To Judge or Not

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Sometimes I don’t really grasp a passage until I’m memorizing it. Before I became more familiar with 1 Corinthians, Chapters 4 and 5 stumped me, appearing to discourage judging in the first and commanding it in the second.

The human agent of this Spirit-breathed letter, Paul the apostle, begins Chapter 4 by recommending that all Christ followers be “servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” In verse 2, Paul emphasizes one quality of stewards: trustworthiness, from the Greek pistos, translated “faithful” in the King James Version (KJV). Paul requires every steward to possess pistos, but then says in verse 4 that it’s unimportant if anyone examines him to see if he has it, including “any human court” or even himself.

From the Greek anakrino, which occurs 16 times in the New Testament, “examine” appears 6 times and is also translated “judge” (6x), “ask question” (2x), “search” (1x) and “discern” (1x). Paul claims he does none of these things to assure that he possesses the quintessential Christian quality of faithfulness and yet asserts, “I am conscious of nothing against myself,” which the KJV translates, “For I know nothing by myself,” and goes on to say, “yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.”

First Corinthians 4:5 delivers the conclusive zinger: “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” God alone accurately judges hidden things and motives. Humans and human courts can’t, and must wait until the Lord comes, who will mete out collective judgement and also individual praise.

In verse 6 Paul sets up himself and Apollos as examples “so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” He goes further in verse 7: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”

We can only judge actions. When we go beyond that, we may pridefully put ourselves up and others down. Judging’s equalizing antidote is to humbly consider that without God, we all have exactly nothing.

Apparently due to inappropriate judging, the Corinthian church considered themselves superior to Paul and the rest of the brethren. Paul takes them to task in verses 8-13, illustrating by sarcastic opposites their fallacious judgement. Paul appropriately judges them but explains why in verse 14: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” Based only on overt actions, human judging must lovingly correct.

In Chapter 4, Paul models how to judge. In Chapter 5, he applies this to the shocking Corinthian case of a man having his father’s wife. Paul rebukes the church for being arrogant rather than mourning in response to such sin and, since the Corinthian church leaders didn’t appropriately judge and remove the man from their midst, Paul declares in verse 5 that he has “decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”    

Such judgement may seem overly harsh, but Paul explains that just as a little leaven leavens a whole lump of dough, a little sin can corrupt the whole church if not removed. In verse 7 Paul says, “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.” Paul then gives the motivation for such cleaning in verse 8: “For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.” Through Christ we have passed from death to life, so we are unleavened new lumps and must stay that way. Christ’s past action of sacrificing Himself for us secures our present and future freedom from sin, but we must actively fight sin and celebrate our freedom. Likening Christ’s sacrifice to the temple sacrifice, Paul says in verse 9, “Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Paul discusses this further in Chapter 6. In addition to urging Christians to avoid worldly law courts, Paul states that we saints should not only capably judge “matters of this life” but also will someday judge angels. While he discourages lawsuits between brethren (verse 7: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”), Paul delivers a sober warning in verses 9-11:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

We saints are all former sinners, but because of the washing, sanctifying and justifying work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can and must turn from sin.

Similarly, Paul wraps up Chapter 5 by declaring in verses 9-11 that we must turn from sinners—if they claim to be Christians:  

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

If any Christian’s actions show them to be otherwise, we’re to avoid them completely.

Paul hammers home his point in the last verses of Chapter 5:12-13: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” God can and will judge everyone ultimately, but in this present age, the church must judge and remove its own wicked.

  • Scripture quotations taken from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) copyright by The Lockman Foundation http://lockman.org
  • Greek and Hebrew translations and lexicon from the KJV (King James Version) of http://blueletterbible.org

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