Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:5).
The Corinthian Christians were getting ahead of themselves and going well beyond what was written. Its fruit was manifest and ugly, and it did not please or honor the Lord.
Party factionalism threatened to tear the church in Corinth apart, and all about preacher preference! Some favored Paul; others, Apollos; others, Cephas; still others insisted on Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). The Corinthians were used to philosophical schools and philosophical cults of personality; it would not be difficult to imagine they saw Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others in terms of Plato, Aristotle, or Zeno, and thus had to be reminded how in Christ God overthrew the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-32). Each preacher would have come with his manner and style of preaching; Paul made a defense for being rhetorically poor, and sought to show the Corinthian Christians how all the preachers worked toward the same goal of building up in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:23). The Corinthian Christians were judging Paul based on his appearance, rhetorical skill (or lack thereof), and other features; he reminded them his judge was God who entrusted him with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:1-4).
Such judgmentalism seemed to come naturally to the Corinthian Christians, and for Paul, that was part of the problem. They had judged before the time; they were making determinations which could only be made known by the Lord when He returned (1 Corinthians 4:5). They should have instead learned from Apollos and Paul not to go beyond what is written, to not be puffed up against one another, and to not rely on fleshy judgmentalism (1 Corinthians 4:6ff). The Corinthian Christians were in the wrong not because their judgments were inaccurate; they were in the wrong because they were making much of their judgment in the first place. They arrogated for themselves a posture to which they had no right and regarding which they proved more ignorant than accurate. They almost split the church and caused great ruin in doing so.
Judgment before the time remains a challenge for the people of God. Far too many have received the impression somehow from somewhere that it is given to them to render judgment in any given situation. They have found some justification for judgment from the situation described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and Jesus’ exhortation to judge righteous judgment in John 7:24. Rendering judgment in any given circumstance and situation is axiomatic and taken for granted: do we not have to discern? Don’t we have to render some kind of judgment about right and wrong?
Yet the same Apostle who told the Corinthians to judge those within in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 had just upbraided them for their judgment before the time in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. The same Jesus who told the Jews to judge righteous judgment warned them also how they would be judged by the same standard by which they judged in Matthew 7:1-2, and wished for them to take the beam out of their eye before they could help their brothers with the specks in theirs in Matthew 7:3-5.
It is one thing for us to discern what is right and wrong, to do and affirm the right and to avoid the wrong (Romans 12:8-9, Hebrews 5:12-14); it is another to presume to understand the complexities of a situation in which we remain mostly ignorant and act as a judge of the law rather than a doer of it (cf. James 4:11-12). It is one thing for us to hear from two or more witnesses and mournfully withdraw association from those who claim to follow the Lord Jesus but walk disorderly in practice or doctrine (Romans 16:16-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); it is quite another to presume to sit in the Lord’s judgment seat and pronounce the judgment on the servant of another (Romans 14:10-12).
Christians do well to recognize why Jesus, Paul, and James say what they do in Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:5, and James 4:11-12 just as they do for John 7:24 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Some things we must discern to maintain our lives in the faith; everything else is not for us to presume to judge.
This is not an excuse for Christians to bury their heads in the sand. Luke 13:1-5 is illustrative. Many times this passage is used to condemn a focus on “current events,” but note well how Jesus proved quite aware of the “headlines” of the day, bringing in the story of those upon whom a tower fell in Siloam alongside those whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus’ concern was less about the news and more with what the Israelites were doing with the news: using it to justify their current biases and not to consider themselves. Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.
As Christians we will be continually confronted with circumstances regarding which we are not equipped to render judgment at all, and certainly not before the time. We will hear of stories of people being killed in unjust ways. We will hear stories of people who have been oppressed and abused emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually. We will hear of wars and rumors of wars.
In these matters we have every right to form an opinion. In forming that opinion we do well to consider different perspectives, always keeping Proverbs 18:17 in mind. We may express our opinion and our reasons for holding that opinion. Hopefully we are open to new evidence and reconsideration of our opinion if circumstances demand it.
Yet in all such things we must remember our views are opinions. Unless we are the judge in a given case, or called upon by the civil government to stand as part of the jury for a given trial, our determination of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We will never learn all the facts. Stories will get interpreted in light of prevailing narratives and operating assumptions, and people’s conclusions will often tell you about where they stand in terms of those narratives and assumptions. Every one of us will likely be in for a surprise or two when we stand before the Lord Jesus and all that has been hidden will be made known.
Thus it is not for Christians to presume to be the judges of the mentalities and behaviors of others. We are not called upon to make a final determination regarding what we hear in the news or from the narratives of the lives of others. It is not for us to look at the misfortunes of others to buttress a sense of self-righteousness, for unless we repent, we will likewise perish. We must recognize that whatever we hear is not the whole story; people are never as bad as they are at their worst, and are not as good as they are at their best. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); if we are merciless in how we judge others, we should not expect to receive mercy from others, and perhaps not even from God Himself!
Our judgment often clouds the impulses we ought to cultivate as Christians: love, grace, mercy, and compassion. We should not need a court decision in order to feel empathy and compassion for those who have suffered tragedy and pain. We should not “wait for the facts to come in” before we express heartache and pain with those who mourn. We should not be naïve, yet we should also not become hardened. If we have no reason to doubt what a person tells us, then we should acknowledge what they have said and seek to empathize with them in whatever they are enduring. We should not quickly demonize the other; yet we also should not justify or give any kind of pass to excuse wrongdoing, oppression, or injustice because of our empathy, compassion, or willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.
Very few things prove straightforward in this life. We must watch our tendency to make much of our judgments, but recognize they are really opinions and ought to hold them lightly in humility. We will never know all the facts; all will only be revealed when the Lord comes. We do better to find ways to show the love of God in Christ and stand firm for His truth, righteousness, and justice, and obtain life when Jesus returns!
Ethan R. Longhenry