Is It Always Wrong to Judge Others?

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This article is an installment of Holy Joys Questions. Submit your questions to questions@holyjoys.org.

Question: James 4:11-12 forbids judging our brother, declaring that there is only one Lawgiver and Judge. Merriam-Webster defines judgment as “the process of forming an opinion or evaluating by discerning and comparing.” Is it possible to observe good or bad fruit (Matt. 7:18-20) without forming an opinion (judgment) about that fruit?

Let’s talk about study method first. Merriam-Webster can tell you the meanings of the word “judgment,” but it cannot tell you the meanings of the Greek word translated “judge.” According to the Louw-Nida lexicon, that Greek word (krino) can mean seven different things:

  1. decide
  2. prefer
  3. evaluate
  4. hold a view
  5. make a legal decision
  6. condemn
  7. rule.

Your question seems to assume that “judge” means either (C) evaluate and/or (D) hold a view. But James 5:19-20 gives us a good reason to think that James did not mean (C) or (D). It says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

To bring a wanderer back to the truth, you must (C) evaluate his action as contrary to truth. You must also (D) hold the view that he has sinned and needs to repent (v. 20).

Further, you must tell the wanderer your evaluation of him (both C & D). James 5:19-20 encourages believers to “evaluate” and “hold a view.” Other places in the NT also require believers to “evaluate” and “hold a view” of others (Luke 17:3; Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6; 14-15; 1 Cor. 5:11; and 1 Thess. 5:14).

Therefore, the Holy Spirit can’t mean we shouldn’t do that.

Let’s come back to James 4:11: “He who slanders a brother or judges his brother, slanders the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.”

Notice that the last phrase contrasts a “judge” of the law with a “doer” of the law. A doer of the law keeps the law. A breaker of the law judges the law. He sets himself above the law. He decides the law doesn’t apply to him. He regards the law as invalid (at least in his case). He thinks the law isn’t a good law.

In other words, he (F) condemns the law. The sense (F) “condemns” fits the second half of the verse as well. He who slanders his brother “slanders the law and judges the law.” To slander is to “speak evil of.” The one who speaks evil of his brother is doing the very thing the law prohibits (Lev. 19:16).

He’s essentially saying Leviticus 19:16 is a bad law. It’s a bad law because it forbids what he thinks ought to be done. Slander, therefore, judges or condemns God’s law as bad. This sense (F) also fits the first part of the verse. If someone slanders a brother, he judges him. If he speaks evil of him, he condemns the brother as a wrongdoer.

Instead of confronting him as Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 17:3 require, the slanderer makes himself prosecutor, jury, and judge. He declares him guilty and then spreads the verdict.

James 4:11 does not prohibit (C) evaluating behavior, or (D) viewing behavior as sinful, or approaching a brother to verify your evaluation (Matt. 18:15), or bringing the matter before one or two other brothers for adjudication (Matt. 18:16), or bringing the matter before the church (Matt. 18:17), or excommunicating the unrepentant sinner (Matt. 18:17; Tit. 3:10-11).

James 4:11 prohibits (F) condemning a brother without due process. God’s law prohibits unjust judgment and commands us to judge our neighbor “in righteousness” (Lev. 19:15). Slander is unjust judgment. It sets us up as lawmaker and judge. But there is only one Lawgiver and Judge: God. He requires just judgment (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 16:19; John 7:24). We must obey.

 


 

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).