Christians are not to judge other Christians. And Christians are to judge other Christians. That’s what the Bible teaches. In fact, the apostle Paul says both things in the same letter just a few paragraphs apart.
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:5)
Don’t judge other Christians.
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Corinthians 5:12)
Judge other Christians.
Is Paul contradicting himself? No. Paul is simply instructing us that there are things we must not judge and things we must judge.
What We Must Not Judge
We must not judge “the hidden . . . purposes of the heart” of other Christians based on their decisions, actions, perspectives, words, or personality that concern us if those things themselves are not explicitly sinful (1 Corinthians 4:5). We must not assume sin if we suspect sin, given how biased our suspicions can be.
When Paul wrote, “do not pronounce judgment before the time,” he was referring to a debate among Corinthian Christians over whether Paul, Apollos, or Peter (Cephas) was the most authoritative apostle (1 Corinthians 1:11–12; 3:3–4). Why were they quarrelling over such a thing? We don’t know. All we know is 1) the Corinthians had personal knowledge of and experience with these apostles, and 2) how we tend to judge leaders based on our observations and experiences.
Like different leaders we know, Paul, Apollos, and Peter had different personalities. They likely had different rhetorical and pedagogical styles, theological emphases, and may have exercised or emphasized different spiritual gifts.
We know Paul was a “planter” and Apollos was a “waterer” (1 Corinthians 3:6–8). Perhaps some simply much preferred Apollos or Peter to Paul. Perhaps some misunderstood something Paul said or did and took offense. Perhaps the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5) had slandered Paul, but not Apollos or Peter. Whatever the factors were, certain Corinthian Christians judged Paul uncharitably, calling his ministry and character (his “hidden . . . purposes of the heart”) into question (1 Corinthians 4:3).
We can understand this because we’ve all done this. We know how fast we can move from misunderstanding or disagreement to concern, then to suspicion, and then to judgment. If we think we perceive smoke, we can too quickly assume there’s a fire.
In such cases, we must remember Jesus’s words, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).
What We Must Judge
Christians must judge the explicitly sinful behavior of a professing Christian.
Jesus said a “tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). When do the hidden sinful purposes of the heart reveal themselves? In a person’s explicitly sinful behavior. That’s why Paul didn’t even have to be present to pass judgment on a man who engaged in sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:3). And he explicitly instructed the Corinthian Christians to pass judgment on him too (1 Corinthians 5:12–13).
When we sin, our Christian brothers and sisters have an obligation to judge us. They must not condemn us, but they must, out of love, call us to repent. Such judgment is a grace, an expression of God’s kindness (Romans 2:4), and we only compound our sin if we take offense. If our sin is very serious and our church determines that we must be disciplined according to Matthew 18:15–17, we must keep in mind that the purpose is to pursue our redemption not damnation (1 Corinthians 5:4–5).
Be Slow to Judge
When blatant sin is confirmed, Christians must lovingly judge Christians. But in most situations, we must be very slow to judge, exercising great care and restraint. Our sinful flesh has a hair-trigger to judge others. We must have a healthy suspicion of our own pride, and keep Jesus’s words ringing in our ears: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
This is especially important because many situations we face are not as clear-cut as the two Corinthian examples above. Often the line between judging hidden heart purposes and calling out sin looks ambiguous. And when it is, it is best to be slow to judge.
Do Not Be an Electoral Judge
This is very relevant to Christians in America right now. We are enduring a confusing, factious, degrading, and discouraging presidential election. And most of us recognize what’s at stake. We see ominous writing on the wall, telling of further and faster erosion of our nation’s moral foundation and fundamental liberties. We want to do our civic duty. But sincere Christians strongly disagree over the best course of electoral action.
Many of us believe our duty is to vote for the candidates who, though personally compromised, still might represent the best chance to shore up and perhaps rebuild what’s eroded. Many of us believe our duty is to speak prophetically to an increasingly corrupt government and culture by voting for candidates whose policies and personal integrity do not compromise our Christian witness. Adding to the ambiguity, many in the former category believe our Christian witness is compromised if we take the latter’s course, and many in the latter category believe the foundations will erode further if we take the former’s course.
The difficult choices and their long-term consequences are binding on Christian consciences in different ways. The discussions and debates over which course is best are necessary to clarify issues so we can vote with clear consciences. But with the sense of urgency combining with the ambiguities, the situation is ripe for sinful judgment.
Where sin is explicit, in the major party candidates (since both profess a Christian faith) and in one another, let us judge with bold, loving clarity.
But let us not judge other Christians’ hidden purposes of the heart as sinful if they disagree with us over the best course of electoral action. We may discuss and persuade, but we may not judge. Jesus will judge. It is for him alone to bring to light what is now hidden and to commend or rebuke (1 Corinthians 4:5). Let us “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, [bear] with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).