The culture around us may not have much knowledge of the Bible, but everyone still seems to know and freely quote these words: “Judge not.” People may not know much, but they do know that the Bible strictly warns against standing in judgment against anyone else. Christians expend no little effort in explaining how “judge not” is not actually a blanket condemnation of all assessments of another person’s behavior, but a warning against passing judgement too freely, too often, or on the wrong basis.
But for all that, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the force of Jesus’s words. In Luke 6:37 he does, after all, say very simply: “Judge not” and “condemn not.” Just like most explanations of Romans 13 focus more on what the words don’t mean rather than what they do, so too Luke 6:37. (Douglas Moo: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”) So what is Jesus saying when he forbids judgment and condemnation (and, as he continues, when he commands forgiveness and generosity)? I think what Jesus is doing here is setting up two different kinds of community. Speaking to his followers with the knowledge that they will soon form themselves into assemblies or churches, he warns against one kind of community while commending another.
Two Kinds of Community
The first community, the one Jesus warns against, has four major characteristics.
- It’s a community of judgment, where people are scrutinizing one another’s lives to look for evidence of sin and failure, and then harshly judging them for what they see there. There’s a lot of nit-picking and ruthlessness going on.
- It’s a community of condemnation, where people are actively looking for each other’s flaws and foibles and then being hard-hearted or compassionless when they spot them.
- It’s a community of resentfulness, where the people are harboring bitterness. They are slow to repent when they’ve sinned against others and even slower to forgive when others have sinned against them.
- It’s a community of selfishness, where each person is looking out primarily for his own interests rather than the interests of others.
That community sounds horrific. It’s judgmental, condemning, resentful, and selfish. We need to ask why. Why is this community marked by such awful behaviors? It can only be because the individual members are marked by such awful behaviors. There is a kind of law of reciprocation going on here—reciprocation is receiving in kind and in quantity what you have sent out. People in the community are being judged because they judge others; people are being condemned because they condemn others; forgiveness comes slowly because forgiveness is granted slowly; no generosity is being received because no generosity is being extended. The community is the people, so the community is like the people. The ungodly character of this community is just a reflection of the ungodly character of its members.
That’s the first option—the community Jesus is warning against. In contrast, here’s the second community which is, of course, the one Jesus is calling for.
- It’s a community of acceptance where people accept each other and are very slow to criticize. If there is any great scrutinizing going on, it’s people scrutinizing their own lives rather than each other’s.
- It’s a community of compassion, where people still see each other’s flaws and foibles, but they respond to them with warm hearts, with compassion, with patience.
- It’s a community of forgiveness where people are quick to come to others to say “please forgive me” and where they are quick to grant forgiveness when asked for it.
- It’s a community of generosity, where it’s normal for its members to experience the generosity of others, whether that’s being generous with money or time or attention or anything else someone may need.
This community sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? It’s accepting and compassionate and forgiving and generous. And again we need to ask why. Why is the community marked by these wonderful behaviors? It’s because the individuals are marked by these wonderful behaviors. That same law of reciprocation is going on here. People are not being judged because they are not judging others; they are not feeling harsh condemnation because they are not condemning others; forgiveness comes to them quickly because forgiveness comes from them quickly; they are receiving generosity because they’ve given generosity. Again, the community is the people, so the community is like the people. The godly character of this community is just a reflection of the godly character of its members.
Jesus’s point and purpose here is not to tell Christians they must never identify sin in other people. In fact, a passage like Matthew 18 says that this is imperative to the health of the local church community. Rather, he is warning against a spirit of judgmentalism that can pervade a church, a spirit of condemnation that can mark a congregation. And that spirit begins with you, the individual.
If you personally are in the habit of standing in harsh judgement of other people in your church, you are helping to create and to foster a church-wide spirit of judgmentalism. If you criticize people, rant about them, cut them down, grumble about them, condemn them in your own heart, you’re not just doing that as an individual but as a part of a church. And then you shouldn’t be surprised when other people in the church make harsh judgments toward you. Why? Because you’ve helped create that culture in the church!
The simple fact is, the church is the people so the church will be like the people. The church is you, so the church will be like you. You choose day by day what your church community will be like, and you choose through your own behavior.