As an apologist, I often get calls and e-mails from people dealing with the immoral behavior of others who are close to them. They are unsure of what, if any, action they can or should take in the matter.
Typical examples would be dealing with an adult child who’s living with her boyfriend or coping with an adult sibling who has announced that he is gay. The callers often struggle with whether to allow the child or sibling to practice the immoral lifestyle in their homes. Do I have to let them spend the night? What do I tell my kids? How do I deal with this in a loving way? Can I truly love my neighbor while rejecting his immoral lifestyle?
Often people in these situations have tried to take some action already, only to be shot down immediately with the accusation that they are being judgmental, that the Bible teaches us not to judge others, that they should just mind their own business. “After all,” they’re told, “I’m not judging you, and you shouldn’t be judging me. Read the Bible.” But is that really what the Bible teaches?
When pressed to show where the Bible supports this, those who can come up with any response at all usually point to Jesus’ words found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Judge not, that you not be judged.” Most people will stop there, with the clear conviction that the Bible teaches that we are not to pass any form of judgment on others. A closer look at this Bible verse and other related verses, however, uncovers a different understanding of Jesus’ teaching.
First, let’s look at the full context of Jesus’ words:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matt. 7:1-5).
If we break this passage down line by line, it becomes clear that Jesus was not telling his disciples they could not ever judge the behavior of others. Rather, he was cautioning them to live righteous lives themselves so their judgment of others’ behavior would not be rash judgment, and their efforts in admonishing their neighbors would be effective.
“Judge not, that you be not judged.” By itself, this statement could be construed to mean that one may escape even God’s judgment simply by not judging the behavior of others. But everyone is judged by God, so this cannot be a proper understanding. Jesus goes on to reformulate his statement in a positive way: “With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Jesus indeed expects his disciples to judge, but he warns that they will be judged in a like manner.
This is reminiscent of the line in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12). Much more than a simple warning that God will treat us as we treat others, this is an appeal to each of us to be as much as we can like God in the way we treat others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains, “There has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (2842).
In the next two lines, Jesus cautions against hypocrisy: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” Judging hypocritically is not effective. A petty thief admonished by a bank robber only scoffs at his admonisher.
Jesus then explains how to judge rightly: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Much to the point of this article, there can be no doubt that those final words—”take the speck out of your brother’s eye”—are, indeed, permission to judge so long as it is done rightly.
Other Bible passages that seem on the surface to indicate a condemnation of judging others’ behavior may be treated similarly in their full context. The idea of rightly judging the behavior of others can be found throughout the New Testament.
Jesus told the Jews, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).
He instructed his disciples what to do if someone sins against them:
Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:15-17).
It is not possible to follow Jesus’ instructions without being “judgmental” of another’s behavior.
Paul, too, exhorted right judgment of other Christians: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Also, “Do you not know that the saints [i.e., Christians] will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! . . . Shun immorality” (1 Cor. 6:2-18).
A look at the Old Testament reveals similar teaching: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15).
Clearly, contrary to what many would prefer to believe, the Bible exhorts us to rightly judge the behavior of others. The Catholic Church teaches likewise but cautions us just as Jesus did the disciples:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved” (CCC 2477-2478).
Having said all that, there is a big difference between judging another’s behavior and judging the eternal state of his soul. The latter judgment belongs only to God. Jesus addressed this type of judgment, too:
The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me (John 5:22-30).
Clearly, in this context, Jesus was speaking of judgment as condemnation or eternal damnation. Such judgment is reserved to him alone.
So, when faced with the immoral behavior of loved ones, how can we be sure to rightly judge behavior? In Jesus’ own words, we must start by taking the logs out of our own eyes—by making sure we are doing the best we can to live lives of good example. We must also strive to form our consciences correctly so we know sin when we see it. Finally, we must not jump to conclusions about another’s culpability in sin. Doing all this will help to ensure that our admonitions are seen as the loving actions we intend them to be—meant to help our loved ones live their lives in ways that are pleasing to God. Only then can our efforts be effective in helping to take these ugly specks out of our brothers’ eyes.
This article was originally published in Catholic Answers Magazine. It’s slightly adapted for publication here at Catholic Answers Magazine Online.