Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24).* The simplicity of Jesus' statement belies its profundity. Those who judge must do so righteously; not form snap opinions based on appearances. They must look a little closer; gather as much factual information as possible. They must listen to both sides; strive to be fair and open-minded, not opinionated. They must call sin by its name.
Look a little closer
Numerous cyclists shared the narrow winding road with cars, wide recreational vehicles, and pickup campers. As we were leaving Glacier National Park eastbound, I noticed white crosses along the road, each representing a traffic fatality.
We must have driven about four hours when we suddenly came upon an emergency. A cyclist was sprawled out, part of his body hanging over the white line, limbs sticking out at odd angles, bicycle lying motionless on the ground. At the same time I also saw a large sub urban bouncing hurriedly along in the ditch. Soon it pulled back onto the road and left the scene. It was a hit-and-run.
Instantly, my adrenaline activated as I sped toward the nearest farm house. I called for the ambulance and the police. Then I hurried back to see what I could do for the injured cyclist. As I approached him, he squinted up at me, through the spokes of a bicycle wheel, and went about fixing a flat tire.
I felt foolish as I returned to the farmhouse to cancel the call for emergency help. How I wished I had looked a little closer. I had judged by appearances. Fortunately, I discovered my error in time. How often we misjudge each other and never find out. But it pays to take time to separate appearance from fact.
Hear both sides
When we form opinions about someone before we look a little closer and be fore we hear both sides, we are in fact judging from appearances. How often we make judgment calls about people we don't know and about places we've never been all because we've heard about them and talked about them, but never talked to them. "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him" (Prov. 18:13).
What should we do when some one comes with a tale about a mutual friend? A sure sign of negative politics in any organization is negative conversations about people not in the room. To speak ill of another secretly, leaving the accused in ignorance of the wrong attributed to him or her, is not only indecent but also unchristian. And listening, when it's just one side of the story, falls in the same category.
One church administrator I know consistently refused to listen to com plaints from church members against their pastors unless the pastors were present to defend themselves. Such a policy not only reflects good business management, but also conforms to the counsel of Jesus. In Matthew 18 Jesus prescribed that if we have something against a person, we should go to that person first, not everybody else. Being direct, open, and authentic fosters positive and dynamic interpersonal relations.
A small church met to consider the request from two of its members for dropping their names from membership. The reason? The pastor had asked them to choose between membership and their current lifestyle, which violated church requirements.
Both chose to withdraw from membership. At the business session, members began criticizing a sister church for disfellowshipping a couple who had violated the seventh commandment. The pastor responded by narrating both sides of the story, and helped the church to visualize how they would feel were such an incident to happen among its own members, and what they would do about it. Silence reigned. Hearing both sides changed their perception of reality. They were now prepared to concern themselves with their own agenda instead of judging the motives of a sister church.
Calling sin by its name
The same Jesus who said we must not judge by appearances also said to judge righteously. We need to hear both parts. Jesus said, "Do not judge lest you be judged" (Matt. 7:1). He also said, "Do not give what is holy to dogs" (verse 6). Now, doesn't calling someone a dog amount to "judging" that person? The point is clear: recognizing plain facts is not to be equated with judging. If "judge not" does not preclude recognizing a "dog" for what it is, neither should it come in the way of calling sin by its right name.
Jesus, who deferred judgment on the woman caught in adultery, unsparingly exposed her accusers who had led her into sin. In forgiving this woman, Jesus did not avoid dealing with the sin. Not only did He expose her tempters; He also counseled the woman to go and sin no more.
The tension between "judge not" and "judge" can also be noted in 1 Corinthians 4:5 and 1 Corinthians 5. The first passage forbids us from judging what God alone can judge---what is hidden, including the motives of the heart.
Chapter 5, in contrast, chastises the Corinthian church for tolerating flagrant and visible sin in the church. The Corinthians had an incestuous person in church fellowship. The apostle charged the church to disfellowship the member promptly. Was Paul contradicting himself in these two passages? Certainly not. The first in stance deals with jumping to conclusions without factual basis. The second instance deals with church discipline on a person who openly lives in sin. In other words, in our eagerness to avoid being judgmental, we must not forget that God calls us to judge---righteously. To judge righteously means to say what God says about sin. To refuse that task is not love, but indulgence that is detrimental to all concerned.
Such a responsibility has its implications: to reject cheap grace reflected in baptism without church discipline; to call our institutions to corporate accountability in reflecting the mission of the church; and to recognize that judgmentalism and permissive indulgence are equally wrong.
* All Scripture passages in this article are from New American Standard Bible.