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Should we never criticise others?

Biblical Counselling is not popular for several reasons, and the most frequent 'label' that is applied to it is that it is very "judgmental". Somewhere in a conversation on this aspect the verse from Matt. 7:1 will be quoted - "Judge not lest ye be judged"; with the implication that we should not under any circumstances judge our fellow men and women.

Such an interpretation seems so stifling in our social connections and contrary to natural discussion. Are we never to comment about another that has the least hint of criticism? To even try to follow this rule for any reasonable period in our lives would make conversation take on an air of unreality. Try conversing with someone about Stalin's policy of executing his opponents or sending them to Siberia to die - all without any phrase critical of his personality or motivation being used; the resulting discussion would best be described as unrealistic or surreal.

Taking this interpretation in a very strict sense would so limit ordinary conversation that surely we should examine not just this interpretation of this verse, but the whole subject of judging others from a biblical perspective.

There are a number of aspects that should be considered.

1. The self-contradiction.

There is an element of self contradiction when people use this phrase as a criticism of others. Let us say that you have made a mild comment concerning another's behaviour, and the other person says that you should not judge others. If we consider their statement, this in itself is a judgment of your statement. They are making a judgment of your comment - that it should not have been made and that you were wrong to have made it. They are being critical of your conduct!

It is therefore surely permissible to point this out to those who seek to use this verse in this way that they themselves have made passed judgment on you.

2. An examination of this verse

We will see later that there are situations where a "judgment" is allowed, so let us see if there is an interpretation of this verse that conveys a more accurate meaning.

The Greek word is "Krino" from which we get the word "criticise". Although this particular word used in a more general way elsewhere, this may give us a clue to the emphasis Jesus is placing on this word at this point. The Amplified Bible translates this verse as "Do not judge and criticise and condemn others..". Vine says that in this passage it is referring to "one who assumes the office of a judge".

In the commentary on the New King James version in "The (Baptist) Believers Study Bible", is says "This verse does not disallow the right of making moral judgments..but forbids a bitter, hostile and unkind spirit which delights in finding fault with others."

It would therefore appear that in this context, Christ is condemning those who experience a degree of pleasure in criticising others. This is a most important aspect and one that few of us are free from. Who has not whispered to himself that HE is far too "good" a person to have done such a thing and thereby boosted his ego?

3. Judgments are allowed

That it is allowable to "judge" others is set out only four and five verses later.

Verse 5 says that when the beam is taken out of the eye, then we will see clearly to take the speck out of our brother's eye. Thus when clear sighted, "judging" others is permitted.

In verse 6 Christ tells us not to "cast our pearls before swine". Explaining this verse is not easy, but what is abundantly clear is that before we can obey this command, we have first of all to decide which people come within the category of "swine". Who they are might be difficult to decide in this context, but the important point we are considering is that we are permitted to first make such a serious judgment about others.

4. Judgments not allowed

Let us examine two areas of the Christian life where we are not allowed to make a judgment.

(A) Salvation

It becomes very noticeable that in all of Paul's letters, some of which are extremely critical of churches and individuals, not once does he ever state that a person is not a Christian and therefore will not be saved. To give three examples where he condemns someone but yet does not bring into question their salvation.

(i) Alexander the coppersmith did Paul "much harm" [2 Tim. 4:14], so he said "May the Lord repay him according to his works" (NKJV). The Amplified Bible says "The Lord will pay him back for his actions". We cannot tell whether Alexander was in a church or an opponent of Christianity, but whatever his position, the state of his soul is not referred to.

(ii) John is critical of Diotrephes, who is does not accept John's authority and much else, but John merely says that he will "call attention to what he is doing" [John 3:9-10, Amp. Bible].

(iii) The most surprising case is that of the unnamed man who "had his father's wife" [1 Cor. 5:1]. Paul is surprised that they are "puffed up" rather than being sorrowful that such an act had occurred. Here, Paul says that the man should be "taken away", "removed" from amongst them. Again there is no reference to his salvation. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 2:5-8 he refers to restoring a brother "lest he be swallowed up with too much sorrow", and it is reasonably certain that this is referring to the same person he had commanded should be put out of the fellowship in his first letter.

We see also here Paul's admonition to restore the man "lest Satan take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices" [2 Cor. 2:11]. This is to prevent a sense of pride developing in the "good" people in the church who might begin to say "At least we are not as bad as that fellow". This is the gleeful pointing out of sins in another simply to boost our own self-righteousness that we have discussed above.

There is, therefore, no justification for claiming that a person's bad conduct means that he has lost his salvation.

(B) Beliefs

Paul also says that no man is to be judged by what other views he may have [1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14:1-4]. As we will see, this does not include his theology of salvation which must be the right concept of Christ's sufficient death on the Cross.

Paul says that one man may eat meat offered to idols and another may refrain. Neither of them is to judge or condemn the other. The one who is "strong" i.e. who eats the meat and is not troubled in his conscience, should refrain if it causes the "weak" brother to "stumble".

Again, Paul says that there should be no arguments between those who esteem one day more important than others, and those who esteem all days alike. [Comment - how this might apply to regular Sunday worship we will leave for other, braver, souls to examine!]


From these two subjects, we can see that we should not judge others regarding either their salvation or "secondary" beliefs.

Are there any areas of life where a righteous judgement may be allowed? Let us consider the following.

5. Allowable judgments

A. Theology

Paul uses very strong language for those who try to subvert believers with false doctrine. We see his anger against those of the "circumcision party" who were trying to return the believers back to Jewish customs and beliefs. He also pronounced "accursed" any person teaching a different doctrine to that which he had been given by supernatural means by God to preach to the gentiles. Having stated it once, he emphasises how important this is by repeating it again immediately [Gal. 1:8-9].

We also have Christ's condemnation of those churches that did not oppose the teachings of Baalam and the "Nicolatians" - whom He hated [Rev. 2:14-15].

Therefore, teaching of sound theology is clearly of the utmost importance. What a man believes will ultimately affect his place in eternity. To preach false doctrine, for whatever reason, is a most serious sin in the eyes of God. The burden of responsibility upon those who preach is heavy indeed and not to be taken either lightly or even worse - consider it as flattering to one's ego.

B. Actions

Those who adopt a superior view and claim that we "must not judge others" will then have difficulties in dealing with certain verses. For example -

Gal. 6:1 - "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted."

How can one come to a decision that a person is acting wrongly if we are not allowed to "judge" them in the broadest sense?

Matt. 18:15-17 - Christ sets out the way in which a brother who is sinning should be corrected. First by an individual, then by two or three, then by the whole church.

Here we have Christ allowing the disciples to correct the behaviour of a sinning believer - which obviously assumes that they have come to a decision about the unacceptable nature of his actions or behaviour.

This passage, although apparently addressed to the disciples must surely also apply for all times in the Christian church.

By far the strongest passage (and one rarely ever applied in the church today!) is the injuction of 1 Tim. 5:20; "Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear".

This verse is preceded by the verse saying that no accusation should be received against an elder except by two or three witnesses. It is doubtful if this verse is meant to apply to elders only for;

(i) The verses following are of a personal nature to Timothy and there is no clarification whether this verse only applies to elders.

(ii) The public rebuke is in front of the church, "so that the rest may fear" surely means the whole of the congregation should fear this procedure, not just elders alone.

Admittedly, this strong deterrent MAY apply to elders only as a safeguard to protect the leadership of the church from bad behaviour by those who are expected to set a high standard of Christian living. But this does not affect the necessity of "making a judgment" of another person's behaviour which is the subject of this paper.

It might be thought that we should not make any judgments upon or take action against those whose bad behaviour do not affect the church as a whole or individuals within it, but this is not so. Paul often says that we should act in a way that the world will be unable to criticise the conduct of those in the church. Thus we should pay our taxes etc. and act as model citizens so that God, whose ambassadors we are, might be glorified. Those members whose conduct in their business life is unacceptable can be rightly rebuked as bringing dishonour on the church as a whole.

We can, therefore, surely conclude that making a judgment of another Christian's actions is fully accepted and is indeed part of the many necessary functions of the church. The teaching of Scripture makes this very clear, thus contradicting those who quote Matt. 7:1 out of context.


6. Motivations??

But let us take this whole subject even further. There are those who say that we may judge a person's actions but not his motivation. It is usually said that we may not know the real reason why a person acted in a particular way and if we did know all the circumstances, we may well find that his motivation was good.

This is an acceptable point for consideration, but it should not be an excuse never to pass a judgment on another's motives. When we engage in an action that might be misconstrued, we should surely explain this to the elders at least so that they are aware of the circumstances. We should not only act rightly but be seen to act rightly.

Are we therefore to always suspend judgment regarding motivations? John the Elder does not appear to have done so!

If we study the actions of Diotrephes [3 John 9-10] we see that he;

(i) speaks against John's authority,

(ii) rejects the brethren and even

(iii) puts outside the church those who wish to receive them!

These seem to be quite serious actions of a man intent upon running the church his own, self-appointed way, and John says that when he comes to Diotrephes' church he will "call to mind his deeds". This seems a fairly mild reaction and John could easily have left it at that - but he does not do so. He actually points beyond the actions themselves to the basic motivation that these actions spring from - that he "loves to have the pre-eminence among them" - i.e. he is a self-appointed autocratic ruler, wanting to control the whole church so that he will be seen as the important leader of the congregation. It is this that John puts as the motivating key that can explain all the different actions of Diotrephes that result from it

We have no wish to split hairs, but we would also comment that the order in which John makes his points is not that which might have been expected. One would have thought that he would first produce the evidence of Diotrephes' actions and then draw his conclusions from them - in a truly Baconian fashion. In fact, he first announces Diotrephes' motivation and then refers to the actions that support this judgment. This is not to say that John made a "snap judgment", but the order might be worth further consideration.

Surely this is just one example of presenting a motivation that explains a person's actions - whether they be good or bad. In precisely the same way, John sets out the basic motivations of those who sin in this world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life [1 John 2:16]. These can be used as a basis for determining the motivation behind all worldly actions.

Surely, from all this, a wise, Godly discernment of what the true motivation might be that would explain a person's actions is therefore permissible. Those who are allowed to make such discernments are described in a most important verse in Hebrews 5:13-14.

"But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."

This discernment is not just for church leaders and elders alone. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, told them that they were "full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another" [Rom. 15:14]. This allows those of spiritual maturity within the church to gently correct the faults of others. It should go without saying that, bearing in mind the warning at the beginning of this paper, this is never to be done in any sense of superiority or pride.

Therefore, let us continue with normal conversation without feeling guilty because we may occasionally have to make discerning judgments about the behaviour of another. As we have said, those who say we should not do this are themselves making a judgment regarding your actions.

The key is whether the reason for the judgment is simply to demonstrate our superiority, even implied, or whether we are wanting to come to a sound opinion so that we can then help our brother in the best way. To make no diagnosis or a wrong diagnosis of a problem is no help whatsoever, can be very damaging and is basically unchristian. To come to a right discernment of a problem will then enable the correct application of the best solution.

Any brother or sister so corrected, should be mindful of Proverbs 9:8; i.e. if they are "wise" they should "love you" for correcting them and putting them back on the path of true Christian behaviour.

NEXT ESSAY AVAILABLE ON THIS WEBSITE - "Guidance and the Will" - an article by Prof. Cameron on this vital subject