For many people in the church, that simple slogan has become the kneejerk defense in the face of criticism and confrontation. At some point, believers decided that careful discernment and agapē love are diametrically opposed; that judgment is always a threat to our unity in Christ. And with no regard for the quality or content of the exhortation, too many Christians speedily deploy Matthew 7:1 as an all-purpose, get-out-of-jail-free card: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
Writing thirty years ago in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel, John MacArthur explained how that verse is routinely misapplied as a shield against confrontation and conflict in the church.
This passage has erroneously been used to suggest that believers should never evaluate or criticize anyone for anything. Our day hates absolutes, especially theological and moral absolutes, and such simplistic interpretation provides a convenient escape from confrontation. Members of modern society, including many professing Christians, tend to resist dogmatism and strong convictions about right and wrong. Many people prefer to speak of all-inclusive love, compromise, ecumenism, and unity. To the modern religious person those are the only “doctrines” worth defending, and they are the doctrines to which every conflicting doctrine must be sacrificed.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985) 430.
In the intervening decades, the church’s appetite for criticism, conflict, and confrontation has only further diminished. And in that same time, the misunderstanding and misapplication of this verse and others like it (cf. Luke 6:37; John 3:17) has taken root in the church, skewing its perspective on discipline and judgment, and insulating its people from rebuke and exhortation.
In fact, many in the church today behave as if confrontation and discerning judgment are forbidden. Any confrontation—whether it’s a question of personal holiness or doctrinal disagreement—is seen as prideful overstepping and an attack on the unity of God’s people. As John MacArthur explains,
In many circles, including some evangelical circles, those who hold to strong convictions and who speak up and confront society and the church are branded as violators of this command not to judge, and are seen as troublemakers or, at best, as controversial.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 431.
But Matthew 7:1 has nothing to do with avoiding conflict in favor of unity, or ignoring doctrinal or moral error in the name of love. As with many of the abused verses we’ll examine in this series, a simple look at the context makes the original intent of Christ’s words abundantly clear.
The seventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel represents the end of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount—His most extensive teaching on living as a citizen of the kingdom of God. Woven throughout that sermon is an exposé of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus upends the system of works-righteousness they had inflicted on God-fearing people throughout Israel.
During Christ’s life and ministry, the Jewish faith had been reduced to a heavy-handed list of dos and don’ts. The religious elite had obliterated God’s original intent in giving His law to His people, replacing it with a burdensome system of works righteousness. And they held the entire nation to their corrupt, man-made standard.
In his commentary, John MacArthur explains how the focus of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that the Lord was not prohibiting judgment, but promoting discernment.
If this greatest sermon by our Lord teaches anything, it teaches that His followers are to be discerning and perceptive in what they believe and in what they do, that they must make every effort to judge between truth and falsehood, between the internal and the external, between reality and sham, between true righteousness and false righteousness—in short, between God’s way and all other ways.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 431.
With that in mind, the prohibition against judgment takes on completely different nuance. Christ was condemning a very specific kind of self-righteous judgment—the kind we see on display in His parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Like many professing believers today, the Pharisees put on a good show of public holiness, and loved looking down on anyone who didn’t. As John explains,
Jesus here is talking about the self-righteous, egotistical judgment and unmerciful condemnation of others practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. Their primary concern was not to help others from sin to holiness, but to condemn them to eternal judgment because of actions and attitudes that did not square with their own worldly, self-made traditions.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 432.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 were a reminder to the religious elite that they were not the final judges—that they too would stand before God, and that they would not want to be held to their own rigorous, self-righteous standard (Matthew 7:2). Believers today need to heed that warning as well, and avoid the same kind of hypocritical hubris regarding our own holiness, and how it corresponds to other believers’.
We also need to consider how to biblically discern, confront, and rebuke when necessary. Fortunately for us, Christ addressed that very issue in His subsequent statements.
Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? 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. (Matthew 7:3-5)
Confrontation and criticism are not forbidden in the church, but they must be undergirded with humility and purity. We need to humbly submit to the Lord, shining the light of His Word into the dark corners of our own hearts instead of arrogantly pointing it in someone else’s face. It’s only when we’ve dealt faithfully and biblically with our own sin that we can help a brother see his own. And as John explains, even in the midst of confrontation, we need to maintain a spirit of humility.
All confrontation of sin in others must be done out of meekness, not pride. We cannot play the role of judge—passing sentence as if we were God. We cannot play the role of superior—as if we were exempt from the same standards we demand of others. We must not play the hypocrite—blaming others while we excuse ourselves.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 437.
We do a great disservice to the Body of Christ when we confront and judge one another in arrogance and self-righteousness. But, as John MacArthur writes, we also do damage to the church if we fail to exercise godly judgment and discernment when it’s warranted.
There is also danger, however, even for the truly humble and repentant believer. The first danger . . . is of concluding that we have no right to oppose wrong doctrine or wrong practices in the church, lest we fall into judgmental self-righteousness. We will then not be willing to confront a sinning brother as the Lord clearly calls us to do. The second danger is closely related to the first. If we are afraid to confront falsehood and sin in the church, we will be inclined to become undiscriminating and undiscerning. The church, and our own lives, will become more and more in danger of corruption. Realizing the impact of sin in the assembly (1 Peter 4:15), Peter made a powerful call for a confrontive, critical church when he said, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Believers must be discerning and make proper judgment when it is required.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 437.
Discernment does not have to lead to division. If we faithfully follow the pattern Christ gave us, we will be able to confront one another out of love and humility, not arrogance and self-righteousness. And we’ll be able to humbly accept the input of others without rushing to defensive arguments and judgmental retaliation.