Tag Archives: Slander

Words Have Consequences

Funny things words are: while they are intangible, yet they can break the strongest of men, and while they are merely sounds formed by air, lips and tongue, yet they have the ability to straighten the back of the lowliest of souls. The Proverb says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” (18:21a, ESV). No one is impervious to the destruction of words. It is said that Mark Twain made the comment that “A lie travels around the globe while truth is putting on his shoes.” Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” Every person has been lied about, and every one of us have been broken with words.

How often we have seen a major newspaper make front page headlines on a person or matter, only to have to retract it on page Z14. But that is not unlike the rest of us. We are too often not very careful with our words; gossip, slander, and angry words come flying out of our mouths or off of our fingers in text or social media. Many times we find we were wrong, and when we have to admit it, we are not quite as vocal or boisterous as before. We’d rather bury our apologies.

Yet, words have power. They carry tremendous power. Some words sting. Some cripple. Some kill. Yet others are a salve, a balm that when applied liberally can bring healing and life. The truth, when spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15), can do both. It can cut, and cut deep, but also prove to be the healing that one needs.

There is a second part to that verse though: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit,” (18:21, ESV). The question with this statement is about what the antecedent to “it” is. There are various arguments as to whether it is “power” or “tongue,” but I argue it is “tongue.” The reason being that this is not the only verse about words in this chapter. It is filled with proverbs about speaking.

“The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook,” (18:4, ESV).

“A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating,” (18:6, ESV).

“A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul,” (18:7, ESV).

“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body,” (18:8, ESV).

And there are more, but notice verses 7 & 8 especially. The lips are a snare to the soul and gossip goes down into the inner parts of the body. Those sound an awful lot like, eating the fruit of what comes from the tongue. One cannot take back what he/she has said. Their souls, innermost being, or stomachs will have to live with every word that comes out. Many things said can be reversed with a simple apology, but many things cannot. I still remember being 14 and telling my sister I hated her. As soon as it came out, I tried to take it back, saying that I hated “this, our arguing.” A few years ago, I asked if she remembered the argument when I said that. She didn’t. But it went into the depths of my being. I do not believe I will be able to forget such words. You may have a similar story.

I am a work in progress. By God’s grace I am growing in my speech, though I am not where I wish I was. So I encourage you to remember these words with me and let them sink deep into your soul: “Know this, my beloved brothers: be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” (James 1:19, ESV)

Hypocrisy at Its Worst

Hypocrisy is a very real issue in the church that goes far beyond simply not living up to what we say we believe; it attempts to elevate the hypocrite into a position of divine judge. It is a blasphemous and idolatrous act.

James begins this verse–this thought–with a command.  “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers,” (James 4.11, ESV).  Notice that James has gone back to calling them brothers.  Gone are the adulteresses, sinners, and double-minded descriptions.  These people are family.  They are brothers.  James wrote that we are not to speak evil against one other.  Some translations, like the NIV will use the word “slander.”  Other places in Scripture has the same idea as slander.  The word literally means simply to speak against.  This could be any manner of speaking against, but we often will think of slander.  It could however also mean gossip or abusive talk or seeking to hurt the reputation of the person through the use of words.  This often happens in the church. When we don’t agree with someone—say on music or on a particular secondary or tertiary set of doctrines—we defame them to others. We put them down. We make them small. And of course as the saying goes, those who put others down are trying to raise themselves up. That’s exactly right. And James, in great wisdom had just written in the previous verse, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” (James 4.10, ESV). But we are so busy seeking to exalt ourselves as the better theologian, the guy or gal with the greatest taste in music, the holiest of all, that we haven’t the time to humble ourselves; we are too busy exalting ourselves.

Of course, there is the sin issue.  But even that is not an occasion to speak against the brother, but an occasion to restore the brother.  Paul wrote, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, let you too be tempted,” (Galatians 6.1, ESV).

I love this definition by one of my Greek lexicons for the words gentleness here: “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self importance.”[1]  There is this humility that should come when we find a brother stumbling.  There ought not be a sense of being greater or holier, but a desperate sense to guard oneself and help the brother.  Therefore, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.”

Sadly though, we often exalt ourselves, and rather than see the sin that we do and are even capable of, we fix our eyes on our successes. Yet we tend to not judge others on their successes, but rather their failures.  It is simply hypocrisy at its worst.

And it isn’t confined to the person, but envelops a judgment of the law as well.  “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,” (James 4.11, ESV).  The word for judge here is where we get a bunch of English words such as critic and crisis.  A critic is one who judges.  A movie critic judges movies and a book critic judges books.  A crisis is a moment in time where a judgment–a decision–must be made.  It usually is a big decision that will affect the rest of one’s life.  So when we speak of judging the brother or the law, we are not simply saying, “that was bad,” but rather we are condemning the one being judged.

How is it then that we are judging the law?  There are two ways.  One is the immediate context of speaking evil.  In Leviticus 19.16 God told the people within the law, “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD,” (ESV).

By condemning the brother I am condemning this particular law that forbids the judgment of the brethren.  It is not worthy of being followed any more than my brother in Christ is worthy of salvation.

The second is that it deals with the law as a whole.  When we disregard any law, not just Leviticus 19.16, we are condemning it as unimportant.  We are becoming judges over God’s law.  Now in our national government we have checks and balances on our government. We have three separate yet equal branches of government.  The Legislative Branch makes laws, the Executive enforces laws, and the Judicial judges laws.  But in God’s kingdom, God is Lawmaker, Law-enforcer, and Law-judge.  We are not equal with God, and thus do not get to condemn the law or our brethren.

Quickly going back to the idea of judge–the critic and crisis derivitives: This is where I get that James is referring to hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy attempts to elevate the hypocrite into a position of divine judge.  James wrote, “But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge,” (James 4.11, ESV).  Let’s go back to that word for judge, where we get the words critic and crisis from.  The prefix hypo means under.  Thus to be a hypocrite is to be one who puts others under their own judgment.  That is the literal meaning of the word.  (Over time, the word came to mean a pretender or an actor.)

A hypocrite looks at himself as above the law, a judge of the law and fellow man.  They have to obey the laws, but I only have to really obey the ones I think I should.  Hypocrites are more interested in seeing if others obey God’s law, rather than obeying them themselves.  They are not doers but judges of the law.

But ours is not to judge.  As I stated before, while there are three branches in the U.S. Government, God absorbs all three.  “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy,” (James 4.12, ESV).

He is the lawgiver.  He made the law and distributed the law.  He is the only one who is holy: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There is no one else who is able to make the law that God made.  It is a just law and it is a good law.  It is a perfect law.

He is the law-judge.  He is the one who understands the law perfectly and can judge accordingly.  He is not one who uses one set of weights on the scales of justice for one person and another set of weights for someone else.  He made the law perfect and He judges the law perfectly.

He also executes the law.  He brings everyone to justice.  “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” (Hebrews 9.27, ESV).  Every single person dies on account of their trespassing the law.  Think of it as God’s arresting the criminal to bring them to justice.  Every single one of us dies because of our sin.  God brings us to justice.  The one who gave the law and judges the law is “he who is able to save and destroy.”  He can save someone from His wrath or destroy them by it—throwing them to the depths of hell.

That is His job and only His job.  Not one of us has been given the right or the responsibility to condemn another.  That’s why James asked the question, “But who are you to judge your neighbor,” (James 4.12, ESV).  That quick change from brother to neighbor is in light of Leviticus 19.  We are not to be slanderers going about, remember?  Two verses later God gives the second great command, “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” (Lev. 19.18, ESV).

May we leave now with these take-aways:

  1. James is not bringing up church discipline issues. Do not confuse what James wrote here with the practice of church discipline. James is referring to what we say, how we say it, and the deeper issues of hypocrisy.
  2. Speaking against a fellow-believer (whether we know him/her personally or not) is prohibited, whether in front of their face or behind their back, on social media or over the phone. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, the tweet, and the text.
  3. When we speak against our fellow-believer, we are speaking against God’s Word. We are picking and choosing what laws are worthy to be obeyed and which ones we can ignore. We become judges of the God’s law, as if it were our law.
  4. When we speak against our fellow-believer, we take God’s place as judge. We usurp His authority and feebly replace it with our own.

Do we see how this is truly hypocrisy at its worst?  Hypocrisy is a very real issue in the church that goes far beyond simply not living up to what we say we believe; it attempts to elevate the hypocrite into a position of divine judge.  It is a blasphemous and idolatrous act.

[1] Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Christian Literature: Third Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). s. v. prautes (gentleness)