It is not uncommon to hear someone in the church emphasizing the importance of considering individual Bible verses in their larger context. A prime example of this might be Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
Without any context, someone might conclude that we should never judge anyone over anything. However, if you take the time to read and consider the next several verses, you will find that Jesus was actually warning us against hypocritical judgments in which we apply a harsher standard to others than we do to ourselves. Thus, in verse 5 He clarifies: “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.”
Another principle that can be important for understanding the true meaning of a verse or passage is to consider what other passages have to say about the subject in question. Once again, we can apply this principle to the question of passing judgment.
We have suggested that Matthew 7 encourages us to pass judgment, but only when we have first examined ourselves by the same standard. John 7:24 gives us another caution about our use of judgment: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”
We might conclude based on these two passages that judgment is always appropriate, as long as we examine ourselves first, and take the time to consider the issue carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. But there are even more passages that might expand our thinking on judgment further.
“I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)
Wait a minute… I thought we were supposed to judge with righteous judgment, so why does Paul say we must not go on passing judgment before the time? It appears (from context) that Paul is speaking of matters in which the motives of men’s hearts are not outwardly apparent. We can judge outward actions, but at least in some instances, only God can see into their heart to judge their actual motives.
Also consider 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges.”
This would seem to suggest that we can only judge people who are members of the church. In that case, is it wrong to criticize the behavior of someone who is not a Christian, or to tell them that they are lost and need Jesus? After all, Paul spent the first chapter of the book of Romans calling out the Gentiles for their wickedness, even going so far as to list specific sins, such as the practice of homosexuality, and saying that they are “without excuse” and have incurred God’s wrath.
Examining the context of Romans 1 shows us that the judgment spoken of here is a kind of judgment that applies to all people: the assertion that their sins separate them from God. On the other hand, the judgment of 1 Corinthians 5, which is only appropriate towards those in the church, is a judgment that results in a period of disciplinary dis-fellowshipping that will enable the person to realize their hypocrisy as someone who claims to follow Christ but rebels against his commands.
It turns out that judgment is a more complicated topic than simply “It is always right to judge someone,” or “you should never judge someone.” The word “judgment” itself can have different meanings in different contexts, and can have a different application depending on who is doing the judging, who is being judged, and what the content of the judgment is.
Judgment is only one example. The moral of the story is that we must examine context carefully and consider multiple passages in order to avoid overcomplicating what God has made simple, or oversimplifying what God presents as nuanced.