Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment. (John 7:24)
There is a very fine line between righteous judgment and unrighteous judgment. The sad reality is that this line is so often stepped over, perverting the principle of Christ’s authority and causing heartache, misunderstanding, and condemnation, even to the point where churches are divided and good, godly Christians broken or destroyed. This is a very real threat to the unity of Christ’s body, one He Himself warned about, a warning the apostles addressed in the early church as well. We would do well to examine this and learn from it, lest we ourselves be judged and found wanting.
Today’s verse states that we should judge righteously, so the issue of being required to judge is not in question. It is the ‘how’ of it we should look at to better understand what is required of us and how best we can obey. The truth is that this verse is often misunderstood, based on the word ‘righteousness,’ which is frequently used to justify or validate personal opinion because it is used out of context. Where personal opinion is prevalent, we can be sure that personal emotions, insecurities, and agendas are at play, driving scenario to a tragic end.
So what, then, is righteous judgement, and what does it entail? 2 Timothy 2:15 says: Study to show [yourself] approved unto God [Yes!], a workman that [needs] not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. So first, then, we are to judge the truth. This means that every single thing needs to be judged against the Word of God. Is what that person is saying the truth, irrespective of whether we like them or their manner, and irrespective of whatever we believe we may ‘discern,’ either rightly or wrongly. Next, we need to examine whatever discernment we profess against the only real measure of truth – the Bible, which is the absolute Word of God. This is the hard part, because it requires setting aside self and examining things only in the light of the Word.
The second thing is that we should judge the fruits. It’s not sufficient to have a feeling, a ‘conviction,’ or even what we believe is a word from the Lord. Before we act or speak, we should examine the fruit. Jesus Himself said that no good fruit can come from a bad tree. He Himself said that what is truly in the heart will emerge in the fruit, and the fruit should be judged against the Word. It is the Word that defines ‘righteous fruit’ and nothing else, and fruit takes time to appear. That tells us that patience is required. Fruit must be given time to emerge in order to be judged. We cannot presume to judge by what we believe the fruit will be, or even what we think it looks like. It has to emerge, be identifiable, and then be measured, honestly, against the Word of God. There is no other criteria.
The last thing is usually where the ‘wheels fall off.’ This is the requirement that most people overlook, mainly because we don’t like what it tells us and also because it takes the attention off the ‘other’ and puts it on ourselves. To judge righteously, we are to – first and foremost – judge ourselves. Jesus teaches this – think of the splinter and the log – and the apostles teach it over and over, reminding the early church, and us, that this is a sensitive and vulnerable area of our Christian walk.
Romans 2:1 puts this very clearly: Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. I firmly believe that the prophetic gift is invaluable to the church, especially today, and yet it is also the one that is most abused. The gift of discernment is another gift often misused. This is not because because people set out to do so, but because we aren’t taught to first judge ourselves. The result is ‘giftings’ that inevitably project the ‘righteousness’ of the vessel rather than the righteousness of the giver.
Before we presume to judge, we must first weigh ourselves against the Word. What are our personal attitudes or opinions about the person in question? Do we feel intimidated because they seem to know more than most? Do we feel their faith is bigger, or their joy greater? Does the pastor/home group leader/worship team pay them ‘more’ attention? Are they popular, friendly and outgoing, even confident – things we perhaps would like to be? Do we just plain not like them much?
The sad reality is that human beings are human beings. None of us have reached ‘perfection.’ We are all of us – pastors, prophets, deacons, elders, worship leaders, sheep and church helpers – still ‘under construction.’ This means that we are all, on some level, motivated by fleshly needs, emotions, weaknesses, desires, insecurities, likes, dislikes, covetousness, jealousy and fears. Our Christian walk is learning, through the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit, to recognise these, repent, accept forgiveness and move on. Sadly, these creep in and, too often, under the guise of ‘righteous judgment,’ become the motivation for accusation, slander and misunderstanding that usually has a destructive outcome.
The underlying force behind the misuse of righteous judgment is that of manipulation, something that is common to all humanity, present even in the smallest child. It is something we have to ‘unlearn’ not learn. What we seldom think about is that this is playing directly into the hands of the enemy – the accuser of the brethren. Why, we should ask, should Satan bother to do the accusing when the saints themselves are doing his job for him – and usually doing it very well?
None of this means that we should stop ‘judging righteously.’ We are commanded to do so. But we are told to do it as Christ would do it. He is our example, and if it were not for Him, none of us would even be in a position to think about this. The Bible lays down very clear direction in this, if we only take the time to find it. The Word, the fruit, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Those are the only things we need to look at. Even our prayer should conform – which excludes the ‘righteous’ prayers that are, in effect, little more than gossip or seeking to manipulate others – and, by inference, God Himself – to agree with us. This, at its worst, is the abuse of righteous judgment.
As I write this, I’m reminded of Christ washing His disciples’ feet. This included Judas Iscariat, who surely ‘deserved’ His righteous judgment. What a lesson lies therein. Righteous judgment requires total and absolute humility, the laying down of self and the complete submission to the will and the Word of God. It is impossible that any of us can achieve the right level of righteousness, but this is what we should seek after. This is the example of our King and saviour, He who will come to judge all in righteousness. He will not only judge the unsaved, but will also judge His people according to their deeds.
Father, help me to keep my eyes on the cross and Your Word in my heart. Teach me to judge myself before I judge others, and if I am in a place where judgment is required, help me to see by the light of Your Word and to judge the fruit, not the person. Show me, Jesus, those things in me that cloud my judgment, those things I need to set aside in repentance, those things that hinder my walking closer, each day, to the righteousness You have purchased for me.