I can say with confidence that Matthew 7:1 is the most quoted verse of the Bible today. It’s the most quoted, and the most frequently misapplied. The verse is commonly used in response to someone saying that an action or lifestyle is wrong. This is a distorted and unbiblical understanding of this verse. We can see this by stopping to think about the verse for a moment, viewing it in its context and using reason.
The first and most obvious reason why the common use of this verse is distorted and wrong is found in the fact that it’s self-contradicting. When someone says that you can’t judge them or someone else, they just passed judgment on you! By their own argument, they have done wrong by saying that you have done wrong. Anyone who takes a moment to look at the situation with good sense will understand that it’s impossible to not make moral judgments. We can’t escape making judgments and we’re not supposed to try to escape them.
Additionally, look at the context of the verse. Jesus makes a moral judgment in the very same teaching when He compares certain persons to dogs and pigs, stressing that we shouldn’t needlessly pursue with the gospel those that persistently ridicule and scoff. In some cases, we must move on to more receptive people (Matthew 10:14; Acts 13:51). There are other places in Scripture that talk about evaluating the moral character of others as well (such as Matthew 7:15-18). On the other hand, Jesus commanded, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).
The Right and Wrong Ways to Judge
So, what do we do with the apparent tension in these teachings of Jesus? We are to understand the spirit in which we make judgments. Do we feel superior? That is the attitude Jesus condemned. Jesus condemns the kind of attitude that sees a flaw in another while at the same time neglecting or outright denying the flaws and weaknesses in oneself. This is a wrong way to judge.
When we judge, we should have a spirit of humility and concern, assessing the actions and attitudes of others while recognizing and taking into account that we ourselves have weaknesses (Galatians 6:1). Note that I said when we judge, not if we judge. Jesus and the other authors of Scripture expect us to exercise moral evaluation and act accordingly. However, Jesus tells us to first examine ourselves and, after the log is removed from our own eye, to then help a brother or sister with the speck in their eye. There is a problem that needs to be addressed, but only after we have examined ourselves.
The wrong kind of judging is condemning. The right way to judge is evaluating moral or doctrinal matters with a humble and helpful attitude, seeking the good of another.
Keep in mind that when Jesus gives this teaching in Matthew chapter 7, and when the apostle Paul says we should restore others after noticing they are living wrongly (not according to the gospel), that the objective is to help. When we judge others, we should seek to remove the speck from their eye so that they can see clearly and walk with our Lord in a way more pleasing to Him. In fact, I will make the argument that it would be unloving to notice something wrong in another and then ignore it. For, if we ignore the situation, we are ignoring the destructive consequences that will result. Though, of course, we must always use wisdom when deciding when and how we should talk to someone.