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Judging Others

Bible and gavel

In 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul says 'what business is it of mine to judge those outside the Church?" What is meant by 'judge others'? If I take a stand against / oppose a group or organization engaged in sinful activity, am I not judging? I hope you can clear this up for us!

A: I hope I can, too!

The topic of "judging" is both large and potentially controversial. I dealt with this issue head on during our Lies In The American Church series back in March of 2011 and 1 Corinthians 5 was one of many passages touched on.

The interested reader can also review a previous question on Judging Angels which deals with what follows immediately after this passage in 1 Corinthians 6 and tries to summarize the context of the situation in Corinth and the argument of the first 6 chapters. Additionally, this question on Cultural Commands goes even further in summarizing the argument and context of 1 Corinthians. For the sake of space, I won't attempt to duplicate that material here!

Instead, let's focus directly on 1 Corinthians 5 because the answer to your question is (at least partially) there. Once we understand what Paul is saying (the answer to your first question: "What is meant by 'judge others'?") then we can draw a distinction that I hope will be helpful in clarifying the specific application to your question (regarding taking a stand against a group or an organization).

Paul tells us the situation in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 -- It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. (NASB)

Freedom in Christ
One of the over-arching issues that Paul is dealing with in this Corinthian epistle is "freedom in Christ" (see the Cultural Commands post mentioned above for greater detail and also this post on Salvation for a further discussion of what "freedom in Christ" really is). The Corinthian believers are misunderstanding and inappropriately applying their freedom to endorse (or at least ignore) overtly sinful behavior.

Instead of commending them for their maturity, Paul calls them arrogant in verse 2 ("proud" in NIV and NET, "puffed up" in KJV and NKJV, and my personal favorite: "inflated with pride" in NAB) and tells them just a few short verses later:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? (1 Corinthians 5:6, NASB)

Sin cannot (or at least should not!) be tolerated in the Church as it has an effect similar to leaven ... it spreads and infects the whole thing. Instead of being so proud of our "maturity" that we can accept sin in our midst, Paul says at the end (quoting from Deuteronomy):


In this passage Paul is prescribing two courses of action: First, the Corinthians are to keep themselves pure and not tolerate sin in their midst. Second, if sin is in their midst they are to purge it! As he is writing a letter to the church, his main concern is purity in the church; namely, because a little impurity in the church goes a long way and influences the whole thing.

Paul, on his part, is taking more drastic action in handing this offender over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5) in order that the effect in the flesh may be for the benefit of the soul.

Now the table is set to deal directly with the particulars of your question. Paul clarifies his statement about keeping the assembly pure by explaining something he told the Corinthian believers before:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? (1 Corinthians 5:9-12, NASB)

The "judgment" in this particular case is dealing specifically with fellowship and association. For a "so-called brother" [in Christ], we are to break association with them if they are acting sinfully. Paul says that this same standard does not apply to non-believers because otherwise we would have to be removed from the world! Paul wants the church to be free to associate with non-believers so that they can spread the gospel ... but those who are supposedly followers of Christ should be held to a higher standard and expelled from the fellowship if they persist in their former immoral ways.

It's important to notice that the "judgment" Paul is speaking of is not in calling their conduct sinful. To Paul this is obvious and unquestioned, as he calls the "outsiders" the "immoral people of this world." In his comment he is "judging" them as immoral, so what he is saying cannot possibly be that it is wrong for Christians to "judge" sinful acts of outsiders as sinful. Instead, we are not to try and become monks or remove ourselves from the world in some other way so as to keep ourselves "unstained by the world."

The "judgment" of expelling wickedness from our midst is reserved for those inside the church. But those who are outside, God judges (1 Corinthians 5:13a, NASB).

If we understand that this context of judging refers to expulsion from the fellowship, then we can see very clearly that it is not wrong to identify the actions of a group or an organization as sinful (and even taking a stand against them) is not "judging" them in the sense that Paul is forbidding. In fact, it is in perfect agreement with what Paul is saying when he calls their actions "immoral"!

A distinction that I think is helpful is this: there is more to "judging" than simply pronouncing a verdict. Sentencing is also included in some cases. Where the church has gotten all mixed up is in thinking that we are never supposed to draw any conclusions ("verdict") because the Bible says, "judge not...."

But this is a complete misunderstanding.

When O.J. Simpson was on trial, the media covered every moment. When a verdict was reached, these same news outlets reported on the verdict. Would anyone accuse the reporters who are announcing the verdict as being "judgmental"? Of course not! They are merely heralds of the judgment of the court.

As Christians, we are similarly heralds of the Judgment of the Lord of all creation. The Bible tells us clearly that certain activities are sinful and immoral. If I declare the judgment of the Lord, people may wrongly call me judgmental, but it is only because they don't understand that I am a herald and not a judge. God is the judge. I don't have to decide if stealing is wrong, nor does my judgment hold any weight. God has already judged this activity as sinful so I am not "judgmental" if I tell someone that stealing is wrong.

What would be wrong would be if I then took the responsibility of sentencing upon myself!

I can say, "Abortion is wrong" and I am not being judgmental.

If I bomb an abortion clinic, I have overstepped my bounds in bringing sentencing, and now I am being judgmental (which is wrong). However, in our common vernacular, we don't consider this being "judgmental" but fanatical. The reality is that this is closer to the "judging" that Paul is prohibiting.

It is wrong from us to pronounce sentences upon non-believers and those outside of the church. God is the one who does that, and we should let Him be God (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13 and Romans 12:19)!

However, it is never wrong for us to agree with God and to declare His Word (which includes His judgments). The Church is called to work for justice and peace in the world as a result of the spread of the Kingdom of God, and therefore we will often be standing up against immorality in many forms. We cannot lose heart simply because people call us names in the process. Sin is sin and we need not be ashamed to expose the deeds of darkness for what they are.

Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. (Ephesians 5:11-13, NASB)

And since this is our calling, God has warned us that we should expect to be slandered (being called judgmental, when we're not, for example) and accused of wrong-doing when we stand for the cause of Christ (see 1 Peter 3:13-17 and 4:12-19).

Hope this helps!


P. Scott said…
Great answer! It is a "pet peave" of mine when people quote Jesus saying "Judge not" order to excuse or ignore their sin when it is pointed out. I always suggest that they read the entire Sermon on the Mount and explain why Jesus also gives us so many ways to judge between "good and evil, right and wrong, etc." as well. I was most appreciative of your explanation of "judging" and "judgemental". I suggest others who are interested check out the aditional links you suggested as well as the message you refrenced.

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