Quick Note on Applying Matthew 7:1

(This is an exegetical and application note on Matthew 7:1 to accompany a devotional on my wife’s devotional list.)

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.

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  1. KKairos says:

    What if a judgment is correct but seems to have a negative impact on the community of faith? What do we do with it then?

    I actually really appreciate this post, because the idea of proper judgment is one I’ve been chasing for so long…With my question I’m not saying there IS a contradiction, but I’m asking if there seems to be one, what we should do with that information.

  2. KKairos – I think that there may be times when you are right, but should not really say that you are right, i.e. there are things that potentially should be corrected, but now is not the time or perhaps you or I are not the person.

    I have frequently felt inclined to speak on a topic, then thought better of it, only to have someone else address the same topic in a more effective way than I would have.

    There’s a certain element here of trust in God, not only for what you should say, but for taking care of the message if it isn’t yours to speak.

    I don’t know if that really addresses your question.

  3. KKairos says:

    I think at least to a degree it does. Thank you.

  4. astudent says:

    That is an interesting post.
    I would view it as “Do not judge, or condemn a person”; however I have no problem condemning what a person does. Those who do not want to consider that they may be doing what is right, in their eyes only, might try to say that I am judging them personally when I am not.
    The good thing about judging is God will not judge, or condemn any Christian. Any judgment that is applied to someone is only a mortal judgment or a judgment of man by man, and if one can push pride aside, any judgment that is directed at a Christian should only result in gain for that individual.
    I have no problem with anyone judging me, because I am usually guilty. My only defense is that I am not perfect. For instance if someone insults my intelligence I can only agree with them, but I am not perfectly stupid.
    Taking the first five verses as all part of the same point I have to admit that sometimes I need someone else to explain to me there is a plank in my eye. It blocks my vision and I don’t realize that it is there.
    But then that seems to change the meaning of those five verses from don’t do it to do it. To look a little deeper into the verses it becomes apparent that it is not possible to remove even a speck from someone else’s eye; that must be done by the individual themselves. No man is perfect, except Jesus, so we all have and will have specks and planks.
    Even if it means don’t do it I am grateful when someone points out specks or planks in my eye and it makes no difference to me if it comes from a hypocrite.
    The word judge has many meanings and it could be that God is saying do not rule others as much as do not condemn them. In my opinion no man is qualified to rule another.
    If you take that view then the meaning of the first and second verse would have to be separated from 3, 4, and 5.
    American Heritage Dictionary – “judge” 5. Bible. To govern; rule. Used of an ancient Israelite leader.

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