“Judge not, that you be not judged”, Christ commanded his disciples (Mat 7:1).
But what are we to make of that statement? We make judgements every day. We judge how good the fruit is for purchase. We judge how well our children are doing in school. We judge the quality of the service that we receive from a repairman.
To complicate matters, Christ also said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). To understand the nature of Christ’s apparently contradictory statements, we have to understand the language in which Christ spoke and we have to understand the nature of judgment.
In everyday usage, Christ spoke Aramaic, which is a Semitic language, much like Hebrew or Arabic. Semitic languages are famous for exaggerated language as a figure of speech. For example, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, speaking Arabic, used to speak of the “mother of all battles”, a colorful exaggerated term for his war.
Quite often, Christ used exaggerated Aramaic language to address his audience. They, being used to it, had to carefully discern the context in order to determine the nature of the exaggeration and its extent. For example, Christ said, “Call no man your father upon the earth” (Mat 23:9). This was exaggerated language. He did not mean that one should address his father by, “I know you are my father, Jack, but I can’t call you father!”. Christ meant it in a specific context. Thus, if you read the context of Mat 23, you will find that Christ was referring to the Pharisees who wanted to be honored by men in the use of honorific titles such as “rabbi” (meaning teacher) or “father”. It was this kind of title, which men used to inflate their importance over other men, that Christ said we should avoid. Christ also said, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The term “hate” is an exaggeration and means “love less”. Christ did not literally ask people to hate their families.
There are many examples for exaggerated language in the New Testament. Thus, one should not simply take the statement at face value without this understanding. When one reads the context of “Judge not” in Mat 7, it becomes apparent that Christ meant it to refer to people judging without properly judging themselves. He did not mean that we are not to judge at all. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mat 7:4-5). In other words, we are to let the detailed judgment begin with us, before we can begin to judge our brother. Christ did not deny that we are to eventually address the “speck in our brother’s eye”.
But how are we to judge our brother? To answer, we need to clarify the word judgment. One can judge by observation that something is right or wrong without condemnation, or one can judge with condemnation. Condemnation is final (James 5:6). For example, we judge our children but we should not condemn them. If our child lies, we should judge that they have lied. But if we are a good parent, we should not condemn them in a final dismissal. Rather, we should try to help them not to lie. St. Paul expected Christian to judge their fellow Christians without condemnation. “Do you not know that we [Christians] are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!”. St. Paul expected the Corinthian church to judge contentious issues between themselves. Christ expected the same thing (Mat 18:15-17). Specifically, St. Paul was addressing the fact that the Corinthian church had failed to judge a brother who was sinning seriously and continuing without correction in their midst (I Cor 5:1-2). Later, when this brother was sorrowful and had repented, St. Paul admonished the Corinthians to forgive and comfort him (II Cor 2:5-8). Judgement without condemnation is to lead to repentance.
According to the teachings of the Church, it is actually a sin to observe a brother/sister continuing in sin and not to help him/her, which requires a judgement that they are sinning. If we see our brother getting drunk, or getting inappropriately romantically involved, or using foul language, we should be able to judge that this is indeed happening and find a way to help them or refer them to the clergy. We thus come back to Christ’s statement that we should not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. It is correct judgement, with wisdom and mercy, that enables us to help our children, our spouses and our fellow Christians.