What Does the Bible Say About Judging?

Question: The Bible Talk article, "Getting Ready For Judgment Day," held that Jesus alone has the right and ability to judge on that great day. He alone has the last word on everyone and everything. Okay. Agreed. But, in the meantime, He delegated responsibility to the Church as the body of Christ on earth, which must include judging. So my question is, what, in fact, does Jesus and/or the Bible say about Christians judging themselves and other people? Since He entrusted the job to us, He must have given instructions on how to go about it, right?

Discussion: Yes, Jesus instructs us in what He asks us to do. And, yes, the Bible includes additional writings on the subject, as the Apostles and early Christians continued to work out the details. For instance, the Corinthian church consisted of many people from highly diverse backgrounds, sort of like our local parish in Florida. Paul's letters helped them to know how to conduct themselves and make right judgments, not according to cultural upbringing or personal preferences, but in accordance with the unique oneness in Christ.

Although you didn't mention the Catechism, it's interesting to note that the only listing in the index was "Judgment, rash." Also, many biblical references to judging can be found in the Old Testament, while the books of James, I Peter, and Revelation bring New Testament light to the subject. Including every quotation or full book would take a book, but if we focus primarily on what Jesus Himself said, we can look at those words here, excluding overlaps or quotations that appear irrelevant.

The very first Gospel account I could find that mentions judging occurs as part of Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison" (Matthew 5:21-22, 25, Revised Standard Version, RSV).

In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus' words of caution add crucial instructions on how we can "see clearly" in our judgments: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (RSV).

The Gospel of Luke records the same teaching or a similar word placed in this context: "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:35-38, RSV.)

 In a discussion recorded in Luke 12:56-58, Jesus told the crowd, "You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate, make an effort to settle the matter on the way; otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison" (NAB).

In John 7:24, Jesus said, "Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly" (NAB.) That same chapter goes on to record how some religious leaders (Pharisees) debated among themselves about how they were to deal with Jesus until Nicodemus, a member of their group, pointedly asked, "Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?" (John 7:51, NAB).

The following chapter, John 8, begins with religious leaders (Pharisees, again) bringing an adulterous women to be stoned, then ends with the group trying to stone Jesus! In between those episodes, Jesus told them, "You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he (God the Father) who sent me" (John 8:15-16). Regarding religious people who kept trying to trip him up, Jesus said in verse 26, "I have much to say about you and much to judge…."

In John 12:46-50, Jesus told the crowd, "I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness. And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day, because I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. So what I say, I say as the Father told me" (NAB).

Jesus' word on "the Father told me" resounds the same word that went into the making of true Old Testament prophets, who told the people exactly what God had first told them. Occasionally, though, fake prophets arose to confuse God's people. Since that possibility can still occur, Jesus informs followers about phony spokespersons for God, producing in the process an example that likely gave us the concept of Christians as "fruit inspectors." As recorded in Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits" (RSV).

Apt "fruit inspecting" may be an accepted form of "passing judgment," but Romans 2:1-3 offers a strong word of caution for those who judge others without inspecting themselves first: "Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things. We know that the judgment of God on those who do such things is true. Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?" (NAB).

As mentioned, the letters to the Corinthians offer us valuable light and insight on this tricky topic. For instance, I Corinthians 2:11-16 says: "For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 'For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?' But we have the mind of Christ."

Having the "mind of Christ" is a vital prerequisite to all types of judging or "seeing clearly," but most particularly as we endeavor to keep I Corinthians 6:1-7 in context: "When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?" (RSV).

That passage concerned "the world," then or now, in which Christians live. Regarding Christians judging one another, the biblical example in I Corinthians 11: 13-16 concerns the need to determine appropriate conduct within a local group, such as whether people will be allowed to wear short-shorts: "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering? But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God" ( NAB).

In addition to the letters of the Corinthians, other books mentioned earlier reflect "the mind of Christ" on the subject of judgment. For example, James 2:8-13 says: "If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' said also, 'Do not kill.' If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment" (RSV).

Again, reflecting Jesus' teachings, James 4:11-12 says, "Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?" (NAB).

Another key verse occurs in James 5:9: "Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors." Verses 19 and 20 continue, "My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (NAB). That phrase also brings to mind a lasting word from the mind of Christ as recorded in I Peter 4:8: "Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins" (NAB).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage