To say that another person is wrong, in our age of ‘tolerance,’ has become taboo. This is especially so in regard to sexual ethics, but it is also reflective of a larger thought process; one that is thoughtfully proposed by the cultural elites, and mostly thoughtlessly assumed by the culturally relevant.
For the elites, the philosophers of the cultural left (who make up most of the faculty in America’s Ivy League schools), it comes in a form of ethical relativism. Without a standard adherence to a Scripture (on which most of the Ivy League schools once stood), there is no basis on which one can claim what is right and what is wrong. Few deny that universal inclination that certain things are clearly wrong (the ‘new atheists’ claim this as eagerly as most Christians), but they attempt to explain the inevitable on naturalistic grounds. Through becoming the sole interpreters of ethics, they become their own lawgivers, and, unbeknown to us, they have become our lawgivers.
My primary concern, however, is not the cultural elites. For most US citizens claim some degree of belief in God (Froese, 26), but fit into the crowd that we could call the nominally religious. My observation is that most Americans think that much of what Jesus said was good, and that other parts of his teachings are outdated (This is an internally impossible stance, but I will not deal with that here). I want to look at one particular teaching that most Americans seem to like, but not always understand.
Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mat. 7:1).
Well, there you have it! All Christian discernment has been trumped by the Bible itself!
First, let it be clear that other portions of Scripture do call Christians to recognize the sins of others. In the same sermon, Jesus tells his disciples to dismiss false teachers based on their works (Mat. 7:15-20). Paul points out the sexual sins of some of his contemporaries and says that they will incur the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18-32). Paul commands that another man in sexual sin be dismissed from the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Jesus and Paul both give prescriptions for Christians as to how they should confront one another in sin (Mat. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1). This is just to name a few.
On a commonsense basis, the alternative is absurd. A world in which no judgment exists is impossible to imagine. Teaching, parenting, institutions, and governments could not exist without corrective judgment. This is clearly not what Jesus intended to communicate.
How do we reconcile this with what Jesus said?
Many will say that the Bible just contradicts itself. Skeptics will say that it is merely inconsistent. It’s authors were fallible humans with an agenda. We should expect nothing else from them.
Time and space do not allow me to address why I don’t accept that stance, so I will suffice it to address those who are at least somewhat concerned with the authority of Scripture. The Reformation axiom has been that Scripture interprets Scripture, and I will assume such canonical consistency.
Other interpretations would say that the Old Testament was concerned with judgment, but Jesus was only concerned with grace. I dismiss that view. Jesus came to fulfill and uphold the Law (Mat. 5:17-20), not to contradict it.
So, how do we interpret Jesus’ command to ‘judge not?’
First, we need to consider the purpose and nature of the Sermon on the Mount (in which this statement arises). One of the prefatory remarks is “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:20). So, underlying this whole sermon is a confrontation of religious hypocrisy; the kind of hypocrisy that cares about the ‘speck’ in another’s eyes, while ignoring the ‘log’ in one’s own (Mat. 7:3-5). Jesus has specific offenders in view.
Also, the Sermon is filled with hyperbole. Jesus makes purposefully striking remarks to draw out the moral implications. He is not speaking as a systematic theologian (Carson, 115), he is speaking with the confrontational language of a (The) Prophet. The language is directly addressing such a tendency toward hypocrisy. The sermon is not so much dealing with hard rules, as it is dealing with the heart behind the Law (Willard, 154-155). It is pointedly striking language (Carson, 40), designed to strike at the heart of those guilty of ‘lawlessness’ (Mat. 7:23).
Jesus’ solution is that we should take the metaphorical log out of our own eye before taking the metaphorical speck out of another person’s. This is an attitude issue. The whole sermon deals consistently with the kind of heart that a true disciple of his should have. In this case, a Christian should be far more concerned with their own sin than with the sins of others (Bonhoeffer, 96-97). In light of understanding their own sin, one such person is not incapable of confronting another, but, when it is necessary, does so with humility, grace, and sorrow.
Secondly, this teaching is a small part of the large message about the heart behind the whole Law: love. Jesus brackets the first section of the sermon with two statements about his fulfillment of the law (Mat. 5:17-20; 7:12). In the second, he says “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This teaching has often been referred to as ‘The Golden Rule.’ Its design is love, and it is the goal of all of the Scriptures.
The problem with one who looks down their nose at another is that they are missing the mission of love; hence they are missing the whole point of all the Scriptures. Only when one is most disappointed in their own sins (the “poor in Spirit” of whom Jesus spoke) and has a desire to love others, are they in a position to confront another in sin.
As Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “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.”
In conclusion, followers of Christ should be more concerned with their own sins than the sins of other, and, if they do confront another, it is to be done in a spirit of love.