By David Posey
For some reasons, many people have a tendency to see things only in terms of extremes. There is no area in which this attitude is more obvious than when we begin to discuss the concept of judging among fallible humans. At one end of the spectrum are those who contend that we have no duty or right to judge members of God’s family. “Judge not that you be not judged” is their hue and cry. They curiously ignore not only the rest of that passage, but everything else the Bible says on the subject as well. Of course, at the other extreme are those who believe they are “soil inspectors,” launching out on a relentless crusade to save the church from anyone who may have a spot or wrinkle, all the while ignoring the beam in their own eye. As is usually the case, the truth of the Bible lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Should we ever judge the activity of an individual with regard to whether it is right or wrong, scriptural or unscriptural? Assuming we have some responsibility in this area, what principles should guide us in making much judgments? When does this judgment begin and end? What steps should we take if we observe a brother in sin?
Before we examine these questions, I want to be clear on what I am not discussing. I am not talking about ultimate judgment; in others words, any judgment I make is an imperfect one. I cannot, do not, determine who is going to heaven or hell. It is not my judgment to make. Nor, am I making judgments based upon who agrees or disagrees with me on certain topics. Those who use such criteria succeed only in building their own denomination; they do not edify the church. There is no congregation on the face of the earth in which everyone agrees, unless it’s a “congregation” of one! Furthermore, I’m not trying to draw lines around a certain group and then determine that they are on “our side.” That, too, is a denominational disposition.
Notwithstanding these warnings, there are occasions when I must judge my brother, within the bounds of Scripture. In fact, if I love my brother as Christ commanded I should (Jn. 13:34; etc.), I will do all I can to make judgments which will help him identify sin and avoid it (1 Pet. 4:8). It is my hope that he would do the same for me. I’m amazed when I hear brethren teach, in the name of “love,” that we should not make such judgments at all. Scripture upon Scripture can be cited which proves otherwise – that being sensitive to sin, first in ourselves and then in our brother, and then doing all in our power to help our brother out of his sin, is the clearest, most Christ-like description of love that we find (see, for example, Jas. 5:19-20). It is also, and here’s the rub, the most difficult demonstration of love to put into practice. Jude 23 says, “but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” It’s necessary, but not easy. With this in mind, let’s examine the questions which I posed at the beginning.
Should We Judge A Christian?
First, should we ever judge one who calls himself a Christian? Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Obviously, if that was the only thing ever said in the Bible, Old Testament or New, then all judgment would be prohibited. But let’s allow Jesus to explain what he means in the initial statement by reading the rest of the passage. Doesn’t he say that whatever judgment we apply to others will be applied to us? If so, then as we observe and make judgments about our brother’s activity, we had better do so with a proper attitude (see vv. 2-5). But then in v. 6 judgment is specifically commanded! You cannot know who the “dogs” and “swine” are without making some judgment, can you?
The apostle Paul speaks clearly on the issue as well. In 1 Corinthians 5:12, after upbraiding the Corinthians for permitting the incestuous man to remain among them, he says, “For what have I to do with judging those who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?” In v. 13, he states the imperative: “Therefore put away from yourselves that wicked person.”‘ Clearly we, like the Corinthians, are disobedient when we fail to make proper judgments about the obviously immoral activity and lifestyle of a brother. Of course, we must only do so with due caution and with love (agape).
What Principles Guide Our Judgments?
Secondly, what principles ought to guide us in making such judgments? In the first place, we should consider again the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 7. We must be completely and constantly aware that we too are sinners and “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” So the first principle is to consider ourselves, although not to such an extent that we never consider our brother. (See Lev. 19:17-18, where failure to rebuke your neighbor is tantamount to engaging in his sin with him!)
A second principle that should guide us is found in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul describes biblical love. If we apply Paul’s teaching carefully, we can hardly fail! We should be slow to believe rumors and always “rejoice in the truth.” Sadly, there are some brethren who actually rejoice when another brother goes awry. This attitude becomes apparent in the manner in which they “judge.” They may talk about him but they never approach him. Paul says that “love does not rejoice in iniquity. ” An attitude which is eager to judge a brother and find him in sin, is rotten to the core and completely devoid of love. Some preachers and writers seem almost anxious to “rejoice in iniquity.” God will judge!
A third principle is, perhaps, an obvious one and yet often ignored. Any judgment we make must be according to truth – according to the word of God, no according to our opinions or preferences. It is the doctrine of Christ with which we are concerned, not the precepts of men. 2 John 7-11, in which the necessity of making some judgment is obviously implied, is concerned with the doctrine of Christ. We are not to receive, nor are we to greet, one who (we judge) does not “bring this doctrine.” Every single time we find it necessary to reprove a brother, we must have Bible in hand. A judgment made on any other basis is faulty and useless. I wonder how many church splits could have been avoided had all parties insisted on this “obvious” principle?
Our third question involves the time frame of judgment? When does it begin and when does it end? This is a difficult question and much of the answer will involve “judgment” of another kind. Any judging that we do has one of two purposes: We are either trying to help our brother out of sin or we are trying to determine if we can work, worship, cooperate or associate with him, on a scriptural basis. If we accept that principle, then judgment is irrelevant with regard to those brethren who do not fit either category. We don’t have to be concerned with someone whom we cannot help in any way (that doesn’t mean we are not concerned and shouldn’t seek opportunity to help someone who lives even in another country) nor with whom we have no prospect of association. But when someone, whether from our own or another area or congregation, comes within our frame of reference, our duty to judge becomes pertinent. “By their fruits you shall know them.” They may well be “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Therefore, we must judge the doctrine that they bring and, to the extent manifested, the life they live before men. Jude describes men who “crept in unnoticed” in order to teach false doctrine. We must be aware that such things happen and judge accordingly. Needless to say, elders have a particular duty in this regard as those who watch out for our souls (Heb. 13:17).
Of course, it is within our own congregations that the judging we do has the most significance. As a preacher once said in a sermon on “fellowship,” only those with the most naive and superficial attitude believe we can “ignore our way to peace.” Certainly, we must vigorously apply Romans 12:18. But when a person is a part of the local church, his life and teaching is important to that church – we must engage in some judging during the time he is part of us. The Corinthians failed miserably in this respect and were rebuked (chapter 5). Likewise, in the Revelation, Jesus admonished Pergamos and Thyatira on the same basis since they failed to make proper judgments regarding issues of morality and doctrine (Rev. 2:12-29).
This judgment, and our obligation to deal appropriately with the divisive and sinning member, extends as well to the time after they “go out from us” (cf. 1 Jn. 2:18ff). Many brethren disagree with this, believing we have no right to restrict a person’s movement or make any judgment concerning it. But Paul mentions a number of people who had fallen away (e.g., Demas and Alexander the coppersmith [2 Tim. 4:10, 14-15]), presumably to warn other Christians to avoid their influence. Likewise, a local church cannot absolve itself of all responsibility toward that brother (and toward other faithful Christians who may be influenced by such a brother) simply because he decides to disassociate himself from it. Paul specifically says in Romans 16:17, “Now I urge you brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.”
A Brother In Sin
Finally, what steps should we take if we detect a brother in sin? We would do well to simply refer to the words of Christ in Matthew 18:15-18. The steps are clear and concise. Obviously, we must determine (“judge”) if our brother has sinned against us. We may or may not be correct in our determination, but following the steps which Jesus provides will guarantee a scriptural resolution of the matter. I wonder to whom those who teach that we are to do no judging suggest we apply Jesus’ teaching?
The fact is that those who have relegated all “judging” to the scrap heap have failed to properly understand and apply the various biblical usages of the word which we translate “judge.” And in doing so, they are opening the doors to all manner of evil, both in doctrine and morals. They are negligent as “stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). And, from a very practical standpoint, they are allowing many a brother to sink deeper into the mire of sin. Their definition of “love,” apparently, is to let a brother play out on the devil’s freeway, never making the effort to snatch him from the danger. There is no more love in that than if a parent allowed his or her child to do the same! True, Christ-like love reacts much differently and seeks always to save, “hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.”
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 11, pp. 336-337
June 2, 1988