On Judging

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But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. . . . Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. (Rom. 14:10, 13)

For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person." (1 Cor. 5:12-13)

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These two passages, both penned by the same author only months apart, highlight a conundrum that has plagued God people for ages: What are the duties and limits of judging others whom we deem to be involved in sin? In First Corinthians, Paul commanded a severe judgment ("remove"); yet in Romans, he prohibited judging (notice that at least one party in chapter 14 considers the other party to be involved in sin). How can these two positions be reconciled? 

Naturally, most people tend to gravitate to one of two extremes. On one side are those who shun all judging whatsoever. In their view, everyone is free to make their own choices, and we have no right to criticize or rebuke anyone for any behavior. They have adopted the words of Jesus as their motto: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). Of course, the one exception to their abhorrence of judging is the judgment they mete out to those they deem guilty of judging others. Not consistent, but at least they feel superior in their broad-mindedness.

On the other extreme are those who see their life mission as straightening out all the sins in the lives of those around them. They see themselves as experts in the law, passing judgment left and right on every transgression and infraction, especially among those closest to them ("they should know better"). The long trail of division and heartache created by these censors exposes the folly of their approach.  

If we read the Scriptures with a heart of humility, it should be obvious that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. There are some behaviors that are truly beyond the pale of divine approval, and must be confronted in a spirit of gentle firmness. But there is a broader range of behaviors that, although regulated by Scripture, require forbearance and patience in application. Brethren of good will may not agree on these matters, but they can still accept each other as children of a common Father. 

So how can we know when to judge and when to refrain from judging? At the risk of sounding trite, all parties must learn how to study the Scriptures together--in order to come to a common understanding of truth, if possible; but also to come to a deeper appreciation for each other's motives, intentions, and perspectives. 

Finally, it also helps to remember that all of us--including me--shall stand before God someday to be judged by the only Judge whose judgment matters. That reality should temper our own judgment with wisdom.