Are we allowed to judge other Christians?
“Judge not, that you not be judged” (Mt.7:1). There is a story about this monk who was dying without showing any fear of death. Perplexed, especially because he was not known for his great piety, the brothers inquired how he could remain calm. His reply was that all his life he did not judge anyone, therefore he was expecting the Lord to be true to His word, “Judge not, that you not be judged” (Mt.7:1).
“To judge” commonly means, “to pass judgment” upon someone else, “to condemn,” “to find fault with.” The meaning is made clearer in St. Luke’s version: “Judge not, and you shall not be judged; condemn not, and you shall not be condemned” (Lk. 6:37). In that sense St. Paul states categorically, “You have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing” (Rom. 2:1.Cf. also 14:10 and 1 Cor. ch. 4).
Yet to pass a judgment is not always condemnable. The same Lord Who said, “Judge not” also said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right (δικαία) judgment” (John 7:24). Therefore, as long as our judgment is right and true (ἀληθής) (John 8:15) we are not under condemnation. In fact we would be under obligation to check and correct our brother when it would be plain that he is at fault. This is the good judgment we are expected to exercise.
The Lord Himself set the standard on how to go about correcting our fellow Christian:
St. Paul also provides a rule of how to correct a brother who is causing dissension in the church: “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Tit. 3:10). We do not ignore someone who stirs up the church, someone who scandalizes the brotherhood either with his life and behavior or with his erroneous beliefs. He needs to be checked and corrected for his own good and that of the Christian community.
Judging is necessary
We may be too sensitive to the saying of the Lord, Judge not, that we tend to abstain from every kind of brotherly correction, even in the face of public sin and scandal caused by the behavior of fellow Christians. Since we all sin, and to the extent we are aware of our sinfulness, shortcomings and faults, when we notice unbecoming behavior on part of other Christians, we tend to say, “Who am I to judge? God forbid I should point to the speck in my brother’s eye (Mt. 7:3-4). This happens especially when the sin is private. What one does in his private life is nobody else’s business, right?”
What one does within the same family, however, is not one’s private business. The members of a family do not act independently of each other. They are accountable to each other. What each one does has a direct impact upon the other members of the family. Similarly with the Church: we are members of the same body, the Body of Christ. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26). We are a unity, and we need to act as one, for the health of the body.
This was the situation in the church of Corinth, addressed by the Apostle Paul in his first extant letter to them. Let’s review it briefly. A case of grave immorality was reported: a man was living together with his stepmother, but the Christian community was tolerating him among them. St. Paul had written about this case in a previous letter (lost to us), but in veiled terms, telling them “not to associate with immoral men” (1 Cor. 5:9). Now he explains what he meant by that directive. He did not mean that they should not associate with the immoral men of this world, because they could not avoid that altogether while living in the world; what he meant was that they should not associate with a Christian in their community who lives a scandalous life.
Judging protects the faithful
The examples of sins he lists are all-encompassing: immorality or greed, or anyone who is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or a robber. What should we do with such people among us? We should not even eat with them, he says. Then come the critical verses (12-13): “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.” He then calls them to forceful action: “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” Wow!
We think it is Christian love when we mind our business and keep going our way without paying any attention to what anyone else does. Not so! Such attitude does not display Christian love! To the contrary, it displays indifference about our brother and sister, no concern about them and about the salvation of their souls, or about the impact upon all the other members of the Body. The Lord Himself taught us to take action: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Lk. 17:3).
The Holy Scripture is full of such examples. Let’s cite a few to realize the depth and importance of the subject, and understand its ramifications:
In the sublime letter to the Ephesians St. Paul repeats what he told the Corinthians: “Do not associate with them [Christians who had not renounced altogether their former pagan ways]…Take no part in their unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:7.11-13). Don’t join them in their wicked ways, says the Apostle; instead expose them! What does that mean, but judge them, and not only judge them, but also expose them publicly, so that others may not follow their wicked ways.
In his letters to Timothy, St. Paul does not hesitate to expose the false teachers by name!: “By rejecting conscience, certain people have shipwrecked their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:19-20. Cf. also 2 Tim. 2:16-18). St. Paul not only judges people without naming them, but here he specifically mentions certain Christians who decided in their minds that they could formulate their own beliefs. And he does something about it. He excommunicates them! Elsewhere he notes, “Alexander the metal worker did me a great harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. Beware of him yourself, because he strongly opposed our message” (2 Tim. 4:14-16). Does it sound like the Apostle Paul is passing judgment over the false teachers? He does! He does not hesitate to name more enemies of the Church by name in order to protect the faithful.
Finally, the Beloved Disciple writes: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (2 John 10-11). Elsewhere he alerts the faithful about a heretical man among them: “I wrote to the Church, but Diotrephes who loves to be first, does not acknowledge my authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, prating against me with evil words” (3 John 9-10). St. John, much like St. Paul, does not hesitate to expose the heretical man by name, because his egotism was a stumbling block to the Church.
To judge is to love
To conclude, the judging we speak of, the judging that is expected to take place within the borders of our community, is that of a healthy organism, which fights to bring back to wellness one of its ill members. But when its attempts fail then it rejects it to save the entire body. It is not a matter of finger pointing and condemning, but of exhibiting true love to someone who is in danger of losing his soul. One does not act out of Pharisaism, but out of genuine Christian love.
A final caveat. Before we proceed to correct in private a fellow Christian we should pray about it, ask for divine illumination, and then with fear of God, humility and contrition for our own sins, gently, softly, and with love in our heart find an opportune time to act. We do it only when we think the person we want to correct is receptive to our word, and if such person is favorably disposed toward us. Otherwise let our fervent prayer and good example suffice.
Sermon originally delivered on 11-12-08
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis