We live in a culture where the thing that is most offensive is not doing something wrong, but telling someone else that they are doing something wrong.
Bad behavior gets a pass. Calling it bad behavior does not.
Of course, this cultural trend should not be surprising. We are told in Scripture that depraved cultures “call evil good and good evil” (Is 5:20).
But, living in a culture like this has had its effect on Christians. We have been conditioned to never condemn certain kinds of behavior lest we are chastened by an avalanche of social media accusing us of being legalistic and judgmental.
Thus, even in Christian circles we often hear the claim, “It’s not my place to judge someone else.”
This popular phrase is the next installment in the “Taking Back Christianese” series. Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
There is little doubt that this phrase has its roots in the often misunderstood text of Matt 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” While our culture is fairly disinterested in most of what the Bible has to say, it is remarkable how many people know (and proudly cite) this one verse.
And the reason for this is not hard to find. In many people’s minds, Matt 7:1 is the one command they can always follow regardless of what other sins they might be committing. No matter how a person is living, they can always justify themselves by saying, “at least I am not judgmental.”
In a rapidly declining culture, not judging has become the last opportunity for folks to claim the moral high ground.
What is Correct or Helpful about this Phrase?
Even so, the phrase “it is not my place to judge someone else” can still be very useful. If used rightly, it can remind us of two important truths:
1. We are not to judge others over “disputable matters.”
When the Bible talks about judging others, it is often in the context of disputes over activities that are not forbidden by God (even though some people might still be uncomfortable with these activities).
Paul describes just such a situation,
2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? (Rom 14:2-4)
In this situation, Paul makes it clear that “judging” someone else is when we condemn them for not following our man-made rules. Paul is not opposed to condemning behavior that violates God’s rules (as we shall see below), but he is opposed to condemning behavior that violates only human ones.
In short, only God can be the standard for morality, not men.
2. We are not to hold people to a different standard than we do for ourselves.
Another way that we can be judgmental is to enforce rules on others that we are not enforcing on ourselves. This is the point Jesus is making in the oft-misunderstood statement in Matt 7:1. In this text, Jesus is going after the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
If you judge others by a particular standard, says Jesus, then know that same standard will be used against you.
What is Problematic about this Phrase?
If we stick to the two positive uses of this phrase above, we will be in good shape. However, this phrase is routinely used to say that we can never tell someone that their behavior is wrong. In other words, it is sinning to tell someone they are sinning.
But, there are two problems with this approach:
1. To say we can never declare a behavior to be wrong is profoundly unbiblical.
The Scriptures are packed with examples of God’s people calling out certain behaviors as wrong. Jesus did this. Paul did this. And even we are called to do this: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matt 18:15).
At this point a person might object, “But who am I to tell someone they are wrong? I am a sinner too.” But, the Bible never requires a person to be sinless before they speak out against sin. Personal perfection is not a prerequisite to standing up for what is right (otherwise no one would ever be able to condemn sin, including those who want to condemn those who judge!).
The proper basis for calling something sinful is not personal perfection, but simply whether God calls it sinful.
2. To say we can never declare a behavior to be wrong is ultimately self-defeating.
The rich irony for those people who say we shouldn’t judge is that they themselves are judging. They are declaring a behavior to be “wrong” (in this case, the behavior of judging), while at the same time insisting we shouldn’t declare that behaviors are wrong!
Thus, this approach proves to be profoundly inconsistent. It is equivalent to sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.
In sum, we can say that the Bible really does say that we shouldn’t “judge” others. However, the Bible’s definition of “judge” is not the same as the world’s. The world defines judging as telling someone their behavior is wrong. In contrast, the Bible condemns the kind of judging that is simply enforcing man-made rules.
So, the issue is not whether we are allowed to declare a behavior to be wrong, but the grounds on which we declare that behavior to be wrong.
The grounds must always be God’s Word, and not man’s opinion.