Word Study #9 — “Judgment” — Commanded, or Forbidden?

(I am going to divide the consideration of krino into two postings, since the two major aspects of the word (excluding simple courtroom scenes) are both seriously misunderstood.)

“Do not pass judgment, so that you all will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
“Don’t keep judging according to appearances, but judge just judgment (evaluate things fairly).”  (John 7:24)

These apparently contradictory statements by Jesus use derivatives of the same word, in each instance:  the very same word (krino, krisis) that also refers to God’s final sorting-out  at the “end of the ages.”  (This latter usage will be dealt with in the next post.)  Translating krino is one of those places where a translator must work with extreme caution, and uncommon flexibility, because, frustrating as it is, the Greek words are no more precise than the English.

Historical records show the verb, krino, rendered as “to separate or distinguish, to divide, to pick out, to choose the best, to decide disputes or questions, to contend, to compete in games, to evaluate, to esteem, to decide in favor of, to bring to trial, to pass sentence.”

The noun, krisis, and occasionally krima, is rendered “decision, choice, selection, verdict, interpretation (as of dreams), a trial of skill or strength, a dispute, an event or issue to be decided, the turning point of a disease, a legal decision.”

There is no necessary negative connotation in any of these.  Common, non-theological English uses the word “judge” in many of the same ways.  Contests, legal decisions, debates or disputes, evaluation of persons or situations all require “judgment.”  Please note, consequently, that in neither Greek nor English does the word “judge” automatically imply condemnation – or even disapproval.  It may, in fact, indicate the direct opposite!

The concepts in question are clarified when a form of krino appears with a prefix:
ana (again, or up) creates anakrino, “to examine closely, to interrogate, to  inquire into
dia (through, or toward) creates diakrino,“to distinguish, to separate, to decide, to argue”
epi (upon, over) creates epikrino, “to pass sentence, to assent”
kata (down, against) creates katakrino, “to condemn”
sun (together)  creates sungkrino, “to compare.”
Unfortunately, these compound forms are used comparatively rarely.  Most of the time, we are left to figure out the sense of krino from its context.

Taken in their context, for example, the two quotations with which we began are not contradictory at all.  Consult the rest of the paragraph in the Matthew 7 reference.  The prohibition is directed at self-appointed “perfection police,” who enjoy nit-picking at others without regard to their own need for correction.  This is unacceptable.  However, the give and take of mutual admonition is essential for healthy growth.  Witness Paul’s instructions in I Cor. 5 and 6, and notice that he is concerned (5:12) with the relationships of those within the brotherhood.  This is reinforced in I Cor. 11:31-32:  “If we would be evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged.  When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined, so that we will not be condemned (katakrino) with the world.”  This kind of “judgment” is an act of compassion and protection, not condemnation!

Such an understanding highlights a significant difference between the New Testament and the contemporary church.  The original idea, in the message of both Jesus himself and all the apostles, began with “metanoeite” (see Word Study #6), a call to change one’s entire orientation of life.  Sadly, that no longer seems to be the standard assumption.  We have correctly perceived that the invitation to the new community/kingdom of Jesus’ followers is open to all.  But when the entry points, “repentance” (W.S.#6) and “forgiveness” (W.S.#7), are robbed of their true content, and it is no longer assumed that there will be either a radical change of life or the removal of offending behaviors, and that invitation is reduced to an insipid verbal assent to a prescribed list of “beliefs” or “doctrines,” the life-giving aspect of “judgment” disappears as well.

Look for a moment at a few of the places where “judgment” is advocated – even commanded – in the church!  Notice that in the John 7 passage already quoted, the verbs are plural – not singular (individual).  This is a job for the brotherhood as a whole, as are all the other such admonitions.  That is an important safeguard, to assure that any “judgment” will be “just,” and not capricious. In I Cor.6, Paul goes into considerable detail about the need for disputes in the brotherhood to be settled internally – by Christian standards, and not by those of the outside world. In I Cor.14:9, the whole congregation is to “evaluate” carefully any messages delivered to the group.  Jude (22) calls for “discerning” where mercy is called for.  Even what appears to be an individual responsibility – assuring that one does not cause another to stumble or fall (Rom.14:13) – is addressed in the plural.  And Peter calls for “judgment” to begin in the household of God.  It is the task of the group to “clean up our act!”  Discernment/judgment is essential, if a person or group is to act responsibly as representative of the Kingdom in an alien world.   This is at least one of the reasons why “discernment” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Body (I Cor.12:10).

At the same time, clearly, “judgment” needs to be exercised with caution.  In many of his epistles, Paul reminds his readers that the mandate for discernment/judgment is not a license to dictate all the minutiae of life, or to catalog and rank the “sins of the world.”  Jesus intends to take those away! Discernment is needed in order to draw lines only where they matter.  The Kingdom is not a new Law.  Its citizens are urged to be considerate, rather than picky, about such things as food and drink, customs and celebrations (Col.2:16 f), and the details of people’s former lives (Rom.2).  James warns against economic discrimination (2:1-7), and obsessing about technicalities of law (ch.4).  Romans 14 is a beautiful treatise on helping one another to find ways of faithfulness.  Don’t forget that a changed life is assumed! But in that context, compassion, not coercion, is the hallmark of faithful “judgment,” remembering that (14:8) “The person who is a slave to Christ — is pleasing to God”!

Rightly understood, judgment/discernment serves as an extremely useful tool, as aspiring followers of Jesus seek to learn his ways.  It is exercised, by common consent, within the brotherhood, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in a mutual effort toward faithfulness.  We have not been called to “reform” the world.  It is our joyful privilege to demonstrate an alternative to its ways, and to invite all who will, to transfer their allegiance from the world to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus!

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