Life Together

Besides our own body, our spouse, and our temporal property, we have one more treasure that is indispensable to us, namely our honor and good reputation. …

Next, [the Eighth Commandment] extends much further when it is applied to spiritual jurisdiction or administration.  Here, too, all people bear false witness against their neighbors.  Wherever there are upright preachers and Christians, they must endure having the world call them heretics, apostates, even seditious and desperate scoundrels.  Moreover, the Word of God must undergo the most shameful and spiteful persecution and blasphemy; it is contradicted, perverted, misused, and misinterpreted.  But let this pass; it is the blind world’s nature to condemn and persecute the truth and the children of God and yet consider this no sin.

The third aspect of this commandment, which applies to all of us, forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor.  “Bearing false witness” is nothing but a work of the tongue.  God wants to hold in check whatever is done with the tongue against a neighbor.  This applies to false preachers with their blasphemous teaching, to false judges and witnesses with their rulings in court and their lying and malicious talk outside of court.  It applies especially to the detestable, shameless vice of backbiting or slander by which the devil rides us.  Of this much could be said.  It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors.  Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us.  Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.  …

Therefore God forbids you to speak evil about another, even though, to your certain knowledge, that person is guilty.  Even less may you do so if you are not really sure and have it only from hearsay.  But you say: “Why shouldn’t I say it if it is the truth?”  Answer: “Why don’t you bring it before the proper judge?”  “Oh, I can’t prove it publicly; I might be called a liar and sent away in disgrace.”  Ah, my dear, now do you smell the roast?  If you do not trust yourself to stand before the persons appointed for such tasks and make your charges, then hold your tongue.  If you know something, keep it to yourself and do not tell others.  For when you repeat a story that you cannot prove, even though it is true, you appear as a liar.  Besides, you act like a knave, for no one should be deprived of his honor and good name unless these have first been taken away from the person publicly. … For honor and good name are easily taken away but not easily restored. …

Let this be the your rule, then, that you should not be quick to spread slander and gossip about your neighbors but admonish them privately so that they may improve.  Likewise, do the same when others tell you what this or that person has done.  Instruct them, if they saw the wrongdoing, to go and reprove the individual personally or otherwise to hold their tongue.

You can also learn this lesson from the day-to-day running of a household.  This is what the master of the house does: when he sees a servant not doing what he is supposed to do, he speaks to him personally.  If he were so foolish as to let the servant sit at home while he went out into the streets to complain to his neighbors, he would no doubt be told: “You fool, it’s none of our business!  Why don’t you tell him yourself?”  See, that would be the proper, brotherly thing to do, for the evil would be corrected and your neighbor’s honor preserved. …

Thus in our relations with one another all of us should veil whatever is dishonorable and weak in our neighbors, and do whatever we can to serve, assist, and promote their good name.  On the other hand, we should prevent everything that may contribute to their disgrace.  It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all we may hear about our neighbors (as long as it is not an evil that is publicly known), and to defend them against the poisonous tongues of those who are busily trying to pry out and pounce on something to criticize in their neighbor, misconstruing and twisting things in the worst way.  At present this is happening especially to the precious Word of God and to its preachers. … There is nothing around us or in us that can do greater good or greater harm in temporal or spiritual matters than the tongue, although it is the smallest and weakest member. [Large Catechism, Eighth Commandment, Kolb/Wengert ed., 420ff.; also, here]

Pr. Winterstein


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