Synopsis: Jesus taught, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” however Jesus also taught us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” So, are we not supposed to judge others at all or are we commanded to be judgmental? This article examines how and when we are to judge others.
Jesus taught, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned” (Luke 6:3). The apostle Paul likewise taught, “Let us not therefore judge one another any more” (Romans 14:13). “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself” (Romans 2:1). However, Jesus also taught us to “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgments” (John 7:24), and the apostle Paul taught “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2).
So what are we to do? Are we commanded not to judge others at all or are we commanded to be judgmental? And are these contradictory commandments or are they somehow compatible with one another?
In answer to this question there are those who point to the story of a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery and was brought before Jesus. Tempting him, the accusers asked, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” After giving his response, the accusers silently left, one by one, and Jesus then said to the woman, “where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:3-11).
From this story it can be said that this is an example of how no matter what someone does, we are not to condemn them but forgive them completely. Notice that, even though Jesus told her not to do this sin again, the woman did not say she repented of her sin. What if she went and committed adultery again, perhaps a week later or a month later or a year later? Are we still not allowed to condemn her for her violation of God’s law? If this is true, then we should not be judgmental towards anything anyone does, no matter how vile, perverse, or wicked it may be.
Yet there are others who point to the story of when Jesus entered the temple and saw money changers selling oxen, sheep, and doves, “and [after] he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables” (John 2:15). From this story it can be said that since Jesus acted in righteous anger toward the blasphemous behavior of the money changers, this shows that we too should react in anger toward those who break God’s law. From this perspective, “righteous anger” is defined as judging people guilty of violating the laws of God and being justified in meeting out harsh punishment against them.
Then how do we reconcile these seemingly two opposing views on whether or not we should judge others?
The first way is to realize that it is impossible for us to go through life without making judgments because we make judgments on people, things, circumstances, and incidents every day of our life, often many times a day. We make such judgments when we decide what clothes to wear, what foods to eat, what time to do certain tasks, what priorities we place on certain duties, and many other mundane and ordinary acts we perform on a daily basis. We make judgments on which stores we want to shop in or not shop at. We make judgments on which TV shows we want to watch or not watch. We make judgments on what kind of employment we will or will not accept or what companies we will or will not choose to work for. And we make judgments on which people we want to associate with and which friends we want our children to have.
In our free democracy we are expected to make judgments concerning proposed laws and ordinances, and whether we support them or not. At election time we are expected to make judgments about who we want to represent us, which includes voting for our local school board officials all the way to deciding who we want to be the President of our nation.
It is obvious then that we are required to make many kinds of judgments concerning nearly everything we do in life. Therefore the question isn’t whether or not we should be judgmental but rather how do we make the many and various judgments in life in light of what the scriptures teach us about being judging others?
The answer to this question is found in the statement that Jesus made when he said, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” Therefore, the real question is: What is meant by the term “righteous judgment”?
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe that the purpose of our life here on earth is to progress in our spirituality until we can measure up to the full stature of Christ and thereby become worthy to not only live with God forever but to be capable of inheriting all the power, dominion, and glory that he has. In other words, the purpose of the plan of salvation is to help us to someday become just like God.
If this is true then we have to ask ourselves, “Does God make judgments?” And, of course, the answer to that question is a clear and unmistakable “Yes.” The scriptures are replete with illustrations and incidents where God has pronounced judgments – both for good and for bad – on people, nations, and behavior. In both the Law of Moses and in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God clearly sets out what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
The apostle Paul told the saints of his day, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Paul declares that those who commit these kinds of acts and do not repent of them “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” But for that to happen, a judgment has to be made and, in fact, the scriptures repeatedly tell us that we shall all stand before the judgment bar of Christ to give an account of the things we have done. So clearly, God does make judgments, and if the purpose of earth life is to learn how to be like God, then we too must learn how to make judgments like God does.
Jesus taught “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Therefore, the key to knowing how to judge like God does is to come to know God and his Son, Jesus Christ, and understand the basis on which they make their judgments.
The scriptures often refer to God’s decisions as “righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:7; Jeremiah 23:5; Revelations 19:2; Alma 41:14) which brings us back to the question we ask a little while ago: What do the scriptures mean by the term “righteous judgment?”
The scriptures talk about that which is good and that which is evil and many times they substitute the words “righteous” and “unrighteous” in their place. The word “righteous” simply means “that which is right,” while the word “unrighteous” merely means “that which is not right.” Put in simpler terms, that which is righteous is that which is good, while that which is unrighteous is that which is wrong or evil.
With this understanding, we can say that a righteous judgment is one that is right, good, fair, and just. Therefore, any kind of judgment that doesn’t fit this definition is, by definition, unrighteous.
To understand this concept better, let’s look at the context in which Jesus said, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” Jesus had just healed a man on the Sabbath day and when the Pharisees saw this, they were filled with righteous indignation because the law of Moses clearly taught that people were not to do any work on the Sabbath day. Then were the Pharisees right in their indignation toward Jesus? Had Jesus indeed violated the law?
Jesus answered them saying, “Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the Sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the Sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the Sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:22-24)
What Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees was that their condemnation of his actions in healing a man on the Sabbath was not in violation of the law. He pointed out how even they themselves perform circumcision on the Sabbath, so how can doing good to someone on the Sabbath be wrong? As such, their accusation of his behavior was not just but unfair. It was not justified but was unwarranted. Instead of coming to the right conclusion they had made an erroneous decision. Therefore they had made an unrighteous judgment.
In the 60th chapter of Alma we read of a letter that Captain Moroni sent to Pahoran, the chief judge over the Nephites, complaining about the lack of concern the government had for the welfare of the Nephite army who were engaged in a war against the Lamanites.
Moroni’s army had lost thousands of men in battle and those remaining were spread thin trying to protect numerous cities. Worse yet, they were running low on food, weapons, and other supplies. Moroni had sent Pahoran several requests for men and provisions but nothing came.
With righteous indignation Moroin sent an angry letter to Pahoran demanding that he send men and supplies to help fight the war or Moroni threatened to take some of his men and overthrow Pahoran from his position as governor of the land. Everything that Moroni said in that letter was correct if what he assumed about Pahoran was correct, but as we find out in the next chapter Moroni’s assumption as to why Pahoran was not sending supplies was not correct.
Sometimes we can feel righteous anger over some issue or some person and feel that we are justified in our anger because everything we say is based on truth. But if our anger is not based on knowing all the facts then our righteous anger can become an unrighteous act.
It’s like trying to hit a nail with a hammer. To drive a nail into a piece of wood you need to swing a hammer down hard on the head of the nail, but if the hammer misses the nail then the point of the nail doesn’t get driven into the wood. In the same way, if we say or do something that is correct in its context but we miss the point of the context than our actions are misplaced and may do more harm than good. If someone as righteous as Moroni was could make an unrighteous judgment, then all of us are prone to doing the same thing if we are not careful.
In order to make a righteous judgment, we have to satisfy four requirements.
The first is that we have to know all the facts. Too often people jump to conclusions without having a full understanding of why a person has behaved in a certain way. For example, while in a grocery store a member of the LDS church sees another member purchasing a can of coffee. Since we are not supposed to drink coffee, it is assumed that the person buying the coffee is planning on using it for their own consumption. This then leads to the conclusion that this person is violating the Word of Wisdom, which leads to making the judgment that this person is not a faithful member of the Church. However, in this case, the person buying the coffee is purchasing it for their non-LDS neighbor who is sick and cannot get out of the house. Therefore, the judgment made in this case is not a right or a good one because it was based on not knowing all the facts.
Another example is seeing a group of men, with long, scruffy looking beards, riding motorcycles while dressed in leather jackets and wearing dirty boots. The first impression is that these men belong to a motorcycle gang and are not good people. However, there is a nationwide organization called “Bikers for Christ” and these men ride motorcycles, dressed the way we have just described, but they are true Christians who live the gospel of Christ.
In America we say that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. In a court of law both the prosecution and the defense are allowed to make their case as fully as they can before the judge makes a decision on the guilt or innocence of the accused. However, too often people make snap judgments without knowing all the facts or giving someone the opportunity to explain themselves. We can certainly say that this kind of judgment is not fair or just.
The second requirement in making a righteous judgment is to eliminate our biases. A bias is being in favor of something while also being against anything that you are not in favor of. Another word for bias is prejudice which is having preconceived ideas that we judge everything against. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have biases and some of them are more strongly held than others.
There are those who have a bias or prejudice towards black people or Oriental people or people from the Middle East. There are those who have a prejudice toward those who call themselves Republicans or who are Democrats. There are those who are biased towards people with little education or who come from a lower class of society.
At the time when Jesus lived on the earth the Pharisees were striving to live the law of Moses as best they could but they had certain preconceived ideas of how to do that and if someone wasn’t living the law as they understood it then they condemned that person based on their own biases.
On the other hand, God is no respecter of people. He treats everyone the same. There are those Christians who are biased towards Mormons as there are Mormons who look down on those of other faiths. But God makes no such distinction. He loves the sinner as much as he loves the saint. He loves the atheist as much as he loves the Catholic, the Baptist, the Muslim, the Hindu, and the Buddhists. For this reason God doesn’t base his judgments on a predetermined bias.
If we want to pattern our life after that of Christ, then we have to learn to eliminate our biases and judge people based on truth rather than on our own preconceived notions of what is right and wrong.
The third requirement for making a righteous judgment is to apply the principles of mercy and compassion, however, this is not always easy to do. Alma the younger taught “do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:25). No matter how much we would like to be compassionate in applying mercy, justice still need to be done. If justice is not met then the judgment rendered is not just.
However, while applying too much mercy and compassion prevents justice from being served yet justice without mercy can be cruel. Therefore, knowing how to balance the right amount of justice with the right amount of mercy is critical yet can be difficult to achieve.
This leads us to the fourth requirement. From our limited perspective, we can’t always know all the facts, nor can we always know what is in a person’s heart, or how much justice and mercy to apply that will produce a just, fair, and right judgment. But God knows. Therefore, the fourth requirement in making a righteous decision is to seek for divine inspiration.
When a member of the LDS Church has committed a serious offense they are brought before a church disciplinary counsel which consists of the twelve men on the stake high council plus the members who make up the stake presidency. In this meeting the accused is given a full opportunity to present the circumstances of and reasoning for their sin and when they are through each member of the high council is given an opportunity to ask questions to help them better understand all the facts.
When this phase of the meeting has been completed, the accused is then escorted out of the room so that each member of the high council can expresses their feelings about what they have just heard, and as they discuss these feelings, the stake presidency listens carefully. When the discussion is over then the members of the stake presidency retire to the stake president’s office and kneel in prayer, seeking the Lord’s will in what should be done.
When they have received an answer they report back to the high council to let them know of their decision and ask if anyone has any objection to the verdict. If there is an objection, a discussion is held to resolve the differences in opinions. It is when all of these men are in agreement with one another that a final judgment is made.
These disciplinary courts have often been referred to as courts of love because their purpose is not so much to condemn as it is to help the sinner repent and come back to Christ. It is in this way that judgments are made that are fair and just yet compassionate and full of mercy and love
In a smaller way, each of us can go through a similar process when faced with having to make a judgment. By withholding a final decision until we have sought to understand all the facts, laying aside our biases and prejudices, striving to be compassionate in presuming a person’s innocent while also striving to do what is fair and just, and seeking divine inspiration we can then be better assured of making a righteous judgment.
Related articles can be found at Nature of Spiritual Growth