing in particular. And everything. There is no fresh incident which inspired these thoughts. Rather, I’m writing because of the sin that I know lurks in my own heart and because of the way the blogosphere and twitterverse demand full scale denunciations the way rambunctious eight year-olds demand pixie sticks. Give them what they want and they will only ask for more.

As Christians we realize that sin deserves rebuke and the sinned against should have our deepest compassion. But we should also remember from the last days of our Lord that believing every accusation can be  just as bad as making them. As long as there is Jesus, we have to allow that “controversial” and “accused” do not always mean “troublemaker” and “guilty.” We should use the same measure with others that we would want used with us, which means an open heart and an open mind. Do you want people assuming the worst about you? Do I want people passing along every bad report they hear about me? What if people talked about us the way we talk about others?

I’ve often been challenged in this regard by the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the ninth commandment:

God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause.

Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on my God’s intense anger. I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can do guard and advance my neighbor’s good name. (Q/A 112)

Think of your tweets (as I think of mine). Think of your posts. Think of your conversation with friends. Think of what you talk about with your husband. Or how you talk about your wife. Think of your emails and texts. Think of the speech pouring out of your heart. Are we doing all we can to guard and advance our neighbor’s good name? Or are we ready to believe the worst, eager to pass out failure, and happy to pile on when the pile gets popular? If the mere assertion of wrongdoing can ruin someone’s life–if that’s the moral universe we want to sustain, one where guilt is presumed and innocence is only declared after it’s too late–then you and I are only a whisper away from seeing it all go down the drain.

“Judge not, that you be not judged.”

It may not say what everyone wants it to say. But it still says a lot. Much more than many of us want to hear.

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11 thoughts on “Yes, We Are Judgmental (But Not In the Way Everyone Thinks)”

  1. mark mcculley says:

    Thanks. Very practical!

    I Corinthians 13: 6 Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

  2. Billerica Believer says:

    so true – so many of us never get to the next verse; i.e. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (KJV)
    We are required to judge others, if only to know who to follow or believe, and when we do, it should be with the same consideration we want/expect Christ to judge us by.

  3. Nanci Craig says:

    wishing I could read this and just pass this post by but I am compelled to comment based by a few comments I have made today; when faced with this topic of “judgment” I have a deep stirring in my spirit to make an attempt to share this truth”judgment cancels the enemy’s assignment” in hope that the church paradigm would shift…judgment – the real judgment most think of ….is really to judge the enemy HOWEVER if someone is partnered with the enemy they will feel it’s personal but if they too resist God’s enemies than they will feel confident to continue the fight to resist sin. Judgment is translated “discernment” in many of the references we choose to quote…and rightly so.

    here is a fuller explanation

  4. Curt Day says:

    Judge not is admonition given in Romans 2:1 as well. It is given so that the would be judge would not also condemn him/her own self for their own sins.

    Discerning what or who is right or wrong is different from deciding who should get the least valuable trophy or who belongs to the list of the 10 most wanted sinners.

    Identifying with and listening to the one whose sin is in the spotlight are the best ways from judging others in the wrong way.

  5. ncresident says:

    Thank you for your words. The “do not judge” mantra is all over the internet these days and sadly coming from the mouths of supposed Bibly believing Christians. Your blog post gives an excellent interpretation of what the entire context of the passage is saying to us.

    Also as someone who worked in a church where a church member continually spread lies and deceit about me for several years and it was believed over and over again, I especially appreciated your words of being discerning of what you hear and not believing everything told to you. I chose to stay quiet during that time so I would not be seen as “getting down in the gutter” with him and others, but there were many who knew about it but did nothing. Even after I resigned, it sadden me to hear some of these people shake their heads and claim they knew nothing about the evil that was done. They knew, but chose to do nothing. Almost drove me completely out of the ministry. It is so very important to get the whole story before believing a one sided tale.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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