Is it Ever Right to Judge?
by Stan Fowler

Jesus rejected our tendency to judge others, so if a Christian judges homosexual activity, is he or she violating the Lord's command?

It was almost thirty years ago, but I still remember vividly the Saturday morning that I spent in dialogue with Ralph Blair. Ralph was then the best-known "gay evangelical," a man who devoted much of his life to arguing that the Bible, taken as a whole and properly interpreted, is actually friendly to faithful same-sex unions. Our conversation covered the whole spectrum of arguments, but without any movement from either side. It was an illuminating experience to hear all those arguments passionately articulated, but perhaps the most interesting aspect was to hear Ralph argue that I was the person who was disobedient to Christ and Scripture.

Ralph's criticism of me focused on two biblical texts. One was the account in John 8 of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery. The point is simple enough—if Jesus refused to condemn the woman for her actions, then surely I am equally wrong to condemn homosexuals for their actions. I confess that I don't feel much force in this argument, partly because the passage is missing from the earliest manuscripts, but especially because the text as it stands includes Jesus' exhortation to "sin no more." While Jesus did not tolerate the execution of the guilty woman, He did affirm her guilt.

The other text was Jesus' saying in Matthew 7:1, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." Again the argument is clear enough—Jesus rejected our tendency to judge others, so that when I judge homosexuals for their activity I am violating the Lord's command. Ralph kept coming back to this point as a way of turning the tables, insisting that I, not he, was the disobedient disciple of Christ. Since that time I have heard the same argument used many times against Christians who speak negatively about the beliefs or the lifestyle of others. Do they have a point? Must followers of Christ refrain from expressing any negative judgment about others? We have to face the question.

When I look at Jesus' words in their context and consider the fuller biblical witness, I conclude that whatever Jesus meant by "Do not judge," He did not mean that it is always wrong to express a negative evaluation of other persons. In the immediate context, four verses later, He addresses a hypothetical person with the term "you hypocrite". In verse six He gives His warning against giving "dogs" what is sacred and casting our pearls before "pigs." Now, the exact referent of these terms may be somewhat unclear, but I think it is safe to say that all interpreters would agree that Jesus is talking about certain kinds of humans, and not literal four-legged creatures. If so, then He is making a negative statement about these persons.

Later in the same chapter (see Matthew 7:15-20), Jesus gives an extended warning about false prophets and urges His disciples to be alert to their presence. This involves inspection of their "fruit," i.e., what they teach and the way they live, but this implies that in some situations we will have to make a negative judgment about these alleged spokesmen for God and act on that assessment. That would certainly be "judging" in Ralph Blair's terms. So we need look no further than Matthew 7 to see in Jesus' own words that He surely did not forbid all expression of negative judgment about others, and this is confirmed by the wider biblical context.

Consider, for example, Paul's instructions about church discipline in 1 Corinthians. In chapter five the issue concerns a man guilty of incest who is being tolerated by the church. In fact, the church is proud of its non-judgmental attitude toward the man (vs. 2), but Paul rebukes the church for this attitude. The apostolic command is that the church is in fact called to "judge" its members (vs. 12) and thus expel the man in question (vs. 13). In chapter six the focus turns to church members who charge other believers with unlawful activity and take them before the civil courts. Paul's alternative is not to simply accept injustice with a stiff upper lip and a blind eye. Rather he commands the church to appoint some of its own to judge these disputes in the interest of justice, but to do so would demand that at least one of the disputants would be judged as a wrongdoer.

Consider also the apostles' implementation of Jesus' command to watch out for false prophets. In diverse contexts they render a negative judgment on false teaching and call other disciples to follow their lead. I think of Paul and his battle against Judaizers in Galatians and Romans. I think of John who describes those who profess to know God but live in sin as "liars" (see 1 John 2:4), gives criteria by which we can identify certain people as false prophets (see 1 John 4:1-3), and instructs his readers to refuse Christian hospitality and fellowship to those who are judged to be "deceivers" by these criteria (see 2 John 7-11).

We could also consider the criteria for church leaders communicated by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. If these or any other criteria are going to be taken seriously and applied, then there will be cases in which we have to judge someone as disqualified by their failure to live up to these values.

Let's imagine that we could call some first-century witnesses to test the claim that Jesus was a very non-judgmental sort of man. Suppose we could enlist a group called Pharisees, and we could ask them if Ralph Blair's description of Jesus is accurate. I suspect that they would wonder what planet we came from. Given the description in the Gospels of Jesus' encounter with the Pharisees (say, Matthew 23), they would hardly describe Him as non-judgmental.

What, then, do we make of our Lord's prohibition of judging? The statements that follow this prohibition actually make it quite clear that the Lord's point is to warn us against judging hypocritically. He reminds us that we will be judged by the same standards that we apply to others, so we are wise to make sure that we can live with that before we express judgment (vs. 2). What follows is the hyperbolic illustration about the person who spots the speck of sawdust in another's eye while ignoring the plank in his own eye (vss. 3-5). The point is to deal with one's own sin first before trying to deal with the sin of the other, but this does not amount to a prohibition against confronting the other. In fact, that is affirmed as the sequel to self-criticism (vs. 5).

Hypocritical judging is clearly a huge problem. I am writing this one week after the Ted Haggard debacle and the painful disclosure of his hypocrisy, pressing for a legal prohibition of same-sex marriage while privately involved for three years with a gay prostitute. We all need to examine ourselves and be alert to any personal tendencies toward self-deception and hypocrisy, because Christ obviously does not allow His followers any option other than integrity. But integrity does not mean that we let the pendulum swing in the direction of a refusal to ever criticize others. It does mean that we criticize ourselves first.

Wherever the Church of Jesus Christ exists in the world, it faces unique pressures from the surrounding culture. In contemporary Canada, one of our greatest challenges is the assumption by much of our society that tolerance is the greatest virtue. But to adopt this common definition of tolerance would be to fail to follow Christ in His commitment to truth and goodness. If we are going to express negative judgments, we must first judge ourselves, and if we judge others it must be with kindness and respect. Nevertheless, we must not bow to the argument that Jesus taught His followers that they should never judge others. He said no such thing.

By the way, when Ralph Blair told me that I was a disobedient disciple of Christ because of my negative statements about gay persons, he was apparently judging me for my alleged judgmentalism. Think about that.


After this article appeared in November 2006, Ralph Blair got in touch with me. We had a brief exhange of candid but respectful emails, and he affirmed his agreement with my basic premise that it is right to make discriminatory judgments rooted in our sense of morality, as long as it is done with the right attitude. We are still on opposite sides of the basic moral question, but it is good to know that dialogue is possible.

Stan Fowler is a professor of theology at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario. He can be reached at sfowler@heritageseminary.net.

This article was also published in The Evangelical Baptist, Winter 2007 edition and on-line at www.christianity.ca in Nov 2006.