Don’t Criticize One Another

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the need for believers to refrain from judgmental criticism of one another and, instead, to seek ways to build one another up and to promote harmony in the church.

The Problem with Criticism:  James 4:11-12.

[11]  Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. [12]  There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?  [ESV]

Verses 11-12 form a single argument about the sinfulness of critical speech. These verses end a larger segment on community conflict. To speak evil of others is a manifestation of the pride that God resists [4:6] and which is to be avoided by humility before God [4:10]. Speaking evil is often linked to jealousy, selfishness, quarrels and pride, and is said to be a manifestation of double-mindedness. Also, the prominence of the law and judging in verses 11-12 corresponds to the theme of 2:8-13. Brothers [11] signals a shift from the call to repentance that acts as the center of the letter [4:4-10] back to exhortations relating to specific forms of behavior. James begins with a prohibition of slander (speak evil). This Greek word denotes many kinds of harmful speech: questioning legitimate authority, as when the people of Israel spoke against God and against Moses [Num. 21:5]; slandering someone in secret [Ps. 101:5]; bringing incorrect accusations [1 Peter 2:12; 3:16]. James warns his readers never to indulge in such slanderous speech. While we cannot know for sure just why slander was a problem in the community, the divisions that were wracking the church [3:13-4:3] may provide the best explanation. Quarrels over most issues usually end up including personal attacks and judgmental attitudes. James suggests that our criticism of a fellow believer involves standing in judgment over that believer. When James speaks of the law here, he refers to the Old Testament law insofar as it has been taken up into the law of the kingdom that Jesus laid upon His followers. But how can James claim that criticism of a fellow believer is tantamount to criticism of the law? Clearly a part of the argument is missing; but James’s shift to the word neighbor at the end of verse 12 implies what is needed to be supplied. Neighbor must be a reminder of the love command – confirming the suspicion that James might have Leviticus 19 in mind throughout. So James assumes that criticism of a fellow believer contradicts the demand that we love our neighbors. Therefore, we fail to keep the law when we slander and stand in judgment over one another. And in failing to keep the law, James says, we also judge it. The last part of verse 11 explains: if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. Since James contrasts judging the law with keeping it, he apparently thinks that failure to do the law implies a denial of the law’s authority. However high and orthodox our view of God’s law might be, a failure actually to do it says to the world that we do not in fact put much store by it. Again we see coming to the surface James’s understanding of Christianity as something whose reality is to be tested by the measure of obedience. But there is another reason why slandering another is so wrong: it also involves an infringement on the unique right of God Himself: There is only one lawgiver and judge [12]. In order to make clear the nature of the judging that James has in view here, he adds a final description of God: he who is able to save and to destroy. James therefore is thinking of judging in terms of determining the ultimate spiritual destiny of individuals. And the believer has no right to make any such determination: But who are you to judge your neighbor? In light of the argument of these verses, therefore, we should note that James is not prohibiting the proper, and necessary, discrimination that every Christian should exercise. Nor is he forbidding the right of the community to exclude from its fellowship those it deems to be in flagrant disobedience to the standards of the faith, or to determine right and wrong among its members. James rebukes jealous, censorious speech by which we condemn others as being wrong in the sight of God. A bitter, selfish spirit [3:13-18] had given rise to quarrels and disputes about certain matters in the church [4:1-2]. These disputes were apparently conducted, as they usually are, with a notable absence of restraint in the use of the tongue [3:1-12], including perhaps cursing [3:10] and denunciations [4:11-12] of one another. Such behavior is nothing more than a manifestation of a worldly spirit [3:15; 4:1,4]. It must be replaced by wisdom from above with its meekness, reasonableness, and peaceableness [3:17]. This flirtation with the world must be seen to be incompatible with God’s jealous desire to have His people’s wholehearted allegiance [4:4-5]. Yet God is willing to turn and bestow His favor if sinful pride can give way to deep-felt repentance and sincere abasement before Him [4:6-10].

The Need for Acceptance:  Romans 14:1-4.

[1]  As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. [2]  One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. [3]  Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. [4]  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  [ESV]

Paul urges the community to receive the one who is weak with respect to faith. By making the weak in faith the object of this command, which appears to be directed to the community as a whole, Paul implies that the strong were the dominant element in the Roman church. To welcome the weak in faith is not simply to accord them official recognition as church members. The verb means ‘to receive or accept into one’s society, home, circle of acquaintance’, and implies that the Roman Christians were not only to tolerate the weak but that they were to treat them as brothers and sisters in the intimate fellowship typical of the people of God. Paul’s description of those who are to be welcomed, the weak in faith, obviously carries a pejorative connotation: it is certainly better to be “strong” than to be “weak.” It was probably the strong in Rome who described those with whom they disagreed in this way. Yet the phrase is not as negative as it may seem at first sight. Crucial here is the meaning of the word faith in this description. Explicitly in verse 2, believe has the notion “believe that something is legitimate.” Paul is not therefore simply criticizing these people for having a weak or inadequate trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Rather, he is criticizing them for lack of insight into some of the implications of their faith in Christ. These are Christians who are not able to accept for themselves the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain Old Testament/Jewish ritual requirements. The faith with respect to which these people are weak, therefore, is related to their basic faith in Christ but one step removed from it. It involves their individual outworking of Christian faith, their convictions about what that faith allows and prohibits. Paul’s decision to use the pejorative phrase weak in faith makes clear where his sympathies lie. We cannot avoid the impression that Paul would hope that a growth in Christ would help those who were weak become strong. In the meantime, however, Paul is concerned with the unity of the church. This is why he not only urges the strong to welcome the weak but to receive them with the right motivation and in the right spirit. Do not welcome the weak simply to quarrel over opinions. The opinions or disputed matters are those differences of opinion respecting the eating of meat, the observance of days, and the drinking of wine that Paul mentions later in the chapter. Paul wants the strong to receive the weak into full and intimate fellowship, something that could not happen if the strong, the majority group, persist in advancing their views on these issues, sparking quarrels and mutual recrimination. Paul now cites one of the disputed matters in verse 2: the question of eating meat. The weak in faith probably decided to avoid meat altogether out of a concern to maintain Old Testament laws of purity in a pagan context where kosher meat was not easily obtained. Other believers, however, did not share this concern to maintain purity, no doubt because they were convinced that, as New Covenant Christians, they were no longer obligated to the Old Testament laws involved. Paul is well aware that both groups are at fault. He therefore in verse 3 rebukes each side in the dispute, continuing to use the generic singular (the one) as a way of particularizing his concern. Despise implies a disdainful, condescending judgment, an attitude that we can well imagine the strong majority, who prided themselves on their enlightened, liberal perspective, taking toward those whom they considered to be foolishly hung up on the trivia of a bygone era. The weak, Paul suggests, responded in kind, considering themselves to be the righteous remnant who alone upheld true standards of piety and righteousness and who were standing in judgment over those who fell beneath these standards. Paul calls on each side to stop criticizing the other. At the end of verse 3 Paul states the ultimate reason why such mutual criticism is out of place: for God has welcomed him. Here we find Paul’s theological bottom line in this whole issue, one that he elaborates in verses 4-9 and states again at the climax of his argument [15:7]. Christians have no right to reject from their fellowship those whom God Himself has accepted. They must welcome those whom God has welcomed. Paul elaborates this critical theological foundation of his exhortation to the strong and the weak in verses 4-9. It is God to whom each believer must answer, and God whom each believer must strive to please. This point is obviously applicable to both the strong and the weak. But the use of pass judgment picks up the language Paul used to rebuke the weak believer in verse 3. This makes it likely that Paul in the opening of verse 4 is addressing the Jewish-oriented weak believer, whose attitude toward Christians who do not follow the law’s ritual guidelines is similar to that of many Jews toward ‘lawless’ Gentiles. The very wording of the opening of the rhetorical question reveals the heart of Paul’s concern: Who are you to pass judgment; that is, “Who do you think you are, you who are putting yourself in the position of judge over another believer?” No one has the right to judge a fellow believer because each believer is a servant belonging to another master: the Lord. It is the Lord, not the fellow Christian, whom the believer must please and who will ultimately determine the acceptability of the believer and his or her conduct. Stands or falls used here in terms of the relationship between servant to master suggest that they refer to approval/disapproval. The believer whose behavior is being judged will stand because he is being upheld by the Lord. Paul here expresses confidence that the strong believer will persist in the Lord’s favor. Perhaps Paul’s intention is to suggest to the weak believer that the Lord’s approval is attained not by following rules pertaining to food but by the Lord’s own sustaining power.

The Goal of Edification:  Romans 14:5-12,19.

[5]  One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. [6]  The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. [7]  For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. [8]  For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. [9]  For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. [10]  Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; [11]  for it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God."

[12]  So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.  [19]  So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.  [ESV]

[5-9]  Paul now develops his second illustration of the relations between the strong and the weak. It concerns the observance or non-observance of special days, presumably Jewish festivals, whether feasts or fasts, and whether weekly, monthly or annual. He begins by describing the alternatives without comment. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another person considers every day alike. The latter does not distinguish between days any more than he does between foods. To whichever group his readers might belong, Paul’s first concern for them is this: Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. Paul is not encouraging mindless behavior. Nor is he friendly to unexamined traditions. But assuming that each person has reflected on the issue and has reached a firm decision, he will then reckon his practice to be part of his Christian discipleship. The one who regards one day as special, observes it in honor of the Lord. He does it with the intention of pleasing and honoring Christ. And the same is true of the one who regards every day alike, although Paul does not mention him in verse 6. Instead, he reverts to the question of meat and in doing so adds an important double principle, which is related to thanksgiving. Whether one is an eater or an abstainer, the same two principles apply. If we are able to receive something from God with thanksgiving, as His gift to us, then we can offer it back, as our service to Him. The two movements, from Him to us and from us to Him, belong together and are vital aspects of our Christian discipleship. Both are valuable and practical tests. Can I thank God for this? This introduction of the Lord into our lives applies to every situation [7-8]. Life and death seem to be taken as constituting together the sum total of our human being. While we continue to live on earth and when through death we begin the life of heaven, everything we have and are belongs to the Lord Jesus and must therefore be lived to His honor and glory. Why is this? Here is Paul’s answer. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living [9]. It is wonderful that the apostle lifts the very mundane question of our mutual relationships in the Christian community to the high theological level of the death, resurrection and consequent universal lordship of Jesus. Because He is our Lord, we must live for Him. Because He is also the Lord of our fellow Christians, we must respect their relationship to Him and mind our own business. For He died and rose to be Lord.

[10-12]  After writing about the strong and the weak, the observers and the abstainers, the living and the dead, all in rather general and impersonal terms, Paul suddenly poses two straight questions in which he sets over against each other you and your brother. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? Despising and judging fellow Christians (the same two verbs are used as in verse 3), are both now shown up to be totally anomalous attitudes. Why? Not only because God has accepted them, because Christ has died and risen to be our common Lord, but also because they and we are related to one another in the strongest possible way, by family ties. Whether we are thinking of the weak, with all their tedious doubts and fears, or of the strong, with all their brash assurances and freedoms, they are our brothers and sisters. When we remember this, our attitude to them becomes at once less critical and impatient, more generous and tender. There is an obvious link between our not judging our brother and our having to stand before God’s judgment seat [10]. We should not judge, because we are going to be judged. There seems to be an allusion to the word of Jesus: Judge not, that you be not judged [Matt. 7:1]. What kind of judging was Jesus referring to, however? He was not forbidding the use of our critical faculties. If we did that, we would not be able to obey one of His next instructions, namely to watch out for false prophets. No, what is prohibited to the followers of Jesus is not criticism but censoriousness, judging in the sense of passing judgment on or condemning. And the reason given is that we ourselves will one day appear before the Judge. In other words, we have no warrant to climb on to the bench, place our fellow human beings in the dock, and start pronouncing judgment and passing sentence, because God alone is judge and we are not, as we will be forcibly reminded when the roles are reversed. In order to confirm this, Paul quotes from Isaiah 45:23. The emphasis is on the universality of God’s jurisdiction, in that every knee and every tongue will pay homage to Him. So then, Paul continues, in the light of this Scripture, each of us individually, not all of us in a mass, will give an account of himself, not of other people, to God [12]. Four theological truths, then, undergird Paul’s admonition to welcome the weak, and neither despise nor condemn them. They concern God, Christ, them and ourselves. First, God has accepted them [3]. Secondly, Christ died and rose to be the Lord, both theirs and ours [9]. Thirdly, they are our sisters and brothers, so that we are members of the same family [10]. Fourthly, all of us will stand before God’s judgment seat [10]. Any one of these truths should be enough to sanctify our relationships; the four together leave us without excuse. Peace in verse 19 seems to be the shalom which is experienced within the Christian community, while upbuilding or edification is building one another up in Christ. This is the positive goal which all should seek, and which the strong were neglecting in their insensitive treatment of the weak.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What reasons doe James give for the command not to speak evil against other believers? What impact does this type of speech have on the unity of the church and the fellowship of believers?

2.         What instructions does Paul give in 14:1-4 concerning the handling of disagreements between believers?

3.         In 14:5-12, what principles does Paul give us concerning disagreements over the nonessentials of the Christian faith? On what four theological truths does Paul base his teaching?

4.         Note that Paul is not discussing doctrinal disagreements over essential doctrines, but rather disagreements over the nonessentials of the Christian faith. How should Christians determine what is essential and what is nonessential in Scripture. How does your local church distinguish between these two things?


The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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