There are two directions that people have taken on Matthew 7:1, both of which I think are mistaken. Even Jesus cannot create a one liner that someone else can’t apply foolishly.
The first approach to Matthew 7:1 is to broaden it excessively and try to live that way. We try to create a community in which nobody exercises critical thinking or discernment about what anyone else says and does. A number of things result. First, we have some of the moral and spiritual problems so ably discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Second, we can’t really live without any form of judgment, so we find ways to judge while claiming that we aren’t. One saying is that you can’t judge, but you can “inspect fruit.” This draws on Matthew 7:15-20. But very frequently “fruit inspecting” looks very much like judging.
The major alternative is to narrow down the command so that it can be applied universally. One option is to take the element of “judge” that means “condemn.” So “don’t condemn so you won’t be condemned.” Another is to say that we can judge people’s actions and appearances, but not the content of their hearts. That’s true, but perhaps not complete.
I would like to suggest a third way to think about this verse in practice. With each action of testing, whether it is spiritual or physical, whether I think it’s fruit inspecting or outright judging, whether it involves criticism or approval, I need to consider how my words or actions impact the community of faith, the kingdom of God.
I want to note here that we do not avoid Christ’s command simply by speaking only in approving terms. When we speak positively about something, and then simply say nothing about another thing, that second thing is condemned by our silence. If we speak positively of things that are not positive, speaking without judging, then we are liars.
We should ask with each act of testing, when we decide whether something is right or wrong, how our response to that thing will impact other believers. I think Jesus points to us (lest you be judged) because that is the thing that catches our attention the most. If I point out a brother or sister’s weaknesses, I stand to have mine pointed out as well. It may not be the holiest of motivations, but it is certainly the most human.
By either trying to make the command of Jesus a context-free absolute, or by narrowing it to one part of the command, we reduce the impact of what Jesus was trying to say. We need to keep Matthew 7:1 in mind at all times, making sure that when we exercise judgment, we are exercising good judgment.