Are We Not to Judge Unbelievers?
by Lenny Esposito
The most often quoted verse in the Bible is not John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’m sure most Christians have heard this verse thrown out as soon as they point out the failing of a friend or family member. It’s a common response, given even by those who know nothing else about the Bible. However, I recently had a conversation with a self-identified Christian who believes the Bible teaches Christians should not judge the actions of unbelievers, since they are lost and therefore unable to live a Godly life. In fact, he claimed:
The directive to REFRAIN from judging outsiders, has ONLY ONE context in the narrative: “You WILL be judged by whatever judgment criteria you use against un-believers”, period! Paul FRIMLY reiterates this in 1 Corinthians 5
- 1Cor. 5:12 “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within?”
- 1Cor. 5:13: “But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
There is only one judgment allowed to Christians: to ascertain the legitimacy of those who call themselves Christian, and yet indulge in those practices Paul outlines in great detail as forbidden to believers.
This is a claim that I think needs some attention. It seems superficially that the verses above warn against judging others in any way, but the concept of judgment that both Jesus and Paul are talking about does not exclude any kind of condemnation or criticism of sin. Basically the command against judging others simply means that no Christian should ever write off an unbeliever as irredeemable nor should they somehow look down upon unbelievers as somehow less valuable than a believer. In order to demonstrate this, I offer three ways the Bible shows that pointing out moral failings is appropriate when done appropriately.
1. First Century Understanding of Judgment
First off, our 21st century concept of judgment has been warped by those who would say any kind of criticism of another is wrong. In understanding Jesus and Paul, it is crucial to remember they were first century Jews. Ancient Jewish culture divided the world into two simple categories: the Chosen Ones (themselves) and the Gentiles (everyone else). As Merrill Unger notes, Jews of this time were taught the laws of cleanliness and eating kosher were things that separated the clean from the unclean.1 Therefore, nonbelieving heathen were unclean and were fit only for eternal hellfire. Jewish rabbis of this time even taught the faithful Jew to daily pray thanking God that he is “not a Gentile, not a slave, and not a woman.”2 This is one of the reasons that the Judaizers were starting to make so much headway in the Galatian church. Jews felt not merely superior to the rest of the world, but confident that God was on their side…
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