Merriam-Webster lists six definitions of the verb 'to judge':
- To form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises
- To form an estimate or evaluation of; esp. to form a negative opinion about
- To hold as an opinion, guess, think
- To sit in judgement on, try
- To determine or pronounce after inquiry and deliberation
- Govern, rule - used of a Hebrew tribal leader (merriam-webster.com)
All definitions of the verb 'to judge' imply a certain fallibility in the act. We form an opinion, an estimate or evaluation, and then we determine or pronounce. Whether we have come to our conclusion after inquiry and deliberation, through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises, or simply by guessing, whether we pronounce our judgement or simply hold an opinion in our minds or between our friends - the point is that our inability to know with absolute certainty makes every judgement subject to error.
Because there is always a chance that we could be mistaken, misinformed or missing vital information, then each time we judge someone else, we invite judgement by others on the accuracy of that judgement, as well as the fairness of how we have treated that person in the circumstances. This is the nature of human judgement, with or without authority.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge
others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be
measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and
pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to
your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the
time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the
plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the
speck from your brother’s eye. (NIV Matthew 7:1-6)
When we judge to form an opinion about or to evaluate a person or their behaviour - even without having the authority to pronounce punishment, but with the best of intentions - our thoughts, attitude and behaviour towards that person changes. To evaluate is to determine value: are we better, more righteous or more deserving than they are? When we do this we ignore the plank in our own eye. Verse 3 describes this forming or holding of an opinion - to 'look at the speck of sawdust', whereas verse 4 describes our attempt to correct someone's behaviour of which we have formed a negative opinion - offering to 'remove the speck' for them.
None of us is infallible. But readers seem keen to eke out some kind of permission from the bible that will enable them to judge others. We think that surely there must be some instances where it is necessary to judge or evaluate a person's character or behaviour. Matthew 6 appears to give that permission - as long as we have taken the plank out of our own eye first. But the act of judging is what put the plank there in the first place. When we judge others, we demonstrate our own conceit, and we deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than we are. Paul also points this out in Galatians:
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let
us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. Brothers
and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit
should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also
may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will
fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when
they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own
actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without
comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their
own load. (NIV Galatians 5:26 and 6:1-5)
This instruction to "watch yourselves, or you may also be tempted" is often misconstrued to mean: don't get too friendly with these sinners, or you might be tempted to sin with them, but this interpretation is contradicted too often by Jesus' example in the presence of those whom others have labelled 'sinners' to be acceptable (Matthew 9:9-13, 11:19, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-30, 7:34, 15:1-3). Instead it means to watch that you are not also tempted yourselves to judge that person who has been 'caught in a sin' . This might not make sense to some readers - how can we determine that they've been caught in sin without first judging them? But the judging in this passage has been carried out by those who have 'become conceited', not by 'you who live by the Spirit'. Jesus backed this up again when he was tested with a woman accused of adultery, saying:
"Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone"
Jesus was teaching his followers not to pass any judgement about whether someone else's actions were good or bad, whether a speck of sawdust in the eye or the act of adultery. He instructs those who choose to judge others to examine their own actions, their own thoughts instead. Because we can't be certain the judgement we make is actually right, and in the end we can control only our own thoughts, words and actions.
But if we cannot judge them, then how are we supposed to 'restore them'? To this question, I'm sure Jesus would reiterate, as he did in Matthew 7:3, why are you so intent on this small permission you have found to 'restore' others, when you have so much to correct in yourselves first?
To restore is not to correct, but to forgive. Jesus restored the woman 'caught in the act of adultery' in John 8 by refusing to condemn her, saying "Go now and leave your life of sin." He restored the sinners and tax collectors in Luke 15 by welcoming them and eating with them, and in the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and the prodigal son that follow, he demonstrates how we, too, should restore those who have been 'caught in sin' by others.