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Issues Facing Missions Today: 51. Dare We Judge?

Issues Facing Missions Today: 51. Dare We Judge?

[This post continues the study of mission as church renewal by examining the New Testament understanding of Christian discipline and judgement.]


‘Christians should not judge others’—so goes the saying often repeated by some believers and non-believers alike.  It is a statement meant to shut down criticism, promote tolerance of diverse views and behaviours, and avoid any practice of church discipline.  Is it really true, though?  Dare we judge?

The Ecclesiastical Context for the Discussion

One context to be found for this discussion might be in churches not knowing what to do with recalcitrant sinners in their midst.  Another context is found in denominations that are faced with moral crises as some redefine sin and begin to endorse, affirm, and even advocate certain practices the Church has always condemned as sinful!  A case in point might be how the Anglican Church is dividing over the matter of homosexuality, with some now affirming the practice and some seeing it as a matter of indifference that should not divide the ‘Church.’  There is nothing Biblical or historically Christian about these positions, but is there something to the notion that Christians should not judge?  The orthodox response to those pressing for acceptance of homosexuality as a choice to be accepted, even blessed (as in ceremonies blessing same-sex unions or even ‘marriages’ of this unnatural union), has been seen by some as ‘judgemental.’  Over against these revisionists of Christian teaching, faithful Christians are faithful to the teaching of Scripture and the Church, and this faithfulness may well entail the need to separate from false teaching and sinful practices, as well as calling sinners to repent from practicing their sins and calling on those who support the sins of others to desist (cf. Rom. 1.32).[1]  But, dare Christians judge?

Is Judgement Really Not Just an Old Testament Practice?

The Biblical context for this discussion involves a long-held and widespread misunderstanding about judgement and Christianity.  The idea that Christians should not judge others stems in large part from Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Mt. 7.1; it sounds better in 17th century English!).  How are we to put this together with so many other passages that speak of judgement among the people of God?  Adam and Eve were judged for their sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3).  Cain was condemned for killing Abel (Gen. 4).  When ‘God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth,’ he determined to ‘blot out from the earth the human beings’ that he had created (Gen. 6.5, 7).  This is not a good start to a story that is going to go on for the rest of the Old Testament!  But maybe that is just it: the Old Testament is full of judgement.

Actually, that line of argument (one the heretic Marcion took in the 2nd century but that is ever present) does not work.  The Old Testament fundamentally and repeatedly presents God as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ (Ex. 34.6-7; cf. Neh. 9.17; Ps. 86.15; Ps. 103.8; Ps. 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2).  Yet it also, as we see in the rest of Exodus 34.7, says that God by no means ‘clears the guilty;’ rather, He visits the ‘iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation’ (Ex. 34.7).  The righteousness of God is two-sided: it means God’s coming wrath and judgement to deal with sinners and His coming redemption to take away sin (as in Isaiah 59.16-21).  There is no division between judgment of sin and forgiveness of sin when it comes to God’s righteousness.  The same point is reaffirmed, possibly with Isaiah 59.16-21 in mind, by Paul in Romans 1.16-18 and 3.21-26.

Is Judgement Really Not Just Something to Leave to God Alone?

Be that as it may, perhaps we should leave judgement to God?  Well, yes—at least when it comes to Christians’ relations to those outside the faith.  Paul says, ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”’ (Rom. 12.19).  Believers are to live peaceably with all, as the previous verse states.  As Jesus had said, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Mt. 5.44).

Yet we have another, clear line of thought throughout Scripture—the need to judge within the community of God’s people.  It was a matter of justice that Moses and Israelite judges settled disputes for the people (Exodus 18).  This same policy is one Paul encourages in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 6.1-6).  Moreover, justice demanded punishment for sin.  Achan and his entire family were put to death for their disobedience to God (Josh. 7).  This was God’s judgement and a judgement to be carried out by the people.  There were, also, breaches of God’s moral law that carried the death penalty in the Old Testament (Lev. 20.1-16—here we have the law against homosexual relations).  Is this just an Old Testament approach that we Christians have now eclipsed? 

Is There Any New Testament Teaching about Sin and Punishment in the Church?

There is no redefinition of sin in the New Testament, even if penalties for sin could change.  Sin remains sin.  And judgement continues to be practiced in the New Testament by the people of God even if the form of judgement necessarily changes between a theocracy and a church.  Certain sins no longer carry a death penalty—the Church has no legal right to carry out any physical or capital punishments.  Yet they can and should still punish by putting a person out of the community of the people of God.  That is, when Paul calls on the Corinthian church to put a person living with his father’s mother out of the church—his actual words are ‘turn him over to Satan’—he is following an adaptation of the Old Testament law for the church: ‘The man who lies with his father's wife has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them’ (Lev. 20.11).  Thus Paul interprets the punishment of being put out of the church into the realm of Satan to be a destruction of the ‘flesh,’ meaning not the death penalty but dealing with the sinful flesh ‘so that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 5.5).  In providing both a path for restoration and a judgemental process that could lead to ostracism, Paul was offering the same perspective that we find Jesus giving in Matthew 18.10-20.

Is There a Difference Between Judging Those Inside and Those Outside the Church?

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul gives us more insight into his reasoning, and this helps us see the consistency of Scripture on this issue of judging.  There, Paul distinguishes between our attitude towards those outside the church and those who claim to be ‘brothers.’  We are responsible to judge those inside the church, but we are to leave judgement of those outside the church to God:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons--  10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you" (1 Cor. 6.9-13).

What, Then, Did Jesus Mean by ‘Do Not Judge…?’

So, we return to the claim ‘Christians should not judge others.’  When Jesus said not to judge in Matthew 7.1, he was not teaching against judgement but against hypocritical judgement.  The often quoted first few lines of what Jesus said need to be read in the context of what he goes on to say.  Here is the full quote:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye (Mt. 7.1-5).

We are not, of course, talking about people who are judgemental, gossipers, or haughty.  We are not talking about judgement with no mercy or forgiveness—one of Jesus’ major teaching points (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7, where Jesus quotes Hosea 6.6: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’).  Yet the notion that Christians do not or should not judge others in their communities who willingly and consistently remain in sin is thoroughly unbiblical—whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament. 

Why Should Christians Judge Those Inside the Church?

A community of ‘saints’ needs to call sin for what it is, sin.  God’s missional purpose is to create for himself a holy people (Ex. 19.6; 1 Peter 2.1-10).  Judgement preserves the community’s holiness, as Paul says: ‘Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons’ (1 Cor. 5.7-9).

And to be God’s holy people requires—in addition to mercy and dealing with sin and transformation and infilling with God’s Spirit--being on the watch against ‘savage wolves [who] will come in among you, not sparing the flock’ (Acts 20.29).  As Jude explicitly says,

For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 4).

In fact, in this regard Jude even mentions God’s punishment of Sodom’s ‘unnatural’ sin—that is, homosexuality:

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7).

Is Judgement Only About the Church and Not Also About the Person Being Judged?

Judgement not only preserves the community from sin and sets it apart as God’s holy people, judgement is also a means of grace for the person being judged.  As long as the sinner in Corinth (1 Cor. 5) remained part of the church, he did not think of himself as someone who would not inherit the kingdom of God with the believers.  Similarly, Jesus instructed individuals, elders, and the church to point out a sinner’s sin so that he might repent.  To do so is like the shepherd who left the ninety-nine safe sheep to go after the one that had strayed (Mt. 18.12-20).


All too often, a simplistic notion of judgement for sin prevails.  It is often based on a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ statement not to judge (Matthew 7.1).  On the contrary, judgement is necessary to preserve the church from sin and keep it separated to God as his holy people in a sinful world.  It is also a means of grace for the person continuing in willful sin, since it entails a process by which the person is made aware that his or her practice will ultimately mean separation from a holy God for all eternity.  What service is offered someone if God’s people tolerate a sinful person in their midst only for the person to discover later on that he or she will not inherit the kingdom of God because of that sin?  Here is a toleration of sin that leads to eternal condemnation—the exact opposite of Christian love.  As we read in Hebrews:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children-- "My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him;  6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts (Heb. 12.5-6).

[1] Peter Jensen, the General Secretary of GAFCON, for example, has outlined six steps that orthodox Anglicans should take in regard to other Anglicans affirming or tolerating homosexual practice in the Church (see: Back to Basics: Six Blog posts on key issues facing the Anglican Communion;’ online at:  His third blog post addresses ‘fellowship,’ including the need to separate and the need for repentance before reconciliation.