A few years ago, I was nominated to represent my state on one of my denomination’s essential committees. For a bi-vocational minister located in rural Appalachia, it was a great honor to be asked to serve. After much prayer and counsel from others, I accepted the nomination.
I would soon live to regret that decision.
After an initial report of our committee’s work was released, a firestorm of criticism erupted on social media. Our committee was questioned, critiqued, and condemned. Many denominational leaders for whom I have deep respect rushed to Twitter to label our work as shameful at best and sinful at worst. The speed and intensity with which our committee was vilified was shocking to me.
The irony of the situation was that the committee was not even privy to the information for which we were so quickly condemned. I was not aware of the shortcomings in the committee’s work until the firestorm had already begun. The unfortunate reality was that the established process by which we went about our work was flawed, resulting in an undesirable outcome.
Sadly, none of our critics stopped to ask, “How could this have happened? What needs to be changed in order to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Instead, the worst was assumed about the committee. We were condemned without even a moment’s hesitation.
The Rise of Cancel Culture
It wasn’t long ago that I heard the term “Cancel Culture” for the first time, but I immediately knew what it meant. It’s the tendency in our culture (particularly online) to believe the worst about people with whom we disagree and then rush to publicly shame them at the first sign of perceived wrongdoings. It’s what our committee experienced a few years ago before the term was popularized.
A cancel culture doesn’t take the time to examine the facts or try to learn the full story. We read a tweet, watch a short clip in a video, hear a portion of an audio recording without taking the time to understand the context, and immediately rush to judgment. (And just so that you know I’m not writing this from a self-perceived ivory tower, I’ve been just as guilty as anyone else in this regard.)
In today’s digital age, this cancel culture is accelerating at breakneck speed. Given the fact that most of us have had less social interaction during the past year, our tendency to rush to online disagreements and judgments continues to rise. As Daniel Darling observes in his very helpful book A Way With Words: Using Our Online Conversations For Good, “There are some mornings when I wake up and wonder to myself: Who is the internet going to be mad at today?” (p. 36)
More Than an Online Problem
This tendency to rush to judgment is not limited to our online interactions. We’re often quick to judge our family members. We’re often quick to judge fellow church members or fellow Christians. We’re often quick to judge other churches and ministries. We’re often quick to judge those who hold different political positions. We’re often quick to judge those who may not look like us or talk like us.
Sadly, this tendency is the opposite of how the Bible instructs us to relate to each other. James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” In response, Daniel Darling rightly observes once again, “In the rush to speak up, in our imperfect longings for justice, we are tempted to do just the opposite: to be slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger.” (p. 39)
To Judge or Not to Judge?
This tendency to judge others leads us to one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, and often one of the most misunderstood: Matthew 7:1. In the English Standard Version, this verse is translated as “Judge not, that you be not judged.” In the Christian Standard Bible, it reads “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.”
Many people interpret this verse to mean that any and all types of judgment are forbidden by the Lord. In fact, many of those outside the church love to quote this verse and claim that “Christians are not supposed to judge” and therefore should not say anything negative about their sinful lifestyle. However, this verse does not mean that Jesus is forbidding all types of judgments. Elsewhere, Jesus teaches, “Stop judging according to outward appearance; rather judge according to righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
In order to understand what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7:1, we must understand what he means by the word “judge”. There are two primary ways to interpret the Greek word used in this verse. First, it can be interpreted to mean “to evaluate, assess or analyze.” Second, it can be interpreted to mean “to condemn.”
So, the question is this: Is Jesus using the word in the evaluation sense or in the condemnation sense? I believe some other Scripture passages help us understand the way He uses it in Matthew 7:1.
Christians Must Evaluate
The Bible clearly teaches that Christians should “judge” by evaluating and assessing. Consider the following examples:
- Christians are called to judge/evaluate disputes among believers (1 Cor 6:4-6).
- Christians are called to judge/evaluate the teachings of preachers and teachers to make sure they fall in line with God’s Word (Mt 7:15, 1 John 4:1, Acts 17:11).
- Christians are called to judge/evaluate the qualifications for church leadership (1 Tim 3:8-10).
- Christians are called to judge/evaluate the serious sins of church members (1 Cor 5:11-13). Even in this example, the goal is not to condemn, but ultimately to restore!
Christians Must Not Condemn
The Bible also clearly teaches that Christians should never “judge” with a condemning spirit. Consider these examples:
- Christians should never judge/condemn others by their appearance (James 2:1-4).
- Christians should never judge/condemn the freedom of another believer (Romans 14:1-4).
- Christians should never judge/condemn fellow Christians by speaking evil against them (James 4:11-12).
Therefore, it’s quite clear that Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7:1 that we should not condemn others. Essentially, he’s saying, “Condemn not, that you be not condemned.”
A Better Way to Judge
While Christians cannot condemn others, we are commanded to make judgments based upon proper evaluation and analysis. Again, read John 7:24: “Stop judging according to outward appearance; rather judge according to righteous judgment.” When we rush to judgments, we are judging by “outward appearance.” We don’t have all of the facts. We don’t know the whole story. We’re not giving others the benefit of the doubt. And we are not making a righteous judgment in those moments.
Instead of rushing to judgment, Scripture teaches that we should take our time to gather the facts. Examine the evidence. Assess the situation. Then reach an informed conclusion based upon your evaluation. Consider these Scripture verses:
- “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)
- “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17)
- “The one who gives an answer before he listens – this is foolishness and disgrace for him.” (Proverbs 18:13)
- “Test all things. Hold on to what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
- “Our law doesn’t judge a man before it hears from him and knows what he’s doing, does it?” (John 7:51)
With these Scripture verses in mind, here are three practical tips for making righteous judgments:
- Get the facts first. I’ve made this point several times already, but it bears repeating once again. Don’t rush to judgment. Don’t assume the worst. Be diligent to gather all of the relevant information before reaching any conclusions.
- Investigate privately. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines a process of church discipline that begins in private and eventually becomes public if no resolution has been reached. This approach of beginning in private can be applied to any situation when you’re tempted to rush to judgment on social media or some other public forum. Investigate privately. Confront privately. Correct privately if at all possible. Don’t add fuel to the fire of our cancel culture by posting or retweeting information that you have not investigated and verified yourself.
- Aim to restore, not to condemn. In the event that you confirm that someone is in the wrong, your goal should still be to restore them rather than condemn them. Paul speaks to this in Galatians 6:1-2: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The Only Cancellation That Matters
Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. If we confess and repent of our sins and put our trust in what Jesus did for us, He forgives us and gives us the gift of eternal life. That’s the good news of the gospel!
And when we embrace the gospel, Paul victoriously declares, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). What a glorious declaration! No matter what others may say about you or think about you or post about you, if you are in Christ, you will never be condemned by the Lord.
In this current cancel culture, the only cancellation that matters is the cancellation of our sin-debt: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
If you are in Christ, this glorious truth is true for you right now, and it’s also true for your fellow Christian brothers and sisters. Therefore, if God no longer condemns us, let us not condemn one another.
Should we evaluate? Yes. Should we assess? Absolutely. Should we investigate? When necessary. Should we condemn? Never.