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Trade Paperback
213 pages
Dec 2005
P & R Publishing

Who Are You to Judge?: The Dangers of Judging And Legalism

by Dave Swavely

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



The Case against Judging

In 1 Corinthians 4:3–7 the apostle Paul says:

To me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?

This passage, as much as any other in Scripture, has helped me to understand how to think about difficult issues in the Christian life, and how to promote unity and peace among my brothers and sisters in the Lord. But I have been surprised to find that it is relatively unknown to many Christians, who have not studied or been taught the rich truth contained in it. So in an effort to rediscover these profound words of the apostle Paul, I will be using this passage as the framework for the first six chapters of this book. At the very least, when you are finished reading it, I hope you will know what this text of Scripture says, what it means, and how it applies to your life.

Judging on Trial

Paul begins this section of his letter to the church at Corinth by addressing a problem that he calls “judging,” which is a root problem in the sense that so many other problems proceed from it. Wouldn’t it be better to fight a fire when it has first started, rather than after it has become a raging inferno? And wouldn’t you rather pluck out the weeds while they are young, before they have completely overgrown your garden? In the same way, much of the worst conflict, bitterness, and prejudice among people begins its development with the practice of wrongful judging. But if we can learn to identify and avoid this root problem, it will never blossom into such foul fruit.

Before we consider Paul’s case against judging, it would be good to define the words he uses to refer to this problem. What exactly is the “judging” that is commanded against? Three times in verses 3–4 we find forms of the Greek verb anakrinoì, which is translated “examine” by the NASB. This is a term that speaks of evaluating someone or something and then reaching a positive or negative conclusion. For instance, it is used in 1 Corinthians 2:15, where Paul says that “he who is spiritual appraises all things.” When the spiritual man appraises or evaluates any particular thing, the conclusion he reaches can be either commendatory or critical. We also know that the “examining” referred to by Paul in 4:3–4 can be either right or wrong, depending on the situation. After all, the end of verse 4 says that God does it, so it cannot necessarily be a sin!

In verse 5, however, Paul is clearly speaking of a negative judgment about someone else, which is made in the mind and often expressed through critical words. The judging referred to here is clearly something that is wrong to do, because Paul says we should stop doing it. In this verse he uses a related but slightly different Greek word—krinoì. It is difficult to determine exactly why he chose to drop the prefix in this usage, but perhaps the former term focuses more on the evaluation process, and this one more on the conclusion that is reached. Perhaps he wanted to make it clear that he was not condemning the mere act of “examining” or evaluating someone. It is judging in the sense of reaching a conclusion, or “passing sentence” in our minds, that he is warning against.1

But in what situations is it wrong to pass judgment in our minds about another person? This question must be asked, because we find Paul using the same word in a neutral sense elsewhere, even in the same book of 1 Corinthians (5:3; 5:12; 6:2–3; 10:15; 11:13, etc.). Making a judgment about someone—even a negative one—is not wrong in itself, so how do we know when it is right and when it is not? The answer lies in what we are judging, or to put it another way, in the basis for our judgments. Later in the same verse (1 Cor. 4:5), Paul tells us what we cannot and should not judge about another person: “the things hidden in the darkness and . . . the motives of men’s hearts.” We will discuss this part of the passage in more depth later, but for now it provides the basis for a definition of the sin of judging, so we can understand what we are talking about from the beginning.

The sin of judging is negatively evaluating someone’s conduct or spiritual state on the basis of nonbiblical standards or suspected motives. Or if that is too formal for you, here is a more colloquial version: To “judge” others is to decide that they are doing wrong because they do something the Bible doesn’t talk about or because you think you can guess what is in their heart. That is what Paul means by “judging,” and that is what I mean when I use the term throughout this book.

The Opening Argument

In verses 3–4 Paul begins his case against judging by explaining and illustrating the limitations of human judgment. He writes, “To me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court.” In our way of speaking, he is saying “It’s no big deal if you judge me; I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.” Why would Paul be so unconcerned about the opinions of the Corinthians, or any other “human court”? Because human beings are severely limited when we try to evaluate one another. We do not know everything we need to know to reach an accurate conclusion, and on top of that we are prone to misunderstand the facts that we do observe.

When I was writing this book, a series of commercials for Ameriquest Mortgage Company made their debut on TV. The tag line was “Don’t judge too quickly,” and the scenes in the commercials illustrated how easy it is for us to misunderstand the facts in a situation, even though they may seem patently obvious to an observer. The best (and funniest) of the commercials shows a man entering a convenience store while talking to his friend on his cell phone; he is wearing one of those hands-free ear sets that are not very visible to others. As he approaches the counter, he is commenting on a purchase that his friend has been telling him about, and he says, “You’re getting robbed.” Then as he reaches into his jacket for his wallet to buy something at the counter, he repeats more loudly, “Did you hear me? You’re getting robbed!” Suddenly the man behind the counter maces him in the eyes, then hits him with a baseball bat while another worker rushes out from the back with a cattle prod of all things, and lets him have it with the prod as he writhes on the floor yelling, “Stop! Stop!” Then the words flash on the screen, “Don’t judge too quickly.”

In another one of the commercials a man lets himself into his girlfriend’s apartment so he can surprise her with a nice spaghetti meal when she comes home. He sets the table with flowers and nurses the dinner in the kitchen. But just as his girlfriend arrives and is entering the apartment, her fluffy white cat knocks the saucepan off the stove, and then jumps into the splattered puddle on the floor. The man scrambles to pick up the cat by the scruff of its neck with one hand, while in the other he holds a big knife he had been using to cut the meat. So when his girlfriend turns the corner into the kitchen, she sees him holding the red-soaked cat over a pool of red liquid, which along with the knife in his other hand makes him look like a psychotic cat murderer! And again the screen says, “Don’t judge too quickly.”

I once had an experience like that, which illustrates the limitations of human judgment. Shortly after I had moved from Pennsylvania to California to attend seminary, I met a nice older couple after a church service. They were so friendly, I felt right at home with them. So when we were saying goodbye at the end of the conversation, I said halfjokingly, “You can have me over for dinner sometime, since I’m a starving student.” They thought this was funny, so they did call me and invite me to join their family for Thanksgiving dinner. When the day came, and I was driving to their house, I was thinking about what it would be like, because this was my first social occasion with Christians from California. And my mind happened to run across the issue of alcohol. I wondered if they would be serving it, because one thing I had heard people in Pennsylvania say about people in California was, “They all drink out there.” “Even the Christians drink out there,” someone had said.

I had been raised in a church culture and attended a college where no one drank alcohol—it was considered a sin to do so. I did not agree theoretically that it was a sin to drink, but I also had never done it myself or been with Christians who did. And I did not personally like the taste of alcohol—it reminded me too much of the Nyquil I had to take when I had a cold! So I wondered, what should I do if they served alcohol at dinner? And I decided that I would politely refuse, but be careful not to make a scene about it.

After I arrived at the large gathering and was introduced to various members of the family, I stood on the porch for a while talking to a few of them. I glanced back inside the dining room and saw Jim, the host, circling the big table, pouring a bubbly liquid into wine glasses in front of each place setting. “So it’s true,” I thought, reminding myself not to be judgmental. And Jim was a deacon in my new church, by the way, so I thought, “Even the church officers drink in California!” I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but I still felt uncomfortable, because it was a new situation for me. I tried to act nonchalant, even when they seated me right next to the host, in full view of the big crowd of strangers around the table. They had to look through me to see Jim when he reached for his wine glass and proposed a toast.

All the others grabbed their wine glasses and hoisted them in the air, except for me. In my nervousness I didn’t know what to do, so I belatedly picked up my glass of water, which was shaped noticeably different from the wine glasses, of course. I held the water up with a shaking hand. Everyone noticed. With a funny look on his face, Jim pressed on with his toast, and then it was down the hatch for everyone. I sipped my water and set it back down in front of me.

After a few moments of almost unbearable silence, Jim said to me, “You know, Dave, that’s sparkling cider.” Besides touching on an issue that has been an occasion for much judging on the part of Christians (which we will discuss later), that story is a good illustration of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 4:3. If only I had known what was in those wine glasses, it would have saved me a lot of embarrassment. If only I could have seen inside my new friend’s mind and heart, I wouldn’t have looked like such a fool on that Thanksgiving Day. But remember, in every interaction you have with other people, you are subject to the same limitations. You seldom have all the facts, and you are certainly not privy to the thoughts rattling around inside someone’s head. This is why Paul says that the judgments of other human beings are “no big deal.” Our judgments about others are always limited in some way.

How Well Do You Know Yourself?

In 1 Corinthians 4:4 Paul goes even further to say that our judgments are limited in regard to ourselves. “In fact,” he says, “I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.” Only God knows for sure whether we are doing the right thing or not, according to Paul. We could have a clear conscience, unaware of committing any sin against God, but we could still be sinning! We simply cannot know ourselves completely at all times, or even come close to it. As Charles Spurgeon writes:

Self examination is not the simple thing which, at first sight, it might appear. No Christian who has ever really practised it has found it easy. Is there any exercise of the soul which any one of us has found so unsatisfactory, so almost impossible, as self examination? The fact is this, that the heart is so exceedingly complicated and intricate, and it is so very near the eye which has to investigate it, and both it and the eye are so restless and so shifting, that its deep anatomy baffles our research. Just a few things, here and there, broad and open, and floating upon the surface, a man discovers; but there are chambers receding within chambers, in that deepest of all deep things, a sinner’s heart, which no mere human investigation ever will reach . . . it is the prerogative of God alone to “search” the human heart.2

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians echo those of Jeremiah the prophet, who wrote: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jer. 17:9–10).

God Himself is the only one capable of accurately and consistently judging what is in our hearts, because He understands us better than we understand ourselves. We can be deceived about our own motives, because sin still dwells within us (Rom. 7:14–24; 1 John 1:8), and that sin can pervert our perspective on ourselves. In addition, we do not yet know everything the Bible says about what is right and what is wrong—we are all in a process of learning the meaning and application of God’s commands. So, as Paul might say, we have sins in places where we don’t even know we have places!

The point he is making to the Corinthians should be obvious: If we cannot even judge ourselves accurately, then we ought to be extremely careful about how we judge others. Since you cannot know with certainty what is in your own heart, how could you possibly think that you can discern what is in the heart of another?! And the fact that we usually do not know all the facts should produce in us a “holy hesitation” before we draw any conclusions about others. Proverbs 18 is filled with wisdom about this issue:

A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind. (v. 2)

He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him. (v. 13)

The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him. (v. 17)

This does not mean that we can never make a negative judgment about another person, of course. As I mentioned before, the Scripture calls on us to do just that at times. But because of our human limitations, we must be careful that we “not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment,” as our Lord Jesus said in John 7:24. And in the words of his brother James, we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Judging Is a Sin

Having set the stage for his case, Paul directly addresses the practice of judging in verse 5: “Therefore do not go on passing judgment.” The verb tense he uses indicates that the Corinthians had been doing this already and needed to stop doing it (see chapter 4 for an explanation of the situation at Corinth). And by commanding them to stop it, with words inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself, Paul is making it clear that judging is a sin against God—not to mention a sin against others. This is an important point to emphasize, because there seems to be widespread ignorance among God’s people about this sin. Everyone knows that murder, adultery, hate, lust, and other common sins are wrong, but few are aware that it is equally wrong to judge another Christian.

In many years of pastoral counseling, I have repeatedly found that the difficulties people face in their marriages, families, churches, and jobs can be traced back to wrongful judgments that have been made in their minds concerning others. And almost as often I have found that these people are not even aware that this problem exists, or that it is a primary cause of their conflicts. But when they have learned about it, I am glad to say that through repentance from this sin and practicing new ways of thinking, many of them have experienced peace as never before, in their hearts and in their relationships with others.

This sin is so damaging to us, and displeasing to God, that the Scriptures are filled with commands against it. In addition to the prohibition in our passage, consider these others:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1–2)

But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. . . . Therefore let us not judge one another anymore. (Rom. 14:10, 13)

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law. . . . There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:11–12)

The words in Matthew 7:1–2 are the words of our Lord Jesus, of course, and a case could be made that one of the major goals of His earthly ministry was to confront the errors of judging (the personal sin between individuals) and legalism (the institutionalized form of judging). In chapter 7 we will discuss Jesus’ ministry further, but as we continue now through 1 Corinthians 4, we will learn more about the nature of sinful judging, and how to avoid it.

Matthew Henry, the great Puritan commentator, provides a summary of what we have learned so far, and a good transition to the next chapter. Writing about the command at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 4:5, he says:

The apostle takes occasion hence to caution the Corinthians against censoriousness—the forward and severe judging of others. . . . He is not to be understood of judging by persons in authority, within the verge of their office, nor of private judging concerning facts that are notorious; but of judging persons’ future state, or the secret springs and principles of their actions, or about facts doubtful in themselves. To judge in these cases, and give decisive sentence, is to assume the seat of God and challenge his prerogative. Note, how bold a sinner is the forward and severe censurer! How ill-timed and arrogant are his censures! But there is one who will judge the censurer, and those he censures, without prejudice, passion, or partiality. And there is a time coming when men cannot fail judging aright concerning themselves and others, but following his judgment. This should make them now cautious of judging others, and careful in judging themselves.3

Questions for Discussion and Application

1. How does this chapter define the sin of judging? After reviewing the definition, put it in your own words.

2. Give some examples of premature or inaccurate judgments you have made yourself, or seen others make.

3. What do you think about this statement: “We have sins in places where we don’t even know we have places”?

4. As you were reading this chapter, did you think of some sinful judgments you have made about other people, especially other Christians? If so, ask the Lord to forgive you and help you to stop “passing judgment” in that way. Also ask forgiveness from the people you have judged wrongly, if it has broken or weakened your relationship with them.