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Who are you to judge? A look at the impossibility of following through on this statement

Note: The following was originally printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

By Eric Johnson

Many people in today’s society know very little about the Bible and its teachings. However, if there is one verse everyone knows, it has to be Matthew 7:1. In this verse Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Too often when a Christian attempts to explain the Gospel as described in the Bible, the terms “judgmental,” “narrow minded,” or “intolerant” are trotted out as shaming retorts meant to shush every opposing viewpoint.

“Judge not” has been used countless times against me by Latter-day Saints. One time I was standing on a public sidewalk outside a Mormon temple during its open house event. I watched as a woman came up to me with an agitated demeanor. “You shouldn’t be out here doing this,” she insisted. “Who are you to judge others? What goes on in that temple is very beautiful, so for you to protest like this is wrong.”

When these types of situations take place, I try to remain calm while remaining determined to make an important point. I was merely handing out literature and not “protesting” while standing on a public sidewalk, peacefully using the First Amendment right provided to all Americans. Thus, when she was finished, I replied, “Ma’am, do you believe that I shouldn’t try to share Christian literature on a public sidewalk?” She looked at me and, with a sharp tone, responded, “Absolutely.”

(Notice, I didn’t start with the word “wrong” but a synonym of it—“I shouldn’t…”)

“Then you are judging me and my motives,” I replied.

“I’m not judging you,” she said as her voice began to stutter. “I just think what you’re doing is wr…” She stopped mid-word while quickly trying to come up with a substitute word. I finished her sentence. “Did you mean ‘wrong’?” I asked. “Well, I can’t come up with another word. I just know you shouldn’t be doing this.”

Yes, she was making a judgment call, as her pronouncement against me went directly against the principle Jesus was trying to communicate in Matthew 7. After all, He was not prohibiting “judging” but rather “hypocritical judging.” Our Savior clearly warned a person not to try to take the “speck” out of a brother’s eye when the accuser had a log stuck in his own eye.

I have no problem with this lady disagreeing with my presence outside her temple—she is entitled to her opinion—but if she really was going to insist that I shouldn’t judge, she needed to take a closer look in the mirror and realize her contradictory stance.

The LDS Church’s Stance on Judging

When this topic comes up, there are several LDS sources that can be referenced. For instance, I completely agree with an article titled “Judging Others” found on the lds.org website that says,

Sometimes people feel that it is wrong to judge others in any way. While it is true that we should not condemn others or judge them unrighteously, we will need to make judgments of ideas, situations, and people throughout our lives. The Lord has given many commandments that we cannot keep without making judgments. For example, He has said: “Beware of false prophets. … Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16) and “Go ye out from among the wicked” (D&C 38:42). We need to make judgments of people in many of our important decisions, such as choosing friends, voting for government leaders, and choosing a spouse.

Tyler J. Griffin, an associate professor of ancient scripture from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, wrote a piece in the February 2019 Ensign, the church’s official English magazine. Titled “How Do We ‘Judge Righteous Judgment?” Griffin cites the infamous Matthew 7:1 phrase “judge not” and notes that while “few of Jesus’s teachings are more widely known than this one,” “unfortunately, this phrase is not always correctly understood or applied” (54).

Referring to the speck and the beam referenced in verse 4, Griffin explains how Jesus “was clearly teaching that our ability to judge imperfections in others is nearly impossible because of the large construction-sized beams of imperfection blinding our own vision. Additionally, we do not understand all the surrounding issues, struggles, and circumstances that result in motes and beams in others’ eyes” (55-56).

Griffin then made an interesting appeal to the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), which was church founder Joseph Smith’s attempt in the early 1830s to fix the errors that he felt the Bible contained. While this is not the church’s official translation, Smith did finish his work in 1833 (Documentary History of the Church 1:368); the version is authoritative enough to be cited numerous times in the church’s manuals and publications as well as notes contained in the faith’s official King James Version of the Bible.

Consider how Smith translated the verse (Matthew 7:2 in the JST): “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” In effect, Smith took the words straight out of John 7:24 by placing them at the end of Matthew 7:1 and adding the adverb “unrighteously” after “judge not.”

According to Griffin, Smith editorialized “not to reflect what was originally said or written but to give prophetic interpretation and help clarify the meaning of certain passages.” This would no longer make this a “translation,” however, but turn it into a commentary. Then, Griffin added, “According to Joseph Smith’s addition to this passage in Matthew, Jesus is not telling us never to make sure the judgments we make our righteous.”

Griffin also cites from Moroni 7:16-17 in the Book of Mormon to support Smith’s take on Matthew 7. This passage reads,

For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.

According to instruction given by the Book of Mormon, the Latter-day Saint should not try to shut down opposition but instead determine if the message is an invitation to “do good” and “believe in Christ” to see if this was “sent forth by the power and gift of Christ.” Meanwhile, any message encouraging a person to “do evil” and “believe not in Christ” would have its origination from the devil.

Only by listening to what the Christian has to say can the Mormon determine which source is accurate. Isn’t this all the Christian is asking the Latter-day Saint to do in an evangelism encounter? In essence, the Mormon is given the opportunity to judge whether or not the words are correct in order to make a “righteous judgment.”

Conclusion

The next time a Latter-day Saint tries to misuse Matthew 7:1, here are three possible questions that could be raised:

  • Ask, “Do you think what I am doing/saying is morally not right?” If they say “yes,” explain that you are not doing anything illegal but merely stating your opinion. If their opinion is that what you have done/said is wrong, look puzzled and ask, “But isn’t that a ‘judgment call’?” Explain how this is hypocritical judging, the exact point that Jesus was making in Matthew 7:1-6.
  • Ask, “Have you considered Joseph Smith’s take on this verse?” Most likely the person has not, so explain that in his version Smith added “unrighteously” after “judge not” and then ended the verse with the words from John 7:24 (“but judge righteous judgment”). By doing this, Matthew 7:1 ends up losing all power to shame the opponent.
  • Ask, “Doesn’t Moroni 7:16-17 say that righteous people have the Spirit of Christ to help them make a judgment call? If so, could I please explain to you about (on whatever topic you choose) so you can determine if what I am proposing is either from the spirit of Jesus or the spirit of the Devil?”

Simple questions, indeed, but these have the power to transport the conversation to a place where sound reasoning can begin. By pointing Latter-day Saints to the context of Matthew 7 as well as LDS resources such as the faith’s website and a church magazine, Christians should not allow this misused verse to be a shout-down conversation killer. Righteous people should be able and willing to determine truth by countering wrong points of view rather than ignoring what the other side has to say.

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