How helpful is half of a car? Would any of us be content to use half of a mathematical answer as though we possessed the whole solution? Yet, probably because of texts like Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37, we might assume that judging is equivalent to condemning. And we know that we are not supposed to judge!
However, such an understanding falls short of what it means to judge. Furthermore, we will remain oblivious to some very significant and practical applications of the command, “Do not judge.” The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians offer a healthy antidote.
Among Bible teachers the reputation of the Corinthian church’s problems are legendary. With almost his opening words in 1 Corinthians, Paul already dumps upon our laps a symptom of their spiritual dysfunction. “I urge you … to agree together, to end your divisions, … there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ or ‘I am with Cephas,’ or ‘I am with Christ‘” (1 Corinthians 1:10,11,12).
Having identified the initial spiritual problem to be tackled, Paul then launches into realigning their focus and values. His message exalts God and God’s work through Christ, while simultaneously diminishing human wisdom and human teachers. If they will begin to think of those teaching them “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), then they will be on their way toward greater spiritual maturity.
Before we proceed any further, let’s place some everyday realism upon their habit of “boasting about mere mortals” (1 Corinthians 3:21). To use playful language, we hear echoes of “I follow my preacher because he is the best” or “my preacher is better than your preacher.”
To be sure, all such boasting involves approving and exalting someone. In fact, this whole context emphasizes the role of endorsing, not condemning. Consider Paul’s statements calling them to avoid being “puffed up in favor of the one against the other” (1 Corinthians 4:6) and to cease “boasting about mere mortals” (1 Corinthians 3:21).
What might catch us off guard is how Paul identifies this affirmation as judging! He bluntly commands them, “Do not judge” (1 Corinthians 4:5). If they will obey this command, then “you may learn ‘not to go beyond what is written,’ so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
Paul identifies boasting and exalting as judging! Thus a wholistic view of judging equates our jumping into God’s seat to either condemn or approve as constituting judging. While Luke 6:37 focuses upon the negative, 1 Corinthians 4:5-6 emphasizes judging’s positive side.
Many have pointed out the dangers of condemning where God has not condemned. Paul would remind us that we likewise need to be careful about offering approval (Romans 14:22), after all God’s judgment is the standard, not ours (1 Corinthians 4:3-4; 3:13-17; 2 Corinthians 10:18; James 3:1).
Paul provides a reliable compass for navigating life. “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Scripture says nothing about today’s popular speakers. Yet, how often do our judgments ring out? Avoiding judging can be more challenging than we might at first perceive.
One day God will judge the heart motivations of teachers and the value of their teachings. Until then, Paul encourages us to step in the spiritually healthy direction of not judging.