Judging: What does it mean?
© 2020 C. O. Bishop
James 4:11, 12; Romans 14:10-12; Matthew 7:1; (compare) 1st Corinthians 5:1-7; 1st Corinthians 6:1-8; etc.
James briefly addresses the subjects of “gossip and slander,” here, but he also relates them to the concept of “Judging,” in a negative sense. Probably the most common verse used by unbelievers (and believers) to “counter-attack,” when someone disapproves of their behavior, is (misquoted) “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” They are attempting to quote Matthew 7:1, in order to excuse their bad behavior, and assuming that the Lord Jesus forbids any judgment of any sort. That is a wrong assumption as well as a misquote of the KJV, but even if correctly quoted, (“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”) that verse has a context, (v.2) where Jesus explained that there is a right way to judge, and that we need to be aware that we will be judged in the same way we judge others.
Further, in 1st Corinthians 5 and 6, there is a command to judge sin, in order to prevent corruption in the church, and also that we are to be able to judge “civil matters” among believers without dragging one another before unbelievers in a courtroom.
What is Judgment?
So, what is the deal, here? Are there different Greek words for “judge,” or something? How do we know when we are to judge, and when we are not? Well, actually, no, there are not different words for the different concepts: the Greek word in most cases is one form or another of the word “krino”, meaning simply “to judge.” There is one other word that simply means to have an opinion. (For an English example, “Well, I judge it’s gonna rain, before we get the plowing done!”) We don’t commonly use it that way, anymore, and it wasn’t common in Biblical times either. The word “judge” simply has several possible connotations, some negative, some positive, and some judgment is simply a necessary part of wisdom and discernment. We need to know which is which.
In this particular passage in James, he is talking about unfairly, unjustly condemning another believer, by talking behind their back. We call that “Gossip,” and so it is; but James points out that it is also a form of wrong, unjust Judgment.
That makes total sense: In the first place, I am not their Judge, and in the second place, it is always wrong to be a “talebearer,” or a “sower of discord among brethren.” (Leviticus 19:16, Proverbs 26:20; Proverbs 6:16-19) In the Leviticus 19:16 passage, it is expressly forbidden to “go about as a talebearer”. In Proverbs 26:20, we see one of the results of gossip: strife. And in Proverbs 6:16-19, we see how God feels about the matter: He hates it! So, here in James, it is no surprise that we are admonished, once again, to “Knock it off! Stop it!”
James 4:11, 12
11 Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. 12 There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?
It is, unfortunately, not at all uncommon for believers to “bad-mouth” one another, essentially slandering one another, when, even if the things we say may be defended as being “true”, they still amount to gossip, and “evil-speaking.”
Ephesians 4:31 says that we are to “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking, along with all malice”…that little word “all” is a hard one for us: we seem to think that somehow the things we say are exempt from this command. But that is not true: He said all evil-speaking is to be put away from us. The word here, by the way, in Greek, is katlaleo, meaning “speaking evil”, or “backbiting.” It is only used a few times in the New Testament. This is not to include a simple testimony of fact, in a courtroom, for instance. “Backbiting” carries the idea of evil intent, as does “slander.” Talking behind the back of another person, especially against a believer, is definitely in that category.
James then says that when we “speak evil” of one another we are speaking evil of the Law. But, what Law? I have to assume that it means that we are repudiating the Law of Love, which Jesus laid down for believers, not the Mosaic Law. Why? Even though this book is directed primarily to Jewish believers, and, indeed, they may have taken it to mean the Mosaic Law, it would seem that it could not be the Mosaic Law in question, as believers are said to be “dead” to that Old Law. (Galatians 2:19 “I, through the Law, am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God.”) Remember that the whole context of the book of Galatians is that of the contrast between Grace and Law. The Mosaic Law was definitely the Law in question in Galatians. How is it that through the Law, I was made dead to the Law? When Jesus died, it was to satisfy the righteous demands of the Law on my behalf: he died under the Law. Through the satisfaction of God’s Law, at the Cross, I died with Christ! Therefore, under the Law, I am dead! I am dead to the Mosaic Law, through the satisfaction of its righteous demand for justice, in the Person of Christ.
But I am not dead to the Law of Love. (John 13:34, 35 “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
Indeed, I became alive to that New Commandment, the moment I trusted in Christ as my Savior. Can I be in obedience to that Law, when I am speaking evil of a fellow believer? Resoundingly, No! Then, James concludes, I am “speaking evil” of that Law, and judging that Law to not apply to me. I do not have the authority to make that call: Jesus made his command that we love one another, and there were no exceptions given. And, further, He said that this is one of the three things Jesus has given the World, by which to judge the Church! One is Love, another is Unity. Those two, along with a life-pattern of good works toward all around us, are the ways that the Church is to exhibit the light of God’s presence in a dark world. Given that foundation, the Gospel finds hearts ready to receive the Savior.
I am aware that there must be other ways to interpret this passage, and I want to be open to re-examining it in other ways, but, for the moment, at least, that is the best I can do. I don’t know any other way in which a believer can be guilty “speaking evil of the Law,” or of “judging the Law.”
So what about Judgment in a positive light?
We should give some thought to passages that command us to judge, or tell us to take actions that would require some judgment:
I was at a workshop with perhaps a dozen or more individuals, the majority of whom (demonstrated by their own words and actions, and in some cases openly declared) were blatantly ungodly unbelievers. I had found one Christian among the group, and we had driven off to a market to get some sort of supplies. On the way back, I was singing a particular hymn, and he wanted me to sing it for the group when we returned to the workshop. I declined, as I thought it would be inappropriate to sing sacred songs to those who already were openly rejecting the Lord and the Gospel. I cited Jesus’ command (Matthew 7:6) to not “give that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine…” He asked “But are we supposed to judge that?” I answered, “Of course we are! Otherwise how could we obey the command? If I have no idea who is referred to in that passage, or am unwilling to exercise enough judgement to realize that there is a time and a place and an appropriate audience, then the “…lest they trample them under foot and turn and rend thee…” is what I can expect. That is the warning in that verse!
We really don’t like the word “Judge,” and we have been taught by our society that it is always wrong to judge. But that is simply not the case.
We are not to condemn one another…that is made abundantly clear, here in James, as well as elsewhere. Romans 14:1-13 specifically says that we are not to condemn, despise, or judge one another for perceived short-fallings in regard to lifestyle. The two questions specifically addressed there are meat-eating and Sabbath-keeping. A young woman asked me one day “Who is right?” because she wanted to keep the Sabbath, while her husband did not. I said, “Well, according to the scripture, you are both right!” She was surprised, and asked, “Where does it say that?” We read Romans 14:1-13 together, and then verse 23, “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” And she was delighted. She correctly understood the word of God, as delivered, and instantly applied it to her own heart. She was freed from her anxiety about the potential discord between her and her husband. How? By God’s Word!
When are we required to Judge?
Please keep in mind that Jesus is called “the Word of God” at least four times in the Bible. But in Genesis 18:25 he is also addressed as “the Judge of all the Earth!” He confirmed that in John 5:22, where he said that “The Father judgeth no man, but has committed all judgment unto the Son, that all men may honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” So when Abraham talked with Him face-to-face, and addressed him as the “Judge of all the earth,” he was definitely talking to Jesus (compare John 1:18 “No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him.”)
So, as much as we may not “feel comfortable” with the idea, Jesus, the Savior, is also Jesus, the Judge; the Living Word of God, who is alive and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword, able to discern (judge; Greek, “kritikos”) the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
We are not permitted to be complacent about gross immorality. The Church at Corinth was soundly rebuked by Paul (1st Corinthians 5:1-7) because they were literally congratulating themselves for their “loving, non-judgmental, tolerant” attitude toward sin.
There was a man in their assembly—a believer—who was committing adultery with his father’s wife (remember, this society was polygamous…and even if it were not, his father could have remarried a much younger woman. It has happened countless times.) They were apparently accepting the fellow, as a “believer in good standing,” and not addressing the sin issue.
Paul rebuked them for not judging the sin, and stated that he himself was judging the sin, and commanded them to collectively judge the sin and put the man out of fellowship. This is what is commonly called “excommunication.” It does not mean that the person is cut off from God. It means that he or she is cut off from fellowship with other believers, because of sin. It also means that, if the individual repents, and abandons the sin, they are to be received freely back into fellowship. (1st Corinthians 5:11-13)This really amounts to what we call “quarantine,” where communicable disease is in question. It is a preventive measure, intended to protect the larger population, not to “punish” someone with a disease. And, notice, it has no application to an unbeliever. They were not part of the fellowship to begin with, and their sin is not the primary concern. Their lost status is (or should be) our only concern toward them.
And even when this correct, required form of judgment is in view, the heart-motive of the church is always to be carefully guarded. The Church is widely regarded as “the only army in the world which shoots its wounded.” That is pretty sad. So how should we respond to those in sin?
Galatians 6:1 says “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”
Let’s break that down into individual points;
- The man is “overtaken in a fault”…it caught him, entangled him; tripped him! He is the victim of sin, even though he is also the perpetrator. We are not to see him as an enemy!
- “Ye which are spiritual” (You who are not personally entangled in sin right now, whether overt or covert…you who are walking with the Lord in peace, and the light of His Word.) If you are out of fellowship yourself, regardless of why, then you are not qualified to minister to this person. You need ministry yourself.
- “RESTORE!” This is to be the only objective: you are not there to “Straighten him out!” or whatever other “self-righteous” motive we might secretly entertain. If you cannot say honestly that your only motive is to restore broken fellowship, and to help a fallen brother, then keep your mouth shut until you have addressed your own heart-issues!
- “In a spirit of meekness…” We see this primarily as “gentleness”, and that is mostly right, but there is an aspect of “yieldedness” as well. If you are not yielded to Christ, and being as gentle as He was with the woman caught in adultery, then perhaps you need to keep out of it. The objective is restoration, and if you are “strutting in, with an edict from the throne,” then probably it will not bear the desired fruit. James 3:18 states that the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. Give that some thought.
- Finally “Considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” Recognize that a common trick in human warfare is to deliberately wound, rather than kill an enemy combatant, in hopes that he will serve as “bait,” to attract his fellow soldiers, who are earnestly trying to help, but who then can also be fired upon. Our enemy isn’t stupid: He knows that one wounded Christian can be used to draw in other Christians as victims as well.
Be aware! You may be targeted along with the brother or sister you are trying to restore. (This could take many forms: anger, depression, etc. Along with this warning, think clearly: Brothers deal with Brothers! If a sister is involved make sure that women are involved with the restoration. If you are an elder; at the least, take your wife with you. Many Godly individuals have been drawn away by a relationship that started out right, but “took a wrong turn,” so to speak.)
How then should we respond to the passage in James? That one by itself is pretty easy. No Gossip! No talking behind people’s backs! (By the way, that includes “Let me share this with you so you can pray about it!” This is a common “spiritual-sounding” cloak for gossip. Prayer-requests, as a general case, need to be such that the person being prayed for would not be offended by the sharing of the request. We try to ask permission of the person requesting prayer, before we share the request on our “prayer-chain.”)
But the general idea of “judgment” needs to be carefully considered, as to whether the judgment is forbidden by God, or required by God. 1st Corinthians 6:1-8 says that “…we shall judge angels!” (Really? Why?? And When??) As far as I can tell, this is because we will be seated with Christ, in Christ, at the Great White Throne judgment. But the specific application Paul was offering, was that we are not to be taking one another to court: We should be able to judge civil matters within the church, to avoid turmoil and disunity, and to deal with it before it becomes a bad testimony for the church at large. I don’t know of any churches today that practice this…which is sad, because the result is that believers do sue one another, and take each other before unbelieving judges, seeking justice, as though the believers at large lack the wisdom or equity to deal with such things. Paul’s conclusion is that the least-qualified believer ought to be a better choice than taking another believer to court. (There’s an idea to ponder!)
Can we apply these things today? I hope we can. There is no doubt that we can (and must) stop the gossip. There is also no doubt that we must begin taking Galatians 6:1 to heart, and check our motives before attempting to “restore” a sinning brother…but it is still a command to do so. We are not allowed to shrug our shoulders and turn away, thinking, “Too bad! Guess you are in trouble now!” We have an obligation to seek restoration, but also a series of warnings about how to do so. And, yes, that whole process requires “judgment!”
Can we circumvent civil courts and seek justice through the church? I would hope so, though I have never seen it done. I expect that it would have to involve believers who were mutually desirous of obedience to the Lord, and simply have a disagreement as to how to do it. Perhaps one believer feels that he was treated poorly in a business matter with another. Paul says we would be better off to bring such matters before the assembly, and settle it amongst believers. That would be a broader, “conference-call” application of Galatians 6:1, I guess. And the collective motive has to be to restore fellowship. Paul concludes in that passage, that it would be better to suffer a financial loss than to bring shame on the Church by publicly airing our petty squabbles.
I agree. And I fervently hope that the church can learn such commitment to the honor of the Lord that they all will feel this way.
The Lord give us wisdom, and sound Judgment, as we learn to apply His Word.